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The development of ballet in China started between 1920 and 1930. It was brought to China by the Russians, who set up private ballet schools. However the real beginning of ballet in China has to be attributed to Beijing Dance School (today's Beijing Dance Academy) when ballet became one of the subjects the school offered. The school had been built with the help of Russian experts.
During the 1950s and 1960s, ballet entered a period of rapid development due to the founding of Experimental Ballet at the Beijing Dance School. The Russians laid a strong technical foundation for the later development of Chinese ballet which was led by the Beijing Dance School, also known as the "cradle of Chinese ballet" (Zan, Beijing Review).
The development of the Russian-influenced Chinese ballet took a different path with the onset of the Chinese Cultural Revolution in 1966. The Cultural Revolution, led by Mao Tse-tung, was aimed at attacking the four olds - old ideas, old culture, old customs, and old habits - in order to bring the areas of education, art, and literature in line with the communist ideology of eliminating the bourgeoisie intellectuals in China, and creating a powerful, single-class, proletariat country. Anything that was suspected of being feudal or bourgeois was to be destroyed. The Revolution which lasted a decade led to the destruction of countless ancient buildings, artefacts, antiques, sites of interest, books and paintings. Traditional performing arts were completely banned. Most opera troupes were disbanded, performers and scriptwriters were persecuted, and all opera except for the "Eight Models" and "loyalty dances" were permitted. Western-style plays were condemned as "dead drama" and "poisonous weeds" (Np, CECC), and were not performed. Music, like all the other forms of art, only existed in the form of propaganda, for example pieces like Long Live Chairman Mao, and I love Beijing's Tiananmen well sung. Artistes and intellectuals who resisted this change were persecuted or punished by being forced to undergo struggle sessions which consisted of working in farms for reform.
This political event which lasted a decade transformed the Western-styled dance form to a socialist revolutionary dance. The Chinese Cultural Revolution brought forth an artistic style heavily influenced by Socialist Realism from the then Soviet Union. Socialist Realism is a term used to describe the idealisation of the dictatorship of the proletariat in the arts.
Ballet, like all other art forms, became a convenient tool to propagate the Communist ideology. Chairman Mao's propaganda pushed forward the idea that the oppressed people, who were the workers and peasants, could obtain political power only by taking up arms; that is they had to fight for it. This was well woven into the ballet The Red Detachment of Women, one of the popular and successful revolutionary ballets. Such themes and storylines are typical to most operas and ballets performed during this period. Stories were always centred around the struggle and triumphant of the workers and peasants against the bourgeois lords and the rich and powerful. Revolutionary heroism and revolutionary rebel spirit of the workers' and peasants' Red Army and the masses were strongly featured in these art forms. The White Haired Girl story was a good example. These stories also propagated Mao's ideology of gender equality. Before Mao, women were treated as subservient in China which was heavily influenced by feudalism. Mao insisted on treating women as equals saying "Women hold up half the sky" (Porter, HP Regional).
The style of revolutionary ballet is that it moved away from classical ballet line towards tai chi and martial art, and in some cases even went in the direction of Chinese folk dance. Ballerinas were sent for military training and were instructed to perform with clenched fists, sharp and precise pirouettes, and perfectly timed, jumps and leaps. These characteristics contrasted strongly with classical ballet which was first introduced to China by the Russians. The original Russian ballet was graceful and elegant. Also having been influenced by their regimental communist factors, the Russian ballet we see today is made up of sharp ad precise movements as well. Chinese dancers would dress in soldier uniforms, carrying weapons from swords to hand guns, and long rifles were a common feature in revolutionary ballet. The music used in the ballets was militant which placed emphasis on the portrayal of bravery in the female characters. Elegant ballerinas performed tough characters, portraying that women were not weaklings but could be strong and independent.
The noble quality of the feudal society gave both choreographers and dancers a firm ideology in creating heroic images in ballets. The heroes had to be gao (lofty), da (glorious), and quan (complete), while the villains had to be base, shabby, ugly and stupid.
Ballet, before the Cultural Revolution, was regarded as a bourgeois form of art, watched only by the rich and intellectuals. The Revolution transformed ballet into a fresh, lively Chinese style and spirit watched by the masses. Revolutionary ballet, henceforth, become an iconic imagery of Communist China and the Cultural Revolution.
While revolutionary ballet has a very strong political overtone, it has significant artistic values being created and performed with extremely good technique and skills. The works created were of strong emphasis on plot and theme. There were no unecessary sections such as showing off of technique while being irrelevant to the storyline, but at the same time fantastic technical skills were incorporated intot he entire performance. Therefore the performance was full of meaning and depth. For this reason, some of the works remain popular even today, more than 30 years after the Cultural Revolution. The Red Detachment of Women has been staged 2,500 times in China over the last 45 years, and is frequently invited for performances in renowned international theatres. The White Haired Girl is listed as one of the dance classics of the Chinese nation in the 20th century. Both ballets were regarded as the milestones of Chinese ballet. The two ballets have become important components of the world ballet collection because of their distinct Chinese characteristics. Once regarded as propaganda tools of Communist China, they are now cultural treasures of modern day China. Another good thing that came out of the Cultural Revolution is that the country quickly became aware of ballet, which assisted the development and progress of ballet within the country.
The impact of the suppression and restrictions were deeply felt in performing art such that Chinese who grew up during the Chinese Cultural Revolution did not know how to dance. Freedom of expression was deeply cherished by the Chinese but so was the right to dance. "The Chinese need the right to free expression. But the things we need most, and the things I cherished most, is the right to dance," (Hays, Facts and Details) said a factory worker to ABC in 1978.
Although the Cultural Revolution created a new movement for ballet, China was isolated from the rest of the world, which stifled creativity and any form of artistic expression. Through the revolution, China had developed her own style in dance, something China can call her own.