December 20,2002
Hooked on classics
  By anyone's standards, Wang Ermin is a dedicated ballet fan.

The Beijing-based maintenance engineer has collected 100 kg worth of memorabilia since first being bewitched by ballet in 1978.

And while he can remember when a ticket to a top show cost just 2 jiao, he's prepared to do whatever it takes to get his hands on a 680 yuan (US$81) ticket these days.

Far from being the highbrow, cash-rich connoisseur many of us associate with the art, Wang gets by on a salary of 2,000 yuan (US$240) per month.

On Sunday of this week he had a warm glow as he waited with hundreds of others in the snow for entrance to a special ballet lecture at the Poly Theatre.

Inside, around 2,000 ballet buffs, many parents with their children, listened to Zhao Ruheng, head of the Central Ballet of China.

After the lecture, they enjoyed highlights of several ballets which will be staged at the turn of the year by the troupe.

These include the comedy Coppelia, the Chinese ballet Raise the Red Lantern, American master Balanchine's modern production, Who Cares (accompanied by Gershwin's songs) and the oft-staged classic, Swan Lake.

Immediately after the show, Wang made straight for the Forbidden City Concert Hall in Zhongshan Park for another lecture at 2 pm. This one was given by ballet critic Ou Jianping, a researcher with the dance department of the China Academy of Art Research Institute.

Wang's passion for ballet dates back decades. Born in 1948, the machine maintenance engineer with a local dental hospital was won over by the very first ballet he watched in 1978 - The Red Detachment of Women.

Over the past 24 years, the ballets he has missed in Beijing can be counted on the fingers of both hands.

"I was attracted at first glance by the art and could not resist the urge to go and view every new show, not only by Chinese ballet troupes but also by foreign ones visiting Beijing," he revealed.

He says he loves ballet in the same way others love dining in their favourite restaurants sampling their favourite dishes.

"I get real, pure enjoyment after being seated comfortably for two hours and feeding my eyes, ears and soul with the delicacy of the art," he explained.

The cheapest ticket in his massive collection was bought for just 2 jiao (US$0.02) in the early 1980s for a performance by a Japanese troupe.

He remembers that tickets for the British Royal Ballet, who visited in 1983, ranged from just 6 jiao to 1.4 yuan (US$0.07-0.16).

"There were many ballet fans then and as I remember I had to get up very early before sunrise and go to wait in long queues in front of Tianqiao Theatre for four hours to purchase a ticket in the 1980s."

As the years passed, tickets for ballets soared to as much as 680 yuan (US$81.9) --- a face value few can it afford.

On a monthly income of less than 2,000 yuan (US$240), Wang tries to find cheaper ways to satisfy his passion.

One route is to try and secure free or complimentary tickets from friends. The second is to wait outside the theatre for spare tickets just before the show starts: "Usually I manage to buy a ticket at between 20 yuan (US$2.4) and 80 yuan (US$9.6), all below the face value," he said.

Wang reckons there are at least 6,000 regular ballet fans in Beijing, all prepared to buy tickets for performances.

In his view, Chinese ballet dancers have become much younger and more skillful than the past, yet ironically there are few new ballets for him to appreciate.

"The Central Ballet of China, although the only national ballet troupe in China, has made slow progress these years," he said. It had only created a few new ballets over the years, he observed.

One major reason, he said, was its tendency to major on the staging of classic Western ballets.

In her lecture, Zhao, head of the Central Ballet, said that to her disappointment, the Beijing audience tended to be lukewarm in its reaction to their performances. That is why the troupe performs less in Beijing and instead tours outside the capital, she said.

By contrast, Zhang Dandan, head of the Guangzhou Ballet, claims a big market for ballet performances in Beijing: "That is why we come north and target Beijing at this festive season," she said. "We are trying to get our share of the pie."

Guangzhou Ballet is airing two new ballets this time around. one is Turandot, a ballet based on a Western opera and the other is Mei Lanfang, depicting the life of Mei, the greatest man in China's Peking Opera history. He played only female roles in Peking Operas throughout his life.

According to Xiao Suhua, another authoritative critic in the ballet field who now teaches in Beijing Dancing Institute, the success of a ballet troupe has its roots in its power to create new productions. "Guangzhou Ballet is courageous enough to present two new ballets this time to ballet lovers in Beijing," Xiao said.

Wang Ermin meanwhile relishes the prospect of seeing something new: "I may not go to other ballets which I have watched before, but I must get tickets for these two new ballets (Turandot and Mei Lanfang) to see if I like them or not." by Li Shuo

Give it a go!

While taking up ballet seriously involves considerable commitment and a punishing training regime, many people enjoy learning the basics to keep fit or just for fun. The good news for those who would like to try it out is that there are numerous ballet training classes in fitness clubs and culture centres across the city. Here we list some classes taught by professional ballet dancers:

Beijing Dancing Institute

Location: Weigongcunlu, to the north of China National Library in Haidian District

Tel: 6893-5752, 6893-5714

Central Ballet of China

Location: Taipinjie, Hufanglu, Xuanwu District Tel: 6353-5709

Art Training Centre of the Central Minzu Song and Dance Ensemble

Location: Zhongguancun Nandajie, Haidian District Tel: 68725141

Copyright 2002 by all rights reserved.