Growing in stature
The success of The Red Detachment of Women not only meant the birth of a masterpiece, it also showed the direction of development for China's ballet, which was more important to the country's ballet circles, Zhao said. After its staging, Chinese ballet artists became more and more clear that, while continuing to interpret world tradition, creating new works inculcating Chinese cultural elements would be the principle animating their development. "Since then, creating Chinese own ballets has always been the mission of NBC," Zhao said.
Based on the experience of The Red Detachment of Women, NBC continued and are continuing to create excellent dance pieces marked by a strong Chinese style, such as Raise the Red Lantern (2001) and The Peony Pavilion (2008), another two classics, that helped the company and Chinese ballet win worldwide respect.
At the same time, the company has constantly expanded exchanges with the rest of the world. The earliest foreign trip of the company was in 1961, when Chinese dancers performed Swan Lake in Myanmar as cultural ambassadors. Since the 1980s, the company has started commercial performances in other countries, including the United States and Britain, where China's ballet has been warmly welcomed. In 2008 and 2009, the company was invited to perform at the Royal Ballet of Britain and the Paris Opera Ballet respectively, dream platforms for Chinese ballet dancers and proof that NBC has grown to be one of the world's most important companies.
These amazing achievements came about through strict training and the open management ideas of the company's leadership. In 1972, Zhao was forced to leave the stage because of a severe foot injury. But she never gave up her beloved dance career. In 1993, she was appointed president of NBC, which ushered in another stage in her life, as well as that of her company. "I could not dance, but I hoped I could help others to dance better," Zhao said.
To improve its performance level, the company carried out many reforms. Some of them were painful, Zhao said. Her first reform move was to try to maintain a young performing group. In the early 1990s, the average age of NBC dancers was 39, and the company had even been called "the oldest ballet company in the world." This greatly limited further development.
After the reform, the average age of the company's dancers is now held at around 20. But, at the same time, the company has helped dancers older than 35 find other career avenues. It has also employed a new payment system that follows market economy rules.
Strict, professional training has also helped to cultivate first-class dancers. Young dancers make rapid progress within two or three years after joining the company, and many of them have won gold, silver and bronze medals at major international competitions. The company is therefore seen as a base for rising stars.
The company has also continued introducing high-class and fresh foreign ballets of different genres to make the best use of its dancers. "We want to explore the potential of our dancers to see how far they can go," Zhao said. "In this way, we have found Chinese dancers can do whatever foreign dancers can."
"Sometimes, when we contacted foreign ballets or choreographers to introduce their works, they would often express doubts about our strength, saying 'it's impossible for Chinese dancers.' But when we invited them to visit China and view our performances, they were always deeply impressed," said Zhao.
John Neumeier, Art Director of the Hamburg Ballet of Germany, who recently brought his classic work The Lady of the Camellias to Beijing, was one of the witnesses of ballet's rapid development in China.
Zhao said that, in 1999, Neumeier and the German ballet performed in Beijing, but it had not been a very pleasant trip for Neumeier. Acoustics were not satisfying and Chinese audiences were not overly attentive.
"But this time, he was greatly impressed by the change in the audiences," Zhao said. Neumeier told her that he could feel the audiences were feeling the dance "in their hearts," which moved him greatly.
In similar communication with foreign artists and troupes, the overall performing strength of NBC improved rapidly and at the same time brought Chinese ballet to the world, Zhao said.