London — Fen-Ying, as the Swan Queen, fluttered with plum-blossom fragility. Her tall handsome Prince, danced by Zhu Yueping, supported her with a firm, noble air. The traditional technicalities of Tchaikovsky's 19th-century ``Swan Lake'' flowed easily and dramatically on stage in London, where the Central Ballet of China has been performing to packed houses. But the history of ballet in China - only three decades old - has not flowed smoothly. Its sparkling beginnings in 1955 were halted by the turbulence of the Cultural Revolution that swept the country from 1966-76. Attacking all of the arts, it raged through the ballet schools and studios attempting to destroy the foundations so carefully laid. Classical ballets were seen as a Western influence in Jiang Quing's (Madame Mao's) eyes and had to be stamped out. For 10 of its 27 years, the Central Ballet of China was forbidden to rehearse or perform them. Only two ballets were permitted - ``The Red Detachment of Women'' and ``The White-haired Girl,'' both revolutionary and political and whose productions were overseen by Madame Mao herself.
Creativity and experimentation was stopped, daily routines were done to martial music, and the exercises were decidedly different - the dancers had to do handstands and balance upside down like circus performers for the duration of the music.
Some of the company members were handcuffed and taken to prison. Over 40, including the prima ballerina Dai Shuxiang and company founder Dai Ailian, were banished to the countryside where they were forced into hard manual labor. Delicate ballerinas, once swans on stage, found themselves working on farms where daily disciplines of ballet routines and exercises were forbidden.
In 1972 Mme. Mao decided that banishing ballet had been a mistake, and the dancers and teachers were brought back to Peking to revive ``Swan Lake.'' Again there were difficulties. The ballet had to be pieced together from memory, little by little, and the dancers were expected to be able to dance as before. The schools were reopened and a search was made throughout the vast country for suitable young candidates with the right physical attributes - good feet, flexible bodies, good rhythmic sense, and regal appearance. Most knew nothing whatsoever of ballet and were uprooted from villages and families to a completely new life.
The Central Ballet of China's London performances showed what enormous strides they have made since that time and gave delightful glimpses of their achievements so far. Their two programs included selections of Russian classics, British works, and Chinese ballets.
Act II from ``Swan Lake,'' the pas de deux from ``Le Corsaire,'' and ``Don Quixote'' showed off Russian style without the flamboyance. Technique was correct and well placed as it was also in Dolin's ``Le Pas de Quatre.''
But it was their own brand of choreography that London audiences wanted to see. The company brought with them Act I of ``The Red Detachment of Women'' (seen live by the West for the first time when President Nixon made his historic visit to China in 1972), a heart-rending and colorful view of village marriage rituals in ``The New Year's Sacrifice,'' and ``Maid from the Sea,'' a ballet that combines many elements of Chinese culture, though it was created by the famous Russian teacher Peotr Gusev. The scenes feature a leopard skin-clad hero rescuing his mermaidlike heroine from the grips of the mountain devil. There are also underwater scenes and a gang of tiny ginseng men with gray top-knots and straggly beards who pop up from the earth and dance with the humor of Snow White's dwarfs.
If one must fault the company, it is to say that, where they impress with their breadth and elevation (and they were definitely cramped on the tiny stage of the Sadler's Wells Theatre), their footwork needs more attention. There were many unpointed toes and their joining steps were not fully stretched most of the time. But the grace and their obvious enjoyment of the work shone through, and the programs were most entertaining.
The company's founder, Dai Ailian, was a woman of extraordinary vision. Born in Trinidad of Chinese parents, she began formal ballet lessons at age 12. Two years later, her family moved to England and she continued her studies in classical and modern dance with such pioneers of the British style as Anton Dolin and Marie Rambert.
In 1940, at age 24, she set sail for China to find out about Chinese dance, despite the fact that the country was at war with Japan and she herself could not speak Chinese. She traveled all over the country recording traditional steps (in London she had learned Labanotation - the art of writing down dance movements) and became a major contributor in the preservation of this Chinese culture.
Ailian opened a school in Peking in 1959 and taught ballet, carefully developing a national style and character. It was a period of friendship between the Soviets and China, and under the Sino-Russian cultural agreement, several dance teachers came to China to coach. By the time relations fell apart and the Russians left, they had successfully stamped a firm technical basis on China's balletic scene. Their influence can be seen today in the fluidity of arm movements, expansion of steps, and unhurried steps.