Thanks to the grand twists and turns of world history, the National Ballet of China offers a chance to swoon over old-style, classical Russian ballet technique.
Born during the reign of so-called Red China, the company was founded in 1959 by famed Russian ballet artist Peter Gushev, as the two countries, cemented together by political ideals, began to bond culturally as well. And the troupe still emphasizes traditional technique and great western classics like Giselle, Don Quixote, and the venerable Swan Lake—which it presents here for the first time from Wednesday (February 27) to March 2.
“We don’t get to see full-length classical ballet here very much, so I really wanted to bring this here,” explains Ballet B.C. artistic director Emily Molnar, who has joined up with Montreal’s Les Grands Ballets Canadiens to help NBC make its first trip here in decades. “And they really have that Russian technique, which lends itself to elegance and lyricism. It’s their training and virtuosity.”
This Swan has Russian hands all over it too, choreographed by celebrated ballerina Natalia Makarova, who drew from the definitive version by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov that premiered at the St. Petersburg Imperial Mariinsky Theatre in 1895, to the sparkling score by Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky. The 100-plus-member troupe coming here will have different dancers taking on the leads each night in the story based on a Russian folk tale. As made famous in the movie Black Swan, it centres on Odette, a princess who is turned into a swan by an evil sorcerer. Only her beloved Prince Siegfried can break the spell, but not before the dark force, Odile, tries to seduce him. For NBC’s version, veteran Brit set designer Peter Farmer has crafted the moodily lush sets and costume designer Galina Solovyeva’s nonstop parade of dazzling tutus.
Believe it or not, it’s a rarity these days to see a company with primarily classical repertoire; even biggies like the Paris Opera and the Royal have branched heavily into contemporary ballet. The few stalwarts include the National Ballet of Cuba (which visited here last year) and the National Ballet of China.
Still, it’s not as if NBC sticks rigidly to classic warhorses; the company also takes this old western art form and uses it to tell Chinese stories, as it does with works like Raise the Red Lantern (based on Zhang Yimou’s celebrated 1991 film), which shows in Montreal as the only other Canadian stop on this tour.
The Chinese company travels regularly to the big European centres but rarely comes to Canada. “They are a company with a great reputation that hasn’t been seen a lot here,” says Molnar, adding the presentation is also expected to bring out new audiences to the Queen E. “We have a huge Asian culture here, and the arts are a wonderful vehicle for cultural exchange. It’s an opportunity where art can act as an ambassador between cultures.”