Shanghai Ballet’s Echoes of Eternity runs 17-21 August 2016 at London’s Coliseum.
Tiger and Snow: the stars of Shanghai Ballet’s Echoes of Eternity
After a successful season of Patrick de Bana’s Jane Eyre, back in 2013, Shanghai Ballet returns to the London Coliseum for five evening performances of the same choreographer’s Echoes of Eternity
Graham Watts travelled to Shanghai where he spoke to the ballet’s principal dancers: Wu Husheng (30) (known as “Tiger”) plays the Emperor; and Qi Bingxue (19) (known as “Snow”) is Lady Yang.
GW: Let’s start with your names. Why Tiger and Snow?
Wu Husheng [Tiger]: Everyone in the company has a name like this. These are the names we are commonly known by rather than Husheng or Bingxue.
Qi Bingxue [Snow]: Our director [Xin Lili] doesn’t need another name because everyone knows her as “Lili”!
What was your inspiration to dance?
Qi: I come from Hainan, the southernmost province of China and it is not a place where ballet is common. I had no relatives who were interested in ballet or the performing arts; but one of my earliest memories is of my aunt giving me a small tutu for my birthday. I loved this tutu and from then on I danced whenever I could. It became my life.
When I came to Shanghai Ballet School, aged nine, in 2007, I’d never seen a ballet! I joined the company in 2014 and, in just two years, I’ve been lucky enough to dance every major role in the company’s repertoire; and I’m still only 19. My career has not yet really started but, so far, it has been amazing.
Wu: My parents are very arts-orientated, so they suggested that I go to dance school when I was ten. Before I went to the school, I didn’t know anything about ballet and I wasn’t sure that this was what I wanted to do. But, my friends soon became impressed and I quickly became proud to be a dancer.
Which dancers particularly inspire you?
Qi: A lot! I’m always watching DVDs. My special favourite is Polina Semionova.
Wu: My heroes are Nureyev and Baryshnikov. I think that most male ballet dancers would probably say the same.
[To Qi Bingxue] You only came to the role of Lady Yang in Echoes of Eternity very late. Can you say more about that?
Qi: I was the understudy as Lady Yang and during the rehearsal period I didn’t pay much attention because I was also preparing for the Beijing International Competition. I never imagined that I would have the opportunity to take the role.
I went to Beijing for the competition and never thought anymore about Echoes of Eternity because the cast had been decided and my priority was the competition. The day before the Beijing final, I got the ‘phone call that the first cast Lady Yang was sick and that I needed to come back urgently to prepare the part for the premiere. So, I panicked and started mentally trying to recover anything that I could recall from the rehearsals where I hadn’t been paying proper attention!
Patrick [de Bana, choreographer] always varies the steps according to the dancer in the role and so I was worried that everything had changed anyway, while I had been away. I was very nervous but the next day – after the final – I took the train back to Shanghai
What did you dance in the Beijing Competition and how did you do?
Qi: I danced the grand pas de deux from Coppélia in the final and I won the silver medal [no gold was awarded so Qi was the first-placed dancer].
How important are these competitions to dancers and also to the company?
Qi: It’s a very good way of enabling young dancers to grow up. Normally, the teachers pay a lot of attention to who will take part in the competition and the director [Xin Lili] invites choreographers to make some new pieces for the dancers to perform. I think it doesn’t matter so much whether the dancers get a medal, or not, because the more important thing is that they grow up a lot in this small period.
How many performances do you dance in a year?
Wu: I never count but I would guess that it is more than fifty [his director counters that it is more like 70].
Shanghai Ballet has this interesting balance between indigenous Chinese work and the Western classical and romantic repertory. What challenges does this pose for you?
Wu: It is difficult to switch from one style to another but we get used to it. The mix is also a good way to enable us to become stronger dancers.
Can you explain the style and the feeling of the Chinese work and how it differs from the Western repertory? What do you want to express to the audiences in London with Echoes of Eternity?
Wu: The Chinese productions still require classical technique and so the difference is only in the story and its meaning. Chinese audiences only really know the very popular classic ballets, such as Swan Lake; and they are keen to see ballet being expressed in the Chinese stories that they know and love.
Even though the culture is different between China and the UK, the human being is the same in both countries. The emotions and the feelings are the same, so actually I just want to show the love and the sentiment of this timeless story
Do you have any roles in the western classical repertory that you would love to dance in the future?
Wu: I really want to dance the role of Solor in La Bayadère because the music is so beautiful and I love the nobility and style of this heroic role. Actually, I’m ready to dance it now because I’ve learnt it from watching DVDs.
Qi: For me, it has to be Swanilda in Coppélia. I love it both for the humour of the character as well as the technical challenges in the choreography.
Are you interested in dancing modern dance as well as classical ballet?
Qi: I like to see classical ballet but I would like to dance more modern choreography.
Wu: I like both because they are so different. And, I like to dance any style well. For the classical ballet dancer, it is not easy to change to a modern style and I like that challenge but – in my heart – I will always be a ballet dancer. I like dance that reflects reality.
Where is your favourite place to tour?
Qi: I haven’t been to a lot of places, yet: I’m only 19! But, I am looking forward to going to London.
Wu: When I came to London, in 2013 [Wu Husheng played Rochester in Shanghai Ballet’s production of Jane Eyre], I loved it although I didn’t have so much time to see the sights. I danced every night and had to conserve my energy! So, I was passing so many beautiful buildings but with no time to explore them further. Everything seemed so lovely.