The international ballet repertory has long been wildly overgrown with depictions and evocations of assorted flora. There's been a "Flower Festival in Genzano," a "Jardin aux Lilas" and "Le Jardin Anime," a "California Poppy" and "The Red Poppy," a "Garland Waltz" and a "Waltz of the Flowers"--plus "Le Spectre de la Rose," "La Rose Malade" and "A Rose for Miss Emily."
But not until Saturday, when Central Ballet of China brought "The Maid of the Sea" to Pasadena Civic Auditorium, had local ballet audiences seen anything like man-sized, dancing ginseng plants--or experienced such an ineffable moment of dance-theater as the scene in which one doddering ginseng revived a defeated youth by ripping off pieces of itself and feeding them to him.
This certainly represented a new genus among the broken blossoms and clinging vines of narrative ballet: not just another hero to root for but rather an edible root for the hero. And it hardly exhausted the peculiarities of a three-act work originally choreographed collectively in the late '50s and reworked under Soviet supervision in 1979 by Li Chengxiang, Wang Shigi and Li Chenglian.
At its best (a dance for 10 women carrying pink fans in the wedding scene, for instance), the choreography unified classical and native Chinese forms persuasively. And the sharply accented martial port de bras derived from Peking Opera added an exciting component to the ballet mime. But more often it simply translated character-dance cliches into Chinese and relied on bursts of intrusive bravura or pallid corps rituals.
Based on the hour of excerpts (mostly from Act II) presented in Pasadena, the aim seems to have been something like the Bolshoi "Stone Flower" (created in 1954): a ballet-melodrama, based on a folk tale, incorporating ethnic dances, personifications of natural forces, magic tricks and lots of gymnastic classicism. In both works, supernatural protectors not only kept young lovers from harm but helped bring about the spectacular deaths of nearly invincible villains.
But the Bolshoi had Prokofiev (in his last ballet score), while Central Ballet of China had Wu Zugiang and Du Mingxin: purveyors of appalling Sino-slush. And, of course, the Bolshoi ballet had the mighty Bolshoi Ballet, while Central Ballet of China was stuck with Central Ballet of China: a 27-year-old, 48-dancer company more notable for past vicissitudes and future promise than much positive distinction in the here and now.
Along with its garish scenery (by Qi Mudong) and layered, line-destroying costumes (by Li Keyu and Zhang Jingyi), "Maid of the Sea" did showcase the company's clean articulation of a cohesive style--a style mostly Soviet in origin but with a welcome hint of British elegance. However, only Sun Weijun in a crudely effective portrayal of the Mountain Ogre and Xue Qinghua in a smoldering performance of a Plisetskaya-type bad-ballerina role (the Snake Spirit) looked sufficiently seasoned.
For all his brilliance in the pure-dance challenges Zhang Weiqiang remained a hearty nonentity as the heroic Hunter and Feng Ying brought to the demanding title role nothing other than a meek, generalized diligence.
Dancers with far less technical sophistication have blazed through roles like this one by making choices and shaping effects. Feng appeared content merely to do the steps without making mistakes.
More anonymous dancing and more evident inexperience marked the performances of two familiar showpieces from the West: Ben Stevenson's "Three Preludes" (a pas de deux with the circus thrills of "Spring Waters" but some early pretexts of expressivity) and Anton Dolin's "Variations for Four" (a neoclasssic male equivalent to his neo-Romantic "Pas de Quatre").
The choppy phrasing and effortful partnering in the "Preludes" (danced by Wang Yanping and Zhang Ruofei) destroyed the crucial fluidity that can make all the stunts fit together and add up. Similarly, the uneven technique of each "Variations" dancer (Li Song, Ou Lu, Wang Caijun and Zhao Minhua) compromised the essential quality that Dolin wanted: definitive magisterial virtuosity.
All the dancers could execute some of the steps splendidly. In particular, the diminutive Wang's elevation and aplomb in jumps and the noble Zhao's Baryshnikovian compression-turns momentarily took the performance out of the junior-ballet category.
But lots of minor slip-ups, plus deficiencies of placement (Li), of port de bras (Ou), of legwork (Wang) and of movement flow in transitions between steps (Zhao) confirmed the obvious: It will take more than ginseng to inspire this company to world-class achievement. It will take the continuity of tradition, consistency of support and ongoing creative interaction with the West forbidden to Central Ballet until very recently.