Ballet in Red, White, and Black. The National Ballet of China visits the Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris.

Photo IPHONESwan Lake, September 26
The Red Detachment of Women, October 1

Remember that the most beautiful things in the world are the most useless; peacocks and lilies, for instance.  [John Ruskin, “The Stones of Venice”]

Many would add ballet to Ruskin’s example. As an artifact of “aristocratic times,” while beautiful, has this art form outlived its usefulness?

Yet “aristos” means not only “most excellent” but also most…”useful.”  The ancient god Aristaeus watched over the shepherds, bee-keepers, cheese-makers, olive-growers, herb-gatherers, and sent the soft Elysian winds to waft over them and us as well.

With its double bill, this dual purpose is exactly what the National Ballet of China set out to prove during its two-week stay.  Urgent, honest, disarming, these dancers tried to convince the audience that even the modern chestnut that is The Red Detachment deserved viewing.

I fear that with all the brouhaha over the season opener of a series of La Dame aux camellias at the Palais Garnier…some of us may have forgotten that a lovely company with utterly appealing dancers was appearing only a few metro stops away.

Fine art is that in which the hand, the head, and heart of man go together [Ruskin, “The Two Paths”]

Cao Shuci (Odette/Odile) and Ma Xiaodong (Siegfried), two of the youngest principals in the company, certainly go together perfectly. Cao Shuci frightened me at first.  So thin and fragile (the young man sitting on my right muttered, “she’s thin as a stick!”), so broken, she projected the aura of a kitten that had been abused. Ma Xiaodong is not only blessed with the kind of lush plié that results in plush jumps, his partnering is warm, attentive, and nuanced:  at first his Siegfried seemed to fear to break his drooping lily of an Odette but soon realized to his delight that she was a most supple flower.

Odile brought out the peacock in both their souls.  Cao has marvelous eyes (downcast, sidelong, bold stare, as she wills) and a marvelous command of effect:  even if it’s choreographically the same step, she gives each pose a different energy, each time turning each arabesque into a different-looking one.  By the end of the evening, my neighbor [“that was her, too?”] sighed, “Oh, no, she’s perfect. I’m in love.”

Be sure that you go to the author to get at his meaning, not to find yours [“Sesame and Lilies”]

When I espied Ma Xiaodong among the vaguely folkloric quintet of boys during The Red Detachment, I felt grateful for an anchor. He reminded me of a lost world.

What on earth can an American in Paris (or the pampered gala group in the orchestra seats) today make of the “brighten the presence” stares directed at the audience, the constant beat and repeat of clenched and raised fists and brisk nods of the head, the flag-waving, and – worst of all — the stereotyped characters?  Just in case you didn’t get it, one of the Evil Landlord’s minions actually picks his nose. [No supertitle translation of the words on banners waved, of blackboard texts pointed to, or of song lyrics was probably a blessing. The recorded music, after conductor Zhang Yi’s tempestuous reading of the Swan Lake score, was not].

I just cannot embrace this ballet.  I get its meaning and historical import (bring ballet to the people, save ballet from attacks by party philistines by any means, any means, possible), but for all the masterfully danced enchainements and acrobatics (including an audience-pleasing citation of the serial grand-jétés from Harald Lander’s 1948 Etudes) I kept wondering: bring what ballet to which “people?” Had I been forced to dance this thing for an entire career, where almost every combination seems to be danced to the right, I would have shot myself and not the evil landlord.

Weirdly, swans and princes and fairies or even firebirds prove easier to identify with.  Yet Zhang Jian brought utter conviction to her role as the rebel-in-training, Wu Qionghua, as if she could flatten the enemy simply by arching her back, arching her eyebrows, and dancing beyond full out all the time (even so, she gave off hints of her inner Swan, incapable of gracelessness).  But her role – and that of her comrades, including Zhou Zhaohui’s emphatically brave and emphatically handsome Commander – pointedly leaves little room for much nuance or individual interpretation.

An evening of danced archetypes turns out to be most exhausting. I left the theater sagging under the weight of history. I had so wanted to get into the (collective) authors’ meaning, not mine. But – as with Spartacus or Les Miz – as hard as the performers try, I just cannot suspend belief the way I always can when confronted by a couple of swans wearing make-up.  As the victorious unit advanced en masse towards us, weapons in hand, I felt…nothing.

When we build, let us think that we build for ever [“The Seven Lamps of Architecture”]


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