Reflections on the pandemic: ‘Homage to Life’, the 10th Annual Ballet Creative Workshop of the National Ballet of China

May 12, 2020

David Mead

The global pandemic is certain to provoke choreographers worldwide into creating works that reflect on the emergency and their personal response to it. As National Ballet of China (中央芭蕾舞團) company choreographer and director of the 10th Annual Ballet Creative Workshop (第十屆芭蕾創意工作坊) Wang Sizheng (王思正) quite rightly said at the beginning of the streaming, just because artists or a company cannot meet face to face with its audience, does not mean dancers stop creating and thinking. And what a beautifully judged set of responses this selection from the Workshop, on a theme of ‘Homage to Life’ (向生命致敬) turned out to be.

Leaves in the Rain (雨葉) by Li Yang (李暘) remembers lost lives. Standing starkly, centre stage is a white-barked tress, stripped of its leaves save for three. Downstage burns a solitary candle. A woman looks around at the empty world. Her face haunted. As we see inside her mind, her memories, shadows, ghosts, run through the space. Fallen leaves, lost lives, they swirl in beautiful shapes and patterns as if blown by a breeze to perfect music by Zhao Nan (趙楠) and Sun Ye (孙晔).

The central figure, the survivor, dances freely as memories take on physical form. But not for long. In a terribly poignant end, she returns to silence and that single candle, while upstage that tree stands like a tombstone or memorial to the dead.

Embrace the Spring by Peng Jie(screenshot from the streaming)
Embrace the Spring by Peng Jie
(screenshot from the streaming)

From Wuhan, the pandemic was closer to home for Peng Jie (彭捷) than most. His Embrace the Spring (拥抱春天) is a solo created in tribute to those fighting the epidemic on the front line. To Schubert’s Serenade for solo piano he stands in all white, even in white slippers. His dance is tense, washing hands is a recurring motif. Some clever film editing shows him in silhouette reaching for a door handle and then escaping. If he’s looking for a way out, he finds it, temporarily at least, as the dance moves outdoors and upbeat. It’s a world of sunshine and freedom. But not for long as he soon finds himself back in reality.

Waiting for You (等着你) by Su Yang (蘇洋) considers the parents of medical and other workers on the front line. Did they know the full truth of what was happening? Do they now? Dancers in face masks dance around a mother and father who look lost, knowing but not knowing. Bach’s Arioso for brass, with its contrasts in tone between trumpet, flugelhorn and trombone seem perfect.

Waiting for You by Su Yang(screenshot from the streaming)
Waiting for You by Su Yang
(screenshot from the streaming)

Many people have given their lives caring for victims of the pandemic. They were the inspiration for Guardian Angels (守護天使) by Zheng Yu (鄭宇), along with some touching moments during the epidemic, one in particular being a photograph of a nurse and her boyfriend, both wearing face masks. Separated by a thin pane of glass, so near yet so far, they make their promise. It’s a moment recreated beautifully in the ballet.

The ballet opens with dancers lying in what looks like a floor plan. There is no doubt. Hospital patients. To the Adagio from Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 23, the work develops into a piece for five couples. It’s as simple and uncomplicated as the costumes – white dresses for the women, white trousers for the bare-chested men – yet desperately full of feeling. There is some lovely partnering, the men at one point carrying the women on their backs, their ladies’ arms outstretched in a moment that almost has a religious feel.

Guardian Angels by Zheng Yu(screenshot from the streaming)
Guardian Angels by Zheng Yu
(screenshot from the streaming)

A Lesson (一堂課) by company school modern dance teacher Wang Sizheng brought a change of tack. Not a dance work but a film: a meditation on the relationship between life and art inspired by his students, his experiences teaching online, and how the epidemic has brought him closer to his parents.

It was incredibly thought provoking. He muses on the fact that, when facing his students, he feels like he’s talking to himself from the past. What they are going through now is something he can never return to, he says. But then, “Perhaps the dance I teach is not that important. Perhaps the most important thing is to let them feel the weight of life behind the dance.”

Guardian Angels by Zheng Yu(screenshot from the streaming)
Guardian Angels by Zheng Yu
(screenshot from the streaming)

Turning to his parents, he tells of his father, who had to go to hospital three times a week, and his mother’s blood pressure monitor; how life became about numbers. He recalls his father trying to teach him to draw when he was younger, how he refused. But now? When he insisted again on teaching him during this time, he’s interested and listened like never before. “Perhaps the reason is simple. I’m afraid that he will be gone one day.” Many of us will have been there recently. There are upbeat stories too, though, especially an amusing tale (caught on film) of his father cutting his hair and messing it up, his mother trying to sort it out and only making it worse.

Students and parents reflect on dancing together in The Lesson by Wang Sicheng(screenshot from the streaming)
Students and parents reflect on dancing together in The Lesson
by Wang Sizheng
(screenshot from the streaming)

Reflections come together as he asks his students’ parents to join in with some sessions. ‘Dancing with you’, he called it. The film of mothers and daughters and sons dancing together is heart-warming. Perhaps the division into teachers and students is not so simple, Wang says.

And there was hope elsewhere too. Although this was often an hour of sadness, that final film gave cause for optimism too. That perhaps we are learning. “The sun is rising,” says Wang.