Beijing — THE notorious Madam Mao may once have been its patron, but these days, the National Ballet of China proudly stands on its own merits. Pushing against all preconceptions, the company's artistic director, Zhao Ruheng, is intent on rewriting -- or should that be "re-righting"? -- history.
The era in China is long gone when politics controlled art to such an extent that what appeared onstage needed to satisfy some demagogue's skewed vision of the world. Zhao is now even willing to court controversy. Nothing proves this so pointedly as the 2001 ballet "Raise the Red Lantern," which had its American premiere this month in Berkeley and will be danced at the Orange County Performing Arts Center for six performances beginning Tuesday. (The company then goes to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York.)
Saturated in hothouse colors, the three-act "Lantern" is an intense dance-theater version of the multi-award-winning film by Chinese auteur Zhang Yimou ("Hero," "House of Flying Daggers"). The stage version is as lush and fluidly cinematic as Zhang's -- which, ironically, was banned in China when it was released in 1991.
The 60-ish Zhao is immensely proud of the outcome. She calls it a "milestone," not just in terms of her company's growth but also, she believes, for Chinese art as a whole. She sees the production as a watershed in her nation's moves into the 21st century.
However, national pride, expressed through the international art of classical ballet, is no longer enough to keep her happy. Instead, Zhao and her 60 dancers are striving to make certain that distinctly Chinese touches are woven into their work. So "Raise the Red Lantern" mixes classical ballet with kung fu acrobatics, elements of traditional Peking Opera and even Chinese folk melodies incorporated into its commissioned symphonic score.
Of course the company -- one of Asia's largest and most prestigious -- is hardly the only Chinese institution in the throes of rapid change. Beijing will be hosting the 2008 Olympics, and as citizens of Los Angeles already know, the Games really do make a difference. When they move beyond the West, the effect can be profound. Seoul, as its residents still proudly proclaim to visitors, was forever upgraded by the 1988 Olympics, and 20 years later, Beijing is likely to be altered in ways that could hardly have been envisioned when China was awarded the Summer Games in 2001.
Already, everywhere you turn, this is a city in a rush. Cranes dominate the skyline. Newly erected hotels and skyscrapers butt up against residential streets where drying laundry and cooking facilities share tidy but tiny front gardens a block away from eight-lane highways.
It is also a city of contrasts. Majestic historical monuments such as the circular 600-year-old Temple of Heaven and the vast expanses of the Forbidden City are serene islands marooned within the speeding swirl of modern life. Erupting just beyond their confines are miles of stalls. Minuscule shops open onto the street. Everything you'd ever want is available, including plastic kitsch and suspect "antiques." There may be more cellphones than bicycles these days, and there's a Starbucks within the Forbidden City's moated walls.
For a visitor, maybe for most of its citizens, Beijing is not only incomprehensibly huge but also a continually expanding jigsaw puzzle. The only one of the world's major capitals not built on either a river or an ocean, it is free to extend itself across the North China Plain at will. Its population is expected to top 15.5 million by the time the Games begin.
Opposite my hotel, there's a megastore outlet of a food chain whose name -- outlined in gigantic bright fuchsia neon characters -- translates as "Buy Cheap Eat Happy." Each morning at 6, the store's parking lot comes to life as hundreds of people of all ages turn up to take part in an open-air tai chi class, just like untold numbers of devotees across the city and throughout the country.
I doubt that many of the National Ballet's dancers bother. They already start off each day with classes of their own. These exercises, coupled with the daily grind of refining their technique, are instantly familiar to anyone who has ever set foot in a ballet studio: Despite some strange accents, the universal terminology of the ballet classroom remains French.
Pushing the creative envelope
THE initial model for the company was Soviet. It has been dancing "Swan Lake" since its beginnings in 1959, and the repertory includes the usual suspects, among them "Don Quixote," "The Nutcracker" and "Romeo and Juliet."
For most of its life, Zhao says, this repertory could be divided into "the red and the white": white for ballets such as "Giselle" and "Swan Lake," red for patriotic works such as Chairman Mao's favorite, "The Red Detachment of Women," created in 1964. Back in the 1970s, that ballet's agitprop athleticism served as the company's passport to international touring.