Posted on January 8, 2020
The National Ballet of China (NBC) has been performing Natalia Makarova’s production of La Bayadère since 2016, and it is already so well established it was like a much-loved part of its heritage. Rarely have I seen the ballet danced with such complete command. The corps de ballet was particularly strong, accomplishing “The Kingdom of the Shades” scene with effortless grace that masked an iron discipline. Their unity in terms of line and timing was flawless, and the resultant impact was mesmerising. Collectively, these 24 women rose to the challenge of those consecutive arabesques, followed by the most difficult of all adage sequences in a breathtaking display of synchronisation and consummate poise.
The company has a strategy to protect and maintain the classics of Chinese ballet, such as The Red Detachment of Women and The Peony Pavilion, and to refresh the repertoire with new neoclassical ballets on Chinese themes, such as The Crane Calling but it also aims to prove it can match other international ballet companies in performances of the great western classics. On this evidence NBC is certainly succeeding.
The 120-strong ensemble includes many veterans (just a week earlier, a leading ballerina, Wang Qimin, celebrated her 20th anniversary at NBC with a performance as Giselle). La Bayadère, however, was led by three young dancers, representatives of the future. Xu Yan portrayed Gamzatti as a glacial and peremptory aristocrat, dancing with a crisp, no-nonsense precision that described both her character’s authoritative personality and lack of empathy. Performing as Solor and Nikiya, Wu Sicong and Qiu Yunting possessed impressive credentials as joint gold medallists at the USA International Ballet Competition in Jackson in 2018. Wu gave a fine exhibition of noble, virtuoso dancing and secure partnering, wrapped up in an unassuming demonstration of strength. In terms of height, bearing and insouciant confidence, he reminded me of The Royal Ballet’s Vadim Muntagirov. Qiu was an archetypal Nikiya, with long, flexible limbs that seemed to stretch beyond their natural limit, creating beautiful lines and shapes. She conveyed Nikiya’s tumultuous journey with a strong sense of theatre, and her duets with Wu were expressive and arresting (as was the excellent betrothal pas de deux for Wu and Xu). Her solo as the prelude to Nikiya’s death was absorbing for its emotional grip.
Another young dancer, Zheng Yu, gave an exhilarating account of the Bronze Idol, notable for the precision of his poses and flawless musicality, with each sequence of spins and jumps intuitively matching the tempo. The High Brahmin and the Rajah were performed with appropriate gravitas by Li Zhuangzhuang and Cui Kai respectively, and the orchestra was conducted with energy and charisma by Huang Yi, principal conductor of both NBC and the China Philharmonic. At just 31, he seems assured of a significant future and the familiar Minkus score gained luxury and vibrancy under his direction.
The sets were familiar from prior viewings of Makarova’s production with other companies around the world – the same orange ribbons failing to give the impression of the sacred fire, and the destruction of the temple mostly conveyed by unconvincing digital projections. Nonetheless, this was a stellar performance, an achievement all the more commendable given that NBC was in the midst of rehearsing and performing 13 different full-length ballets across the five weeks of its 60th anniversary celebrations.
Pictured: National Ballet of China in La Bayadère. Photographs courtesy of National Ballet of China.