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Zhao Ruheng, China’s Juror at Jackson
Most of Zhao Ruheng’s conversation took place over lunch at the Mississippi Museum of Art’s Palette Restaurant, a modest-priced and leisurely second floor location in the Museum’s building. Using the practice in East Asian languages I am mentioning her last name first.
The first question I asked was whether she knew Dai Ai-lian. Mme Zhao’s response, "She was my teacher."
Zhao Ruheng was a child in Tianjing, about an hour and a half drive from Beijing, with no formal Training, when a picture of ballet dancers in a window was her sole acquaintance with this physical art form in which she plays such a central role in the People’s Republic of China. In 1955, she and two of her school friends were inspected for their suitability by inspectors from Bejing.
"We were measured according to the Soviet system, " she told Sony Lopez Gonzales and me. "The length from the base of the neck needs to be shorter than the length of the leg from the buttocks to the ankle." Sony, who visited the People’s Republic as a guest, remarked she had observed how carefully prospective students were measured. "My girl friends were getting fat," Mme Zhao remarked mildly," and I was still little, so I was the only one picked." At age 11, this future ballerina started studying ballet and living in the Beijing boarding school supplied for dance students.
"Oh, you should see the training," she remarked earnestly. "The first three years we all do everything, ballet, wushu, character dance, Chinese folk and Chinese classical dance. Then, they look as us more carefully and decide, ‘You should go into wushu, and you into Chinese dance, and you into ballet.’ But those years are important for we learn things like the hand in Bejing Opera." Mme Zhao demonstrated the difference in the stretch and arch of the Opera fingers and the slightly softer, more spread of the Western classical ballet style.
"Until 1961, our teachers were from the Kirov Theatre in Russia. We followed their system of education." Mme Zhao had the opportunity to learn Swan Lake and Myrthe from the Russians. The late Pyotr Gusev, who was director of the Rimsky Korsakov Institute of the Leningrad Conservatory, selected her to dance Myrthe. In 1958, these roles were learned while still in the upper class. When she graduated, Zhao Ruheng joined the company as a soloist. By 1963 she was named a principal after she had danced her first Swan Lake.
The Soviet-Chinese friendship split in 1961 and the influx of Russian teachers ceased. Dai Ai-lian Was responsible for inviting teachers from the Royal Ballet, along with Anton Dolin who set Pas de Quatre on the National company, then called The Central Ballet of China. "I was coached one year in the English style for Swan Lake, and we began to put the two styles together.
Baryshnikov came to dance with the company. "It was before 1985 and after he went to the West, and he traveled with two body guards. Margot Fonteyn also visited with us and Nureyev came in 1985 to set his Don Quixote. He did it without payment. It is the same production he created for the Paris Opera Ballet."
China’s Cultural Revolution was responsible for shortening Zhao Ruheng’s dancing career. "We were required to dance The Red Detachment of Women in the countryside and the mountains in open air theaters during the winter. We also had to carry our own luggage and our diet was not very adequate that time," she related evenly. "I think my body was very weak, and when I was performing in the ballet, I broke a bone in my foot." There were no X-rays taken to diagnose the problem, and she was unable to consult a specialist until it was necessary to undergo two operations. "It was very difficult to move, and I think I cried for five years, I loved so much the ballet." During the Cultural Revolution some of the company directors were army officers.
She also mentioned that during this time, her mentor Dai Ai-lian was assigned to peasant work in the fields. This was something which Mme Dai, who had been to Jackson as a juror and whom I had interviewed at the time, told me in 1993 when she was the Chinese delegate to the World Dance Congress in San Francisco. Mme Dai, who was born in Trinidad to Hakka parentage and trained at Dartington Hall and with Ballet Rambert, had said to me, "I have never been afraid of or ashamed of honest work."
During this time, Zhao Ruheng undertook, at age 37, a seven-year study of English. It reflects a diligence, which provided suitable rewards and great assistance for the National Ballet of China. It also helped Mme Zhao believe that she could do something for ballet.
In 1984 six dancers from China competed in Osaka, and ‘almost got a citation. We had just opened the door and then we began to invite companies to come; Stuttgart; English Festival Ballet; The Royal Ballet. Their dancers had a big influence on the company."
Mme Zhao told me that Red Detachment of Women continues to be performed by the company. "It is very popular. We took it recently to Inner Mongolia and the audiences loved it."
In addition to running the performing company, Mme Zhao has administrative responsibility for retired dancers. "Our company has a personnel of 222 people. Seventy are dancers. The rest are musicians and stage hands." Dancers can retire at two different times. Since 1996, they have the option of leaving at 35, when they can still try a second job. But they can still enjoy a 60 per cent salary, housing and health insurance. "That is paid for by the Government." If the dancers wish to continue the retirement ages are 52 for men and 47 for women. At this point they enjoy full retirement benefits.
First Executive Director and then Artistic Director for nine years, Zhao Ruheng also is Vice Chairman of the Chinese Dancers’ Association.
Asking Mme Zhao about her experiences as a juror, I learned she has served on two International New York Competitions; the South Korean Competition in Kwangju, Nagoya in Japan, and a recent Shanghai Competition. "The technical skills here and there are at a high level, but we still need to see dancing from the heart. he dancers are so concerned about how many times the turn and how high the jump, but it is the musicality and the artistry we look for. I tell the dancers, ‘First you are dancers and you are artists.’"
This piece is part of Ballet.co's overall Jackson Competition coverage. The competition runs from the 15th to the 30th June 2002 and we plan daily reports to keep you in touch:
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