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National Ballet of China in The Crane Calling 

Posted on January 6, 2020

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Think of a bird in classical ballet and inevitably a swan comes to mind. In China, however, since 2017 a rival has been calling. The crane is a beautiful creature, venerated in Chinese culture for millennia for its loyalty (they mate for life) and grace. Special nature reserves and wetlands are dedicated to their protection and it was in one such place during the 1980s that a young woman lost her life during a violent storm trying to save the birds in her care. The tragedy provided the inspiration for The Crane Calling, a work premiered by National Ballet of China two years ago and revived at the Tianqiao Theatre in Beijing on December 4 as one of 13 full-length works to be performed in a five-week festival celebrating the company’s 60th anniversary.

The ballet was conceived by artistic director, Feng Ying (credited as the ballet’s producer) and choreographed jointly by Ma Cong and Zhen Zhenxin. Ma majored on the pas de deux while Zhen concentrated on the ensemble work. Co-choreography is unusual in classical ballet, but we only have to think back to the second coming of Swan Lake to recognise a forerunner in a similar disaggregation of responsibilities between Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. It must be something about the birds!

Shen Yiwen, a graduate from New York’s Juillard School, was chosen to compose the score and he worked “hand-in glove” with the choreographers. This close artistic collaboration has shaped an unashamedly sentimental ballet with purposeful clarity of narrative, beautiful imagery and a very fine score. It is a ballet about love and loyalty, expressed tenderly through several interlinked stories.

The tragic heroine, Mengjuan, had been raised on a crane reserve (where her father was caretaker) and after an interlude of four years’ away at university (where she falls in love with another student, Zhiyuan) she returns to work with her beloved cranes. The opening act begins with a prelude showing Zhiyuan going back to the scene of Mengjuan’s death, and reading her diary, before a short, bittersweet pas de deux with the Crane Queen, Menghe. The rest of the first act flashes back to their joyful graduation celebrations, Zhiyuan’s declaration of love and Mengjuan’s difficult decision to leave him and return to the distant wetlands.

The absorbing narrative is enhanced by a diverse movement language sourced from the varied experiences of the two choreographers. Both are immersed in ballet and resident in ballet companies (Ma is at Tulsa Ballet in the US) but they each come from very different backgrounds. Zheng’s training originated in traditional Chinese dance, but no sooner had he joined National Ballet of China than he was selected by Akram Khan to tour the world in Bahok (he also appeared in Kaash during a three-year secondment to Khan’s company).   This eclecticism results in a seamlessly integrated array of dance styles, interpolating neoclassical ballet with traditional Chinese folk dance – Yangko (from north-east China) is similar to Neapolitan dance with bounce and vigour, tambourines (albeit silent) and silk scarves – and an exuberant hip hop-styled danced for a male quintet. There is even a moon-walking Professor (Li Ming) in a surprise locking routine. The second scene – at night in the university park – is dominated by a moving pas de deux for Mengjuan (Zhang Jian) and Zhiyuan (Ma Xiaodong), expressed in an unbroken and fluid connection of lifts and turns, danced with purpose, that was expressive, lyrical, arresting and over too soon. 

Act II was all about the cranes and built upon seven years’ of field research into the movement of these birds (led by Madame Feng and involving her choreographers and the whole company). The performance was prefaced by a brief introductory film that brought the audience close to the graceful movements of these flights of fancy. In flight, the crane’s neck and wings extend to their fullest extent (by contrast, the heron, their near relative, flies with its neck tucked back). The film showed how carefully the choreographers had worked to assimilate the mannerisms and lines of cranes in their movement and it was an endeavor that had a significant impact in the angles, curves and lines impressed into the collective symmetry of a delightful corps de ballet. 

In a nod back to Petipa and Ivanov, the crane wetlands even had their equivalent to the cygnets with a group of baby cranes. Fang Mengying and Sun Haifeng were respectively the crane queen (Menghe) and king (Yunhe) with Xie Huan as their princess. As an orphaned fledgling, Menghe had been nurtured by Menghuan as a child (played by Wang Ye), providing yet another level of mutual loyalty and affection.    

The National Ballet of China is intent on developing three strands of repertoire: classical western ballets, traditional Chinese ballets and new contemporary Chinese work (nurtured through regular choreographic workshops). This ballet is a successful example of the latter policy and, even more so, because it lost nothing in translation to this western observer.     

Pictured: National Ballet of China in scenes from The Crane Calling. Photographs courtesy of National Ballet of China.

Graham Watts writes for magazines, websites, theatres and festivals across Europe, and in Japan, Australia and the USA. He is chairman of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle and of the National Dance Awards; a mentor of aspiring dance writers through the Resolution Review programme; and has lectured at The Place and the Royal Academy of Dance. His book, ‘Agony & Ecstasy’, written with Daria Klimentová, was published in 2013. Graham is a Commonwealth fencing medallist; was captain of the GB sabre team at the Barcelona Olympics; and fencing team leader at the Olympic Games of Athens and Beijing. He was appointed OBE, in 2008.

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