December 20,2002
Grace under pressure
  Author: (Li Shuo)
 
  From this Christmas to the start of next year, dozens of ballet performances will lighten up the capital stage over winter.

Troupes from home and abroad will stage a series of diverse performances.

Beijing Weekend went behind the scenes to find out about the passion, pain and pleasure of the people who make it all possible.

Sunrise

It's 8 am. Xie Lijun, 13, still feels sleepy.

Yet she is already standing to attention with 15 classmates in the high and spacious classroom of the Middle School affiliated to Beijing Dancing Institute, waiting for her daily 90-minute ballet lesson.

After a brief greeting with their teacher Yu Jing, she begins stretching her legs at the bar.

The girls, with their long hair tied up in buns, wear navy blue one-piece gym suits. They look especially graceful with pretty long legs clad in white stockings and soft ballet shoes.

To piano accompaniment, they perform one move after another, jumping, swirling, flying and fluttering. Teacher Yu Jing keeps asking them to stretch their toes further, to "fly" higher, to straighten their backs in tricky balancing acts and to open their thighs wider. She even exhorts them to "listen" to the sound of their knees while posing with their legs held high.

She guides them how to breathe properly and to strive towards a perfect posture.

Yu's voice has become husky after barking out the orders. She points out each individual's defects and corrects each by patting their bottoms to show the correct posture.

Although wearing little, their faces soon become red after the non-stop movement. Sweat beads their foreheads.

As soon as they are dismissed, Xie lies on the floor on her chest, asking a classmate to press her back with fists and punches as a kind of massage.

"I love ballet very much, and hope that after graduation, I can study further in the Beijing Dancing Institute, or be directly recruited into the Central Ballet of China," she confided.

She has been learning ballet since the age of 6 and asked her parents to send her to the school when she was 10.

"Every day we do the training for hours this way. It is painful, but I tell myself that I must persist." Xie, who originally comes from Nanchang in Jiangxi Province, said it is her strong passion for ballet which gives her the strength.

As a result of the hard training, the young girls' toes have all been damaged to some extent, Yu said.

"They come here mainly out of their own love and desire, otherwise they could not have the power to endure the pain. Ballet is a beautiful but cruel art." Noon

Tong Shusheng, who is in her early 20s, looks ambitious and happy with her current role as chief principal ballerina with the Guangzhou Ballet.

She is poised to dance as the heroine Turandot in the ballet of that name, a newly-created piece by the troupe. "I returned from abroad chiefly for this role and I will stay for my career," she said. Last year she performed for over a year as a guest principal in the Cincinnati Ballet in the US.

Many ballerinas have gone on to enjoy great fame abroad after establishing themselves domestically.

One of them is Zou Zhirui, now chief ballerina and artistic director of the Ballet Theatre of Maryland in the US.

"Chinese ballet dancers are able to be better than their counterparts because they are trained systematically and scientifically from a young age," said Zou, who built her fame years ago as a chief ballerina with the Central Ballet of China before going abroad.

Zou's experience and success are a beacon for many dancers who hope to follow her dainty footsteps. She admits though that she is but the tip of the pyramid.

Sunset

Chen Li'e, like many other ballet dancers in China, has devoted her life to ballet, yet failed to reach the top.

Now retired from the stage she loved since childhood, she is a hired trainer to young ballerinas in the Central Ballet of China. At her peak around 1995, she played as the soloist, or leading dancer, in ballets like Swan Lake, Don Quixote, and the Chinese ballet The Great Blessing.

Although she thought that she could still dance well, she was reluctantly stepped down in 1997 as part of a tough rule in China which ensures young ballet dancers have a chance to shine.

From being a first-rate dancer in China to being a hired coach, Chen could earn only a monthly salary of 3,000 yuan (US$348). To make ends meet, she began teaching amateur ballet dancers on a weekend course, where she rediscovered her happiness.

"It gives me great pleasure when I see my students, 6 to 40 years old, dance gracefully unlike at the very beginning when they knew little of the art," said Chen. "I feel that I am still useful and that I can continue a career that I love." Down the years she has suffered many of the physical setbacks most ballet dancers experience. Swollen knee joints, waist pain, even bone breaks have taken their toll.

"It's all worth it in this beautiful art," Chen said.

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