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New troupes, new ideas, new aesthetics: On the symphonic journey of the Harbin Ballet Company

By Xiao Suhua

I recall, three years ago in January 2020, the tenth ballet company founded in our country — the Harbin Ballet Company — made its dazzling debut during the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival, celebrating its inaugural performance grandly. The repertoire included the first domestic holographic symphonic ballet "Winter Dreams" and several ballet masterpieces. I was fortunate to be invited to watch, and was deeply impressed by their high standard of professional technique and innovative spirit.

Since then, I have been invited to watch the company's major original ballet "If the Sun Had Never Shone on Me" dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party in June 2021, and the newly choreographed ballet "The Nutcracker" this March. In addition, I have watched nearly all of the works Harbin Ballet released online for the public, leading me to an astonishing discovery: Harbin Ballet is breaking conventions and forging a new path for the development of ballet in China. Thus, I feel compelled to write this article to lend them support and shout a hearty bravo!

Thirty years ago, propelled by the reform and opening-up, China's renowned ballet artist Zhang Dandan founded the first ballet company in China that implemented a full employment system — the Guangzhou Ballet. This caused quite a stir in the dance world at the time, and Zhang Dandan achieved a magnificent transformation from the prima ballerina of the Central Ballet Company to the leading figure of Guangzhou Ballet. Under her leadership for more than two decades, starting from scratch, through hard work and perseverance, the company became one of the best ballet companies in the country.

I visited Guangzhou Ballet more than a dozen times, to watch their new performances, participate in their annual performance assessments, attend various seminars... and was fortunate to have the opportunity for a deep collaboration with them. This goes back to 2005. That year, Dandan came to Beijing to watch the graduation performance of the modern dance choreography class of 2001, which I taught at the Beijing Dance Academy. The graduates performed a modern dance drama "Dream of the Red Chamber". She liked it so much that she wanted to stage a ballet version of "Dream of the Red Chamber" at Guangzhou Ballet. Honestly, I never imagined at that time that Dandan, as the director and artistic director of Guangzhou Ballet, would make such a request, as 18 years ago, the modern dance drama "Dream of the Red Chamber" would have been hard to get recognized by the ballet community in China, let alone adapt it to the ballet stage. To this day, I still greatly admire Dandan's vision and courage back then. The first modern ballet drama was successfully premiered in 2006, receiving unanimous praise from the audience and experts within the industry. But Dandan did not stop there; instead, she actively proposed substantial revisions by the choreographers and brought the revised "The Stone in the Sunshine - Dream of the Red Chamber" to the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing in 2007, once again earning unanimous praise from top experts in the country, receiving commendations and high evaluations in articles from Yu Ping, Zhao Guozheng, Shu Qiao, Jiang Dong, and Lun Bing. Seven years later, Dong Li wrote "From Classic to 'Classic' - The Change of the Modern Ballet Drama 'Dream of the Red Chamber' under the New Exploration of Chinese Ballet Drama" (Dance Magazine, June 2014), none of these articles were solicited by Guangzhou Ballet or myself. In 2015, I was honored to be invited to give academic lectures at top universities in the United States - Princeton University, Yale University, Columbia University, and the University of Michigan, discussing my creative philosophy and artistic techniques for the modern ballet drama "The Stone in the Sunshine - Dream of the Red Chamber" and the modern dance drama "Rumors of Love Returning - The Legend of White Snake", the former being the only large-scale ballet drama created using the Brechtian system to date.

The reason I mention these stories about "Dream of the Red Chamber" is not to show off but to highlight that Dandan had a unique vision, courage, and determination to provide a platform for such "alternative" dance dramas over a decade ago. Therefore, I believe she is the real "hero" and mastermind behind the scenes; another reason is to lay the groundwork for the following discussion - after the establishment of Harbin Ballet, Dandan, as the director and artistic director, designated a unique development direction for the company, paving a new path for Chinese ballet.

Looking at the development history of world ballet, we can see that since the late 1950s, ballet art has opened up two main directions of development - symphonic ballet led by Western Balanchine and Eastern Grigorovich, and modern ballet represented by Bejart, Kylián, Forsythe, Ek, Duato, and Bourne, causing revolutionary changes in world ballet within just a few decades.

After the establishment of New China, ballet art started from scratch and developed rapidly, giving birth to classic works such as "The Red Detachment of Women" and "The White-Haired Girl". At the same time, our young ballet talents have won numerous gold and silver medals in major international ballet competitions, especially in world-class competitions like Moscow, Varna, Jackson, and Helsinki, winning high honors for Chinese ballet. After the reform and opening up, the number of ballet companies in our country increased from one Central Ballet Company (established in 1959) to today's 10 (excluding Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan), which, in addition to staging romantic and classical ballet classics and introducing a few symphonic and modern ballet works from foreign choreographers, also created dozens of Chinese-themed ballet dramas, including some delightful masterpieces.

However, it is regrettable that Chinese ballet has not yet truly integrated into the two main streams of world symphonic and modern ballet. The famous literary theorist Wang Yichuan pointed out in "Observations on the Peaks of Chinese and Foreign Literature and Arts and Their Contemporary Enlightenment": " is necessary to regard the global cultural context as a resource environment and object of dialogue that must be simultaneously confronted from the standpoint of China's local position, hence the global perspective from a local viewpoint is essential. In this sense, while it is necessary to advocate for the locality in the global context, insisting on the global or universal aspect of locality has become particularly important." I believe that the "locality" of Chinese ballet as mentioned by Wang Yichuan is still behind the "globality" or "universality" internationally. Strictly speaking, our country has not yet created truly original symphonic ballet works, only introducing a few foreign symphonic ballet dramas, such as the Liaoning Ballet Company's performances of world ballet master Grigorovich's "Spartacus" and "Romeo and Juliet". In the area of modern ballet, the situation is somewhat better, as at least 15 years ago Wang Yuanyuan founded the Beijing Contemporary Ballet Company and created dozens of large, medium, and small modern ballet works. I would like to take this opportunity to express my respect and thanks to Wang Yuanyuan and her Beijing Contemporary Ballet Company for overcoming numerous difficulties, fighting "alone", and steadfastly adhering to the direction of modern ballet. However, Wang Yuanyuan is ultimately "unable to support alone" and has not yet become the trend that Chinese ballet is striving to develop.

The youngest Harbin Ballet Company was founded in 2019 and appointed the experienced Zhang Dandan, who had independent founding and successful team leadership experience, as the director and artistic director. The artistic practice and achievements of Harbin Ballet in just four years have proven that this choice was absolutely correct. Let's list the works created and staged by Harbin Ballet in recent years: large-scale symphonic ballet drama "If the Sun Had Never Shone on Me", large-scale symphonic ballet drama "The Nutcracker", holographic symphonic ballet drama "Winter Dreams", medium-sized symphonic ballet drama "Ode to Joy", "When Flowers Bloom Again", "Wings for You", "The Long Road", "Black and White", medium-sized modern ballet drama "Love's Symphony", and small ballet masterpieces "Fragrant Soul", "Spring Ballet", "Ice and Snow Romance", "Snowflakes", "Deep Love is Hard to Express", "Vanity", etc. I was fortunate to see almost all of these works, either in the theatre or online, and it is incredible that a newly established Harbin Ballet could produce so many large, medium, and small ballet dramas in just four years (including three years of the COVID-19 pandemic), all of which are original. This could probably be called a "miracle" in the history of Chinese ballet. At the same time, Harbin Ballet pays great attention to the public welfare promotion and popularization of ballet art. According to my understanding, their online and offline broadcasts have reached an exposure of 110 million people and over 62 million views, truly prioritizing social benefits and striving to practice the purpose of "bringing high art into the public's view".

Readers may have noticed that all the large, medium, and small ballet dramas we listed above are prefixed with "symphonic" ballet, clearly declaring to the world Harbin Ballet's determination to embark on the path of symphonic and modern ballet. In other words, Dandan, as a director and artistic director, and such a decision-maker, has become the first person in the Chinese ballet world to pioneer the uncharted territory (symphonic ballet). This echoes her "breakthrough" move 17 years ago when she launched the first Chinese modern ballet drama "The Stone in the Sunshine - Dream of the Red Chamber" (at that time, Wang Yuanyuan's Beijing Contemporary Ballet Company had not yet been founded).

It must be said that Dandan's repeated innovations are not whimsical, but the result of her deep contemplation, professional wisdom, and meticulously detailed planning. First, she considered that the cast size of Harbin Ballet should not be too large at the beginning of its establishment, but rather small and fine. To this end, she adhered to the principle of preferring quality over quantity (to date, there are only about 30 dancers). Secondly, she hired the famous Canadian choreographer Peter Quanz as the resident choreographer. Of course, Dandan had already "assessed" this choreographer's ability and level when she was at Guangzhou Ballet, having invited him to create "Memory on Water" and "If I Were a Bird" for Guangzhou Ballet. Peter Quanz has also created numerous works for the world's top ballet companies, such as the globally renowned Mariinsky Ballet of St. Petersburg, American Ballet Theatre (ABT), National Ballet of Canada, Stuttgart Ballet of Germany, etc., which shows how "strict" Dandan is in selecting resident choreographers. After watching all the works Peter Quanz created for Harbin Ballet, I think he is an outstanding choreographer of neoclassical symphonic ballet. I remember more than three years ago, at Harbin Ballet's inaugural performance, I saw his medium-sized holographic symphonic ballet drama "Winter Dreams" based on Tchaikovsky's First Symphony. Frankly speaking, I didn't pay much attention to the first use of holographic high technology in Chinese dance dramas, but was deeply moved by the beautiful symphonic dances and the northern scenery they created. In 2021, I watched Harbin Ballet's large-scale symphonic ballet drama "If the Sun Had Never Shone on Me" dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the Party for the second time. This is a work "tailor-made" for Harbin Ballet with a Chinese theme, telling a fictional story of the ancient tribal leader Kuafu, who, with the support of the goddess Nüwa, bravely sacrifices himself to bring sunlight to the people, symbolizing the Chinese communists who, for the liberation of the nation and the happiness of the people under the sun, consecutively sacrificed their blood and lives to welcome the birth of New China. The music used three different works by the famous Chinese composer Du Mingxin (not specifically composed for this drama). According to my understanding, choosing Du Mingxin's music was Dandan's idea, and she even personally went to Beijing to have multiple face-to-face discussions with Mr. Du Mingxin, showing how much she values the character and quality of the drama's music. Peter Quanz did not disappoint Dandan's painstaking efforts, and Du Mingxin's music also gave Peter many creative inspirations, enabling him to interpret and explain Du Mingxin's music with superb choreographic techniques. In my view, the choreographer would rather "sacrifice" the dramatic narrative than "deviate" from the composer's music. Although this may leave some regrets, it is much better than the "common disease" in our dance dramas where the music and drama are disjoint.

In fact, before launching the large-scale symphonic ballet drama "If the Sun Had Never Shone on Me", Harbin Ballet had already done enough "homework" and stepped onto the path of symphonic ballet firmly and steadfastly. Created by Peter Quanz, four medium-sized symphonic ballet dramas were successively launched in 2020 alone: "Ode to Joy" (Beethoven's Ninth Symphony), "When Flowers Bloom Again" (Saint-Saëns' Fifth Piano Concerto), "Wings for You" (Offenbach's Le Papillon), and the modern ballet drama "Love's Symphony" (Ravel's "Boléro") created by Chinese choreographer Dong Jie. From this, we can appreciate the careful selection of musical pieces by Dandan and the choreographers. Moreover, Dandan has collaborated several times with the world-renowned conductor Tang Muhai and his Harbin Symphony Orchestra. The most impressive was during the performance of "Ode to Joy", when nearly a hundred members of the Harbin Symphony Orchestra and choir were "moved" onto the stage, together with dozens of ballet dancers in colorful costumes holding ribbons, collectively "playing" the grand melody praising truth, goodness, and beauty, full of passion, optimism, and love, as a human destiny community. The medium-sized symphonic ballet drama "When Flowers Bloom Again" was Dandan's first successful collaboration with Master Tang Muhai and the Harbin Symphony Orchestra. This might also be the choreographer's intention to show the audience a very pure symphonic ballet of blue romance. Female dancers in blue tutu skirts and male dancers in blue vests danced gracefully in blue light to the melodious tune of Saint-Saëns' Fifth Piano Concerto, as if recounting those unforgettable moments of reunion. The symphonic ballet drama "Wings for You" choreographed by Peter Quanz was inspired by Zhang Dandan and her husband Chao Lemeng's years of dedicated, unconditional effort in nurturing generations of ballet seedlings, allowing them to grow strong, as if giving them invisible wings, letting them fly freely and become shining new stars on the stage. Ballet is a very rigorous art; if your leg turnout is off by a few centimeters, or your foot stretch is off by a few millimeters, it won't escape the eyes of insiders. Watching "The Nutcracker" this March, I found that Harbin Ballet dancers, after years of personal coaching by Zhang Dandan and Chao Lemeng, have reached a quite high professional level. It's natural for Peter Quanz to pay tribute to them with "Wings for You".

In 2022, Harbin Ballet launched two medium-sized symphonic ballet dramas, "Black and White" and "The Long Road", obviously works by Peter Quanz inspired by China's long-standing culture and profound philosophy, creating ballets with more "national style" connotations. The symphonic ballet drama "Black and White" is inspired by the Chinese philosophical concept of Yin and Yang, combining Western ballet with Eastern freehand techniques to achieve a perfect integration of Eastern and Western cultures, not only providing aesthetic enjoyment to the audience but also eliciting unique insights and reflections.

Rachmaninoff's "Second Piano Concerto" has "activated" the creative inspiration of countless dance choreographers (I have also used it to create modern dance works). Peter Quanz's symphonic ballet drama "The Long Road" fully released his revolutionary heroic sentiments, leaving us with an extremely deep impression. All male and female dancers, including solo, pas de deux, and group dances, wore red (the color of "revolution") costumes to commemorate the martyrs, persevere, and move forward, performing the joys and sorrows of the long journey and the unyielding spirit of "The long road lies ahead, I will seek it from top to bottom". Rachmaninoff's "Second Piano Concerto" is one of the most classic works of world romantic music, and Peter Quanz accurately grasped its strong dramatic and rich romantic colors, using skilled symphonic ballet techniques to present a high-level ideological, artistic, and enjoyable ballet masterpiece to the Chinese audience.

Last year, Zhang Dandan commissioned Peter Quanz to re-choreograph the classic ballet drama "The Nutcracker". Watching the performance live, I found that the choreographer also paid great attention to detailing and handling the narrative process. For example, in the first act at Clara's home on Christmas Eve, many guests arrived, handing their coats to the maid, who couldn't catch so many coats at once and dropped them on the ground, then had to awkwardly drag them away. This seemingly insignificant detail not only shows the heavy winter clothes but also explains how Clara's family could invite so many friends to celebrate Christmas because of their warm hospitality. Moreover, the choreographer arranged various dances and "acting parts" for guests of different ages. Additionally, when the magician gave the Nutcracker toy to Clara, her brother Fritz rushed up to grab it, accidentally breaking it with too much force. Clara was heartbroken, but when others helped fix the Nutcracker, she carefully wrapped it in gauze and held it tightly in her arms. This detail, which I have never seen in the dozens of different versions of "The Nutcracker" I have watched, not only "staged" the common "drama" of siblings fighting over various things at home but also showed how much Clara loved and cared for the Nutcracker, showing that Peter Quanz is also skilled at handling details in the narrative process of the drama. In the second act of "The Nutcracker", he returned to his strongest "symphonic" style. First was a long, pleasing "Waltz of the Snowflakes", and to further highlight the symphonic nature of the dance, he specifically added pas de deux that are rare in other versions of "The Nutcracker". Additionally, he re-created his own "Waltz of the Flowers", with diverse dances in Central Asian, Chinese, French, and Russian styles, and the final "show-stopping" pas de deux between Clara and the Nutcracker transformed into a handsome prince, all very beautiful and spectacular, showcasing his extraordinary talent as a symphonic ballet choreographer.

Due to space constraints, it is impossible for me to analyze each work in detail, but we can summarize the characteristics of Peter Quanz's symphonic choreography: first, focusing on the polyphonic "voicing" of the dance texture, creatively using solo, duet, trio, male group dance, female group dance, and mixed group dance forms; second, emphasizing the perfect combination of music and dance, striving to let the audience appreciate "visible" music and "audible" dance; third, paying attention to the fluidity of the dance itself in space, focusing on the freehand, expressive, and visual appeal of the dance.

In summary, I believe that the youngest Harbin Ballet Company, under the leadership of Director Zhang Dandan, has opened up new ideas, established new aesthetic awareness, and sounded the charge for Chinese ballet to advance into symphonic ballet from its founding, using a three-year continuous strong offensive to carve a new path of symphonic ballet for Chinese ballet. And we believe that their initiative will not only break new ground in domestic symphonic ballet but also have a profound impact on the development of Chinese ballet. We also wish Harbin Ballet new and greater achievements, "The long road lies ahead, I will seek it from top to bottom!"

About the Author 

Xiao Suhua, born on May 26, 1937, from Jiaohe, Jilin. He is a renowned Chinese dance choreographer, educator, and theorist, a senior professor and master's supervisor at the Beijing Dance Academy. He serves as the Executive Vice President of the Ballet Arts Committee of the Chinese Dancers Association and enjoys a special government subsidy from the State Council.

He has served as a judge for major international ballet and contemporary dance competitions representing China fifty-four times, and has judged over thirty national dance competitions such as the "Wenhua Award," "Lotus Award," "Excellent Project Award," CCTV, and the "Taoli Cup."

From 1959 to 1987, he worked as a ballet teacher at the Beijing Dance Academy. In 1987 and 1988, he studied under the world-renowned ballet master Yuri Grigorovich as a senior visiting scholar and furthered his education at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. Since 1988, he has been engaged in choreography and teaching.