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Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Nutcracker in China: Not Yet Home

Earlier this year I attended the National Ballet of China's production of The Nutcracker at the National Theater in Beijing, timed to coincide with the Lunar New Year. As Nutcracker season is once again in full swing, I'd like to share a review I wrote after seeing this Chinese attempt to appropriate one of the most enduring European classical ballets.  I hope you find this cultural exploration thought-provoking!  (Photos below are courtesy of Xinhua.)

In China, popular ballets have been based on themes close to home, such as the military-themed The Red Detachment of Women, featuring uniform-clad, gun-toting women in pointe shoes, or on national literary treasures and legends, as in Raise the Red Lantern and The White Haired Girl. It was, therefore, a leap of faith for The National Ballet of China to stage a locally flavored version of that most cherished western holiday classic: The Nutcracker.

Traditional, Western ballets are respected in China but garner comparatively little enthusiasm; traditional Chinese performing arts tend to stress overt acrobatic flourishes, which are amply supplied by traditional and folk dance ensembles.  

This is not to say that there are not balletomanes in China;  the presence of several fine companies in the country suggests otherwise. But for the average theatre-goer, it would take something extra to bring ballet closer to home. It’s quite fitting that Feng Ying, artistic director of The National Ballet of China, chose the ballet that arguably exposes more new audiences to the art form in the west to attempt to make history in China.

This is the second iteration of the production that premiered in 2001. Perhaps it was in a nod to the ballet's origins that the premiere was held in December, despite the fact that most Chinese do not celebrate Christmas. It returned in late February this year to coincide with the end of the Lunar New Year festivities.

In this Chinese adaptation the setting is the Lunar New Year, and Yuan Yuan and her brother celebrate with friends in their hutong, traditional neighborhoods formed by courtyard residences that are fast disappearing from modern Beijing. The music that traditionally announces the presence of Drosselmeyer, the eccentric toymaker, heralds a European antiquities dealer as the guest of Yuan Yuan's family.  

What ensues is a scene that any local could identify with: toasts raised with tea cups at the dinner table. While this is a fitting mirror to the activities that occur in the European Stahlbaum family during Christmas, it was unfortunate that the choreography did not make interplay with the beautiful score.  Granted, the first act tends to consist mostly of pantomime in any version, but Tchaikovsky provides coy hesitations and lush climaxes that beg for movement; most of these were not realized by the choreography.

The Nutcracker, bestowed upon Yuan Yuan by the European visitor, comes to life and joins forces with tigers to defeat the Nian, a Chinese mythological monster. Yuan Yuan then morphs into a beautiful crane fairy, danced with a frail grace by Zhang Jiang. Her attentive cavalier, Sheng Shidong, accompanies her to the land of the cranes. Where snowflakes would have floated across the stage, a coterie of sylph-like cranes welcome the couple to their enchanted world.  

Yuan Yuan and her cavalier find themselves in the Porcelain Kingdom, where they are received by a parade of items come to life that any Chinese household would be familiar with: fans, silk, toffee hawthorns, kites and peg tops, the last of which featured a man turning endlessly en pointe. "This is a dream that only a Chinese girl could have," said Feng Ying, artistic director.

Arguably the most entertaining of all, judging from audience reaction, was the 'Mother Ginger' segment. Instead of Mother Ginger, however, came a giant golden pig of prosperity whose doors opened to spill forth dancing golden ingots. Children are an integral part of any Nutcracker production; they appeared in this one piece and it proved most charming.

The final pas de deux was phrased beautifully. Zhang’s wrists beckoned softly and her gaze never failed to drift back to her cavalier as she was partnered tenderly by Sheng, who seemed genuinely entranced by her.

Despite the entertainment and beauty, I was left with a nagging feeling of incompleteness. This was not entirely due to the fact that the Sugar Plum variation was noticeably absent. I found myself longing for choreography that ascends on the wings of Tchaikovsky’s emotive music. Music and dance are inextricably linked in any ballet and this production felt akin to a lovely veneer of colour and movement. I soon realized it was because the ballet did not feel like a finished piece, culturally - it had not yet reached a sense of home.

As the curtain fell on the lavish production, the stage darkened with a simulation of firecrackers exploding and I wondered at what lies at the cultural heart of a tradition. Is it too much of a challenge to attempt appropriation of a foreign work with no more than a local overlay?

I watched audience members' reactions to the ballet with interest; people identified, aloud, each divertissement's representation as it appeared onstage - the kite, the fan. These adaptations resonated with the audience at their finest and were recognizable at the very least.

It would be gratifying to see this holiday classic become a new tradition for ballet in China, although I wonder whether it will live to see that day. The music is undeniably European, and one senses a fundamental disconnect. It's almost as if a story from a different time and place had reluctantly agreed to allow itself to be superimposed upon another. Still, it is an admirable and joyful work with some breathtaking moments. This balletomane certainly looks forward to witnessing an evolution of this effort, to see whether a traditional ballet can transcend the distance of culture and provenance to bring forth home.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Spotlight on Uighur Dance

On a very chilly November evening not so long ago, I had the good fortune to speak with Yu Mi Ti (玉米提), arguably the top male Uighur dancer in China, after a stunning performance at the National Theatre.  I'd first discovered him after watching countless solo and group performances in the China Central Television (CCTV) National Dance Competition from 2005 (I was behind on the times; I'd bought the multi-disc collection on a business trip to Beijing).

I was riveted.  Until that moment, I'd been half-heartedly watching, sewing ballet slippers or reading. China's multitudes afford talent scouts the ability to pick the best of the best for their training academies, and every single dancer was technically wonderful.  However, nothing truly caught my attention until a curly-haired youth named Yu Mi Ti burst onto the stage, cradling a Central Asian dombura lute in his arms and exuding boundless ardency.  He did not merely dance; onstage was a youth in love and I could see into his heart, a heart brimming with tenderness and joie de vivre.

In person, Yu Mi Ti is serious and soft-spoken; the occasional swell of banked passion behind his voice when he speaks of his people and of his love of dance hint at the rapturous joy he exudes onstage.  I wished to understand his motivations, to steal a glimpse of the person behind the dancer.

To learn more about this extraordinary artist, please take a look at the profile I wrote about him (also below).  I hope to circulate this to greater audiences so that dance enthusiasts everywhere will learn of Yu Mi Ti and the fascinating Uighur culture.  If you know of anyone who may be interested, please share this blogpost and article with them.

Yu Mi Ti - Bringing Uighur Dance to the Forefront
Susan R. Lin

Sky-high extensions and acrobatic feats are no rarity in the world of Chinese dance. In a culture that looks deeply into its own history even as it plows forward into modernity,  dance in China honors many of the 55 ethnic styles while incorporating other nationally beloved art forms: martial arts and acrobatics. In the many professional academies countless dancers train with military-like discipline to achieve extraordinary flexibility and strength. Yet through it all, one dancer has captured the nation with not only impeccable technique, but with his infectious charm and rapturous stage presence. 

His name is Yu Mi Ti, and he hails from Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region in western China. This was long considered the wild west that merchants of the Silk Road would brave as they traveled west to Central Asia to trade their wares. The native people of Xinjiang are the Uighurs, a Turkic people whose language is written in Arabic.  Yu Mi Ti is a Mandarin transliteration of the first name ‘Umut’, in the Uighur language.  
Photo Courtesy Yu Mi Ti

Unlike the fans and ribbons often associated with Chinese dance, Uighur dance is characterized by loose tunics and boots embroidered with intricate designs seen in Islamic art, hands and heads held proudly aloft not unlike that of the Hungarian Czardas, and jumps and whirls often seen in Russian and Georgian folk traditions. This heady mix of emotion and energy is accompanied to music drawn from Persian, Indian, and Chinese roots.

Despite the fact that Uighur dance is regularly depicted on mainland Chinese media, an Uighur dancer had never won top honors at a national competition in the modern history of Chinese dance until Yu Mi Ti.

At 25, Yu Mi Ti is a hero of the Uighur community, an artistic and cultural ambassador of his people. In 2005, he took the top prize at the China Central Television (CCTV) National Dance Competition and became the first ethnic Uighur to win a country-wide dance competition.  His star has only risen since then, having captured gold in the prestigious Peach and Plum Cup competition in 2006 and again at the CCTV competition in 2009, with other top accolades in between.

One look at Yu Mi Ti shatters all preconceived notions of the very concept of what one normally considers Chinese: dark brown curls crown his head, his pale skin and aquiline profile enhance a naturally regal mien. His eyes are almost unfathomably large and deep-set. In other words, he looks strikingly different: most Chinese have black, straight hair, softer profiles and almond-shaped eyes. Perhaps it’s his unaffected good looks, but even in the rising international metropolis of Beijing he elicits unabashed stares wherever he goes.
Photo: CCTV 2005, Yu Mi Ti in Beautiful Rose

While Yu Mi Ti has impeccable technique - his explosive split jumps and trademark spinning knee jumps are eye-popping - it’s almost secondary: he brings down the house with one, smoldering glance. When he dances, you don’t see steps; he envelops the audience in energy and surging emotion imbued with a youthful haughtiness that is offset by disarming innocence. He tells a story with his body and his eyes, and for those moments he is onstage, you cannot tear your eyes away.

Yu Mi Ti’s natural facility was evident at a young age; scouts from Beijing’s famous People’s Liberation Army Academy of Art’s dance division (in China, many performance disciplines are associated with the military) identified him when looking for promising talent in Urumqi. At age 12, he left his family to enter the rigorous dance program of the military academy. He told me, after a rousing performance at the famously egg-shaped National Theater, that he has no regrets coming to Beijing to start his new life.  Even though he’d seriously considered leaving dance due to the harsh lifestyle of the military academy and the comparatively meager pay of his professional career, “Everything I have ever worked for is beginning to blossom,” he explained.

When asked what he hopes to accomplish with his dancing, unlike many other dancers I’ve spoken to at prestigious performing companies in Beijing and Shanghai who simply said their lot in life was chosen for them, Yu Mi Ti answered without hesitation. “I want the world to know that we Uighurs exist ... I want to show them the beauty of our culture so that they may know us,” he stated with a quiet conviction. He already has plans to start an Uighur performing troupe that he hopes will tour internationally. 

Throughout our conversation he spoke with a serious, insightful intelligence beyond his youthful years.  This was coupled with a humility that showed an artist who is never satisfied with resting on his laurels. It was evident that he considered a great deal before expressing himself with words.

The honesty and humble strength of his dedication left a deep impression on me. He may have achieved a certain fame in China, but for the rest of the world, he has much work to do. 
Photo: CCTV 2010, Yu Mi Ti in Uighur Plate Dance
However, perhaps what is most important goes back to dance itself: the desire to entertain, to connect people via movement, to inspire. Yu Mi Ti recounted a story that he says gave him the resolve to keep dancing when he seriously doubted his path: A young girl wrote him a letter, describing how she had been about to end her troubled life by jumping off her apartment balcony when he appeared on the television. She could not take her eyes off his image, and after his dance ended, she decided not to go through with her plan. Yu Mi Ti’s joyful performance had given her the will to live. “‘Seeing you dance showed me that life can be worth living,’ she’d written to me, and is this not the greatest reward of all?” he said with quiet reverence.

Whether he continues to inspire countless others or is able to realize his dream of introducing Uighur culture to the world as an ambassador of joy, one looks forward to what Yu Mi Ti will bring.  For now,  the happiness and hope he has created with his dancing is a triumph unto itself.