Chinese acrobatics troupe turns ‘Swan Lake’ on its head
January 4, 2006
‘Swan Lake” is one of the best-loved of all ballets, especially in China, where it was the first full-length ballet performed by Chinese dancers after the founding of the People’s Republic. The Tchaikovsky classic is a standard in the Central Ballet of China’s repertory and is also frequently performed by cash-strapped ballet companies from the former Soviet Union.
Acrobatics, on the other hand, is the ugly duckling of China’s performing arts, ignored and disdained by city dwellers who consider it both passé and déclassé. Attendance at acrobatics performances has been declining for years, and nowadays its audiences are almost exclusively foreign tourists and overseas Chinese.So producing an acrobatic version of “Swan Lake” would seem to be a risky undertaking, destined to be criticized by high culture purists and ignored by audiences who like their “Swan Lake” just fine without the trapeze. But the Guangzhou Acrobatics Troupe a military troupe attached to the Guangzhou Greater Military Region and no stranger to risk has done just this. Surprisingly, its acrobatic version of “Swan Lake” has taken China by storm, filling houses in more than half a dozen cities, including more than 30 sold- out performances at the Shanghai Grand Theater, where it premiered last March. The show completed a weeklong run in Beijing on Dec. 28, its last domestic performances before it begins an international tour that includes Russia, Japan, Germany, Malaysia and the United States and is expected to last up to five years.
“Acrobatic Swan Lake” is directed and choreographed by Zhao Ming, a former ballet dancer who studied modern dance in New York in 1984 and was a principal dancer with the Hong Kong Ballet from 1993 to ‘95. He is also this year’s chief choreographer for the annual China Central Television Lunar New Year gala that is watched by 800 million people.
“People usually talk about the skill of acrobats and the beauty of ballet. Now they can talk about the beauty of acrobats and the skill of ballet,” Zhao said. “I really love to turn things on their head.”
His stunning production overturns many conventions, starting with the story itself. In this version, the Princess Odette becomes a Chinese girl turned into a white swan by an evil eagle that descends from the sky on high wires. A European prince sees the distressed maiden in a dream and sets sail to rescue her. His quest is ultimately successful, and instead of drowning in the lake, the happy couple marries in the Forbidden City.
The prince’s sea journey provides a platform for many amazing and beautiful acrobatics, including one scene in which the masts of his ship are represented by three men standing about 3 meters, or about 15 feet apart, holding three long bamboo poles pointed skyward. Three sailors from the ship clamber up the poles and fly through the air from pole to pole gripping only with their legs until finally all three sailors cling to a single pole, still borne aloft by only one man. Zhao also turns certain ballet conventions on their head most remarkably with a beautiful pas de deux in which the White Swan dances on point atop the prince’s head and shoulder. When the prince seeks the White Swan at the beginning of the second act, she is walking on a tightrope and he is floating across the misty lake on a giant lily pad. Acrobatic monkeys creep along the tightrope, crawling on top, hanging beneath, somersaulting and back-flipping. The prince and the White Swan meet and dance, and then the other swans float out on roller skates that are obscured by long white gowns; the impression, on a misty lake surrounded by gnarled trees and dangling vines, is that of a magical floating world. Like Matthew Bourne, who created an all-male “Swan Lake” in 1995, Zhao injects humor into the traditionally tragic story. He pays homage to Bourne’s version (and to China’s own tradition of male actors playing female roles) with four male acrobats dressed as ballerinas who coquettishly try to woo the prince away from the White Swan or clumsily fall over one another as they pirouette.
In several scenes, acrobats walk on stilts that are disguised by red toe shoes and give the effect of exaggerated on-point dancing. The famous dance of the four little swans has been amusingly transformed into a dance of four little frogs, with four men who do the entire dance on their arms.
Although this “Swan Lake” is performed by an acrobatics troupe, Zhao also alters many of the traditions and conventions of acrobatics. “Acrobats have very high technique, but they don’t know how to listen to music,” he said. “But Tchaikovsky’s music is the most important part. You can’t change the music you have to fulfill all your goals within it. Everything has to be in the music, and come from it. This was very hard very, very hard.”
The acrobats also had to study dance and performance and, perhaps most difficult of all, learn to subsume their hard-mastered techniques to the music and the drama. “Sometimes I had conflicts with the acrobats,” he explained. “They have very strong traditions and ways of doing things. But you can’t let them make a mistake; it would ruin the whole drama. It’s not like an acrobatics show, where you can make a mistake, try again until you get it right and everybody claps for you.”
Although Zhao has great respect for acrobatics performers he argues that they should “come out of the tent and onto the stage” worldwide he does not think that this production, or any other, will truly revive the art form in China.
“There is a very good market for ‘Swan Lake’ here,” he said. “But the market for acrobatics is outside China.” Indeed, in another upturning of convention and a sign of things to come, this entire production has been made with an international market in mind. In an unusual arrangement, but one likely to become more common, the show is a cooperative venture between a private company, Shanghai City Dance, and the government-owned acrobatic troupe. “Not one penny comes from the government” for the production and touring costs, explained Michael Sun, the president of Shanghai City Dance. “It’s all private money. In creating this we have thought of the audience and the market. This is revolutionary in the performing arts, to have all the money coming from a private company. And we are not doing this to give the government face or to win prizes. Our goal is to bring talented artists to the market.”
In fact, “Acrobatic Swan Lake” is exactly the sort of production that is likely to make the Chinese government look good. After years of reducing subsidies to its arts organizations and urging them to learn to support themselves, the government is finally giving them the freedom to do just that. Shows like “Acrobatic Swan Lake” are certain to face a receptive market overseas the show’s U.S. tour already includes 150 performances in Las Vegas and it should surprise nobody if China’s next big export product is high-quality, hybrid performing arts shows like this
Produced by Samuel Roggers & Associates in Association with S.V. Kyles & Associates