Interview: Xin Lili - Artistic Director, Shanghai Ballet

Tuesday 13 August 2013

Swan Lake, Coppelia, Romeo and Juliet, The Nutcracker, even Balanchine’s Serenade all feature in the repertoire of Shanghai Ballet, which was founded in the 1960s and formally named only in 1979. The company also has ballets based on classic local tales and themes including Butterfly Lovers (a sort of Chinese Romeo and Juliet created by Xin Lili) and In the Mood for Love (set in the city in the 1930s), but for their London debut, Artistic Director Xin Lili is presenting a ballet based on a very English novel: Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. As the company prepare for their opening night at the London Coliseum, David Mead met up with Xin – formerly a Principal dancer with the company – to find out more about the company and Jane Eyre – the ballet…

It’s an obvious question, but why Jane Eyre?
Shanghai Ballet may be a Chinese company, but we are international in outlook. We want to move beyond purely local themes. Our main aim is to highlight our skills and talented dancers. We don’t want to be seen purely as a Chinese company telling Chinese stories. In fact, most of our repertory is international. Our team is very international too. The choreographer of Jane Eyre, Patrick de Bana is from Germany, for example.

Did you even think of bringing a Chinese ballet to London?
Not really, although we are taking Butterfly Lovers to the Unites States and Canada in October. For London, though, Jane Eyre seemed perfect. We wanted to bring our fresh look at the story to Charlotte Brontë’s home country.

Does it worry you that it’s a story that people here know well from television and film as well as the novel, and may have very fixed ideas about?
Actually, that’s something that we were a little worried about from the very beginning of the creative process. Jane Eyre is very well known in China too. It is popular as a book, film and stage play, as is a lot of other English literature of the time, including her sister Emily’s Wuthering Heights and things like Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. But we didn’t let that stop us. Although we like to do well-known works, and always respect the original source, we like to present them in a refreshing style and in a new way suitable for a worldwide audience.

How was the ballet received in Shanghai?
Very well. We were completely sold out. Audiences liked it a lot. Shanghai is a fast developing new city. It is a very modern, new place, and people are looking for new things in ballet too. Shanghai audiences especially seem much more willing to accept new ideas in performance than those in some other parts of China. We feel that they want increasingly to see stories from a modern perspective. They like us to reinterpret them. Sometimes, when people are really familiar with the original work, we feel it is actually easier to do something new. It is like they are subconsciously looking for a new angle. Even so, our Jane Eyre is not so far away from the Brontë novel.

What originally drew you to the idea of Jane Eyre as a ballet?
First of all, I personally like the story very much. Then I saw a play based on it by Yu Rongjun, who also adapted it for our ballet. I thought the conversations between the main characters, the way they spoke to each other, was particularly suitable for transfer to dance. They were perfect for pas de deux. I particularly couldn’t help picturing Jane as an elegant and graceful ballet heroine.

How did you approach making the ballet?
We looked at the book and focused in on those parts we thought were the essence of the story and that were most relevant for the ballet stage. Those parts that we thought were not relevant or were difficult to transfer, we threw away. For example, we ignored Jane’s childhood and we started with her entry into Rochester’s home. That condensed things a lot.

The ballet puts Bertha (Mr. Rochester’s wife) at the centre of the story. What was the idea behind that?
Bertha is not only the wife of Rochester, but also a crazy woman. In many ways she is the opposite of Jane. Bertha may be mad, and she may live in the attic, even in Jane’s mind, but her existence is the key to the relationship between Jane and Rochester

How did you choose Patrick de Bana as the choreographer?
As well as bringing a modern, contemporary sense to performance, we like to seek out new and upcoming choreographers. We felt that Patrick offered just what we wanted. He has lots of experience as a dancer (with Béjart Ballet Lausanne and the Compañía Nacional de Danza in Spain) and is now increasingly successful as a choreographer. He fitted the bill perfectly.

What is special or different about ballet performed by a Chinese company?
Although we don’t deliberately set out to bring a Chinese influence to our ballet, and although the technique is the same basic technique, Chinese bodies are different. I think Chinese dancers bring a new delicacy, different qualities and sensibilities to this Western art. Also, we have excellent dancer-actors. That is so important when you are telling stories.

What does it mean to the company and its dancers to perform in London?
International exposure is important. We want to show our abilities and skills around the world and contact with overseas artists and audiences also helps us improve even more. London is a very important cultural hub. There’s a lot of symbolic meaning to making our debut here. It means a great deal to us.

Finally, on a personal note, what else are you looking forward to doing in Britain while you are here?
After our season here in London, I’m going to the Edinburgh Festival to watch more, and learn more.

Shanghai Ballet’s Jane Eyre is at the London Coliseum from 14-18 August.

David Mead is a dance practitioner working in East Asia and the UK who writes for CriticalDance, Dancing Times, Ballet Review and other publications.

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