Guangdong Acrobatic Troupe of China’s Swan Lake, premiered in 2005, has been delighting YouTube viewers for years, and more recently the company started touring its version even to important ballet centres. The performance’s fusion of dance and stunts has given the company global recognition.
The concept of infusing acrobatics into the performance of Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece was born when two troupe members – Wei Baohua and his wife, Wu Zhengdan – created “Oriental Swan Ballet” when she balances in pointe in her husband’s head.
Ballet came to China 45 years ago and is viewed as a high-class art form. Acrobatics is a Chinese tradition, dating back to the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 24), struggling to market competition. It seemed a risky venture to intermingle the two art forms, but doing so zapped new life into both, says Zhao Ming, the production’s choreographer and director. Ming studied modern dance in New York in 1984 and was a Hong Kong Ballet principal dancer from 1993 to 1995.
He spoke to The China Daily:
Acrobats traditionally study stunts, but they must also learn acting and dancing for this Swan Lake. The hard part for me and the performers is to fulfil the goals set by Tchaikovsky’s music. Everything must come from the music, which is the most important part of the show.”
Zhao credits the show’s international acclaim to the talent of Wei and Wu, who have been training new couples to perform their roles.
The Swan Princess, Yu Wanqing, and her prince, Chen Dong, epitomize the unconventional marriage of classical ballet and traditional Chinese acrobatics in their performances. The rehearsal room falls silent when Yu balances on her partner’s head with her legs extended in vertical splits.
19-year-old ballerina Liu Jie specializes in the “Ballet On Top of the Head” programme series created following Swan Lake’s success.
The trainer said I was a good ballerina but needed to start from scratch to learn acrobatics. That was really hard.”
She says handstands were particularly difficult for her, as she was accustomed to dancing on her feet! She recalls feeling ecstatic when she became able to whirl on her partner’s shoulders and head without safety ropes in 2008.
Wu and Wei were child athletes, who also underwent the challenging transition to acrobatics when they joined the Guangdong Troupe. Wu says,
A similar physical elasticity is required of both acrobats and dancers. But each skill pushes the other to greater heights when combined. Ballet acquires higher levels of control, while acrobatics take on enhanced gracefulness, musicality and expressiveness.”
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano’) about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman’s Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia’ column for Dancing Times magazine.