Central Ballet from China

The Central Ballet of China combines the innocence of folk dance with the stunting, spectacle-loving style of the Soviet advisers who guided its beginnings. This worked fine in ``The New Year's Sacrifice,'' when the men did turns where arms and legs rotated like dueling eggbeaters and the women marched on point, fluttering green silk fans like huge lettuce leaves. But that stylistic mix looked odd in British choreographer Anton Dolin's ``Variations for Four.'' This piece is a catalog of the high points of men's ballet technique. Each of the dancers -- Zhao Minghua, Zhang Weiqiang, Wang Caijun, and Li Song -- topped the one before, spanning the stage in tearing leaps or coming to rest in the air for exquisitely leisurely moments. But in between, they just stood around. They all but hunkered into their pli'es, not wasting any grace unless they were actually airborne. They looked like brilliant technicians doing their jobs, not artists.

Act II of Lev Ivanov's ``Swan Lake'' was danced with clean precision and unity. But there was something missing. When the swan chorus stands stock still, peering at Prince Siegfried from behind upraised arms, you should almost hear a peevish twitch of feathers. But the Central Ballet corps lacked that tension. They had found the right position and just held arms up as the Prince walked among them, looking for his true love. They hadn't turned into swans; they were just lovely Chinese dancers standing in formation.

It's not that the company lacks expressiveness. ``The Maid From the Sea,'' a long story ballet with a plot as preposterous as ``Swan Lake,'' is not, alas, the work of a Chinese Ivanov. But it had striking moments. Zhang Weiqiang stepped to center stage in a leopard-spotted tunic, flexed his bow, spread his arms, and turned his head handsomely from side to side. In that short passage, he had set the scene for the whole story. ``I am a hunter, and this is a noble tale. Hark!'' he seemed to say, and I harked.

Ironically, he had played his role the same way the swans played theirs -- with accuracy and attention to detail. But the choreography for his character spelled everything out. His success came not from being the hunter, but from taking the formal hunter's stance just right. The swans moved their wings exactly right, too. But a romantic Western ballet requires, beyond technique, an investment of the dancer's spirit to give meaning to the steps.

Chinese folk dance, glimpsed here last fall during a lecture demonstration by four dancers from the Peking Dance Academy (the school of this company), is subtly and explicitly realistic. In the Central Ballet's ``Maid From the Sea,'' women ran around and ``laughed'' by rippling arms held at their sides. Their expressiveness wasn't emotional; it came from following a form as rigidly prescribed -- and potentially meaningful -- as writing.

Dai Ailian, a founder of the Central Ballet of China, was born of Chinese parents in Trinidad and trained in ballet in England as a young girl. She went to China, she said, ``to research the Chinese dance. Being Chinese, I had to know how to dance the Chinese dances.'' Having learned labanotation, a dance notation system, she collected folk dances and performed them in China with great success. But she laid all that aside to teach classical dance and then help form the company in 1954.

Mme. Dai travels to the West twice a year to keep up with the rest of the dance world and promote cultural exchange. She said she hopes the company can put on a Balanchine ballet to learn the American style of dancing. An admirable ambition. And a company that has achieved such technical prowess in the six years since the end of the Cultural Revolution's stagnation may well solve its stylistic problems.

But a few telling steps and gestures in the repertoire suggested a wealth of traditional Chinese dance and a different way of being expressive. Development of choreographers who can better mine these riches would do much more for the dance world than another beautiful ``Swan Lake.'' The Central Ballet of China will perform at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, N.Y., through March 16; Sarasota, Fla., March 18-20; Clearwater, Fla., March 21-23; Washington, March 25-30; Tempe, Ariz., April 1-2; Pasadena, Calif., April 5-6; East Lansing, Mich., April 8-10; Minneapolis, April 12-13; and Milwaukee, April 15-17.

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