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Red Swan: Ballet in China’s Cultural Revolution….

December 4, 2013
Zhao Ruheng © Photo courtesy of the National Ballet of China

Zhao Ruheng, Artistic Director of the National Ballet © Photo courtesy of the National Ballet of China

In the last act of Swan Lake, the Black Swan must perform 32 fouettes — in other words, spin 32 times on one toe and do it gracefully.

Zhao Ruheng, China’s star dancer in the 1960s, surpassed that count and made it to 35. It is one of the most difficult and famous finales in ballet, and the last Western ballet Zhao would ever perform before China’s Cultural Revolution drew the curtain on her career as a dancer.

“My teacher stood below the stage because she was afraid I would fall. I kept turning and they were shocked,” Zhao says of her final act in 1963.

Zhao, now retired at 66, was one of China’s first prima ballerinas. At the age of 11, she began her career when the Beijing Dance Academy scouted her hometown in the northern port city of Tianjin in search of young talent. She soon graduated with the first class at the National Ballet of China, the country’s premier ballet company, founded in 1959.

Zhao Ruheng (the current company director) in an old version of Swan Lake © Photo courtesy of the National Ballet of China

Zhao Ruheng (the current company director) in an old version of Swan Lake © Photo courtesy of the National Ballet of China

“The history of ballet in China is not long, but it has gone through a lot because China is not like other countries. Its history has made us who we are. We did not replicate the West. Chinese ballet tells its own stories,” Zhao tells CBS News.

Along with performing traditional Western ballets — Swan Lake and Sylvia, for instance — the company also references the country’s tumultuous history through performances of distinctly Chinese shows like the “Red Detachment of Women” and “Raise the Red Lantern.”

“The first time we performed outside of China was in Burma in 1961. It was an amazing outdoor stage under the big golden spires,” Zhao recalls.

Although she devoted her entire life to the company, Zhao’s career peaked when she was just 19, when she was named the principal dancer for Swan Lake in 1963.

“The happiest moment for a ballerina is when she is chosen to be the principle dancer. That was my greatest wish.” But Zhao’s luck was soon eclipsed by Mao’s fervor to uproot longstanding cultural, economic and social norms in China. Ten days after Zhao’s first performance of Swan Lake, the Cultural Revolution began. “You could say that my happiest moment quickly became my saddest moment.”

During the Cultural Revolution, everything reminiscent of the West was reviled. People deemed intellectuals or bourgeois were sent to “reeducation” camps to do hard labor. The country spiraled into complete chaos for more than a decade until Mao’s death in 1976.

he Peony Pavillion by the the National Ballet of China at the Edinburgh Festival

he Peony Pavillion by the the National Ballet of China at the Edinburgh Festival

“It was a very stressful time. It’s not like now, where young people have all these choices. We had absolutely no choice back then. We had no computer, no television and we just listened to propaganda,” Zhao said, “We were not allowed to perform Swan Lake.”

Many in her ballet troop became easy targets for criticism by the government, according to Zhao. Mao mobilized the Red Guards to police those who did not follow his mandate of creating a classless society.

“During the Cultural Revolution everything was regimented. We could not wear tight fitting clothes to practice. Every day before practice we would read Mao’s works. After practice we would have to sing songs praising Mao.” While the ballerinas practiced their form, the Red Guards stood watch.

With the frenzy of the Cultural Revolution overtaking the country, the troop was ordered to perform only the Red Detachment of Women, a ballet towing the Communist Party line.

The National Ballet of China rehearses "The Red Detachment of Women" at the Kennedy Center. (Daniel Schwartz/)

The National Ballet of China rehearses “The Red Detachment of Women” at the Kennedy Center. (Daniel Schwartz/)

The group of dancers, musicians and actors were forced to walk from township to township, hauling their instruments and costumes on their backs. After performing in one town the ballerinas would set out on dirt roads to get to the next town by nightfall and the routine would start all over again.

“At that time we would wear our ballet shoes performing on the snow covered ground. Today you would never think of doing such a thing, but back then we had no choice-we had to do it.”

For many in the countryside, this was their first encounter to the traditionally western art form. The ballerina’s wore cotton peasant clothes and danced in their hand-crafted ballet slippers that their Russian teachers taught them how to make.

“In every town 20,000 to 30,000 people sat below the stage and watched us perform in the freezing cold weather,” Zhao said, “It was all outdoors in the light of day.”

These poor working conditions along with the long treks from one township to the next eventually led to the demise of Zhao’s dancing career. By 1971, Zhao had permanently injured her right leg.

“My injury ultimately was the embodiment of that time. I had become a sacrifice of the Cultural Revolution,” said Zhao, who underwent two operations to save her leg-both attempts were unsuccessful.

Despite the dark past of the National Ballet of China, Zhao speaks with pride about the troop’s contribution to the world of ballet and the respect it has gained from performing original works expressing China’s history.

“The other lasting memory in my career was in 2008 to2009. This feeling of (…the National Ballet of China…) being respected and compared to the English National Ballet and Paris Opera Ballet was a very proud moment for me,” Zhao said, “Looking back it now, you could say it was fate.”

This story was written by CBS News’ Connie Young in Beijing.


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