Produced by the Liaoning Ballet of China, the original ballet Hua Mulan features a blend of classic and modern artistic elements. (PHOTO / XINHUA)
SHENYANG - Hua Mulan, the most recognizable folk heroine in Chinese culture, became known to Western audiences through Disney's 1998 classic animation. Now, Mulan's story is being recounted in a new form - ballet.
Tiptoes, splits and long jumps...Yu Chuanya, 29, repeats the basic moves in a rehearsal room, trying to reenact the age-old story of the Chinese girl who disguises herself as a man so that she can go to war in place of her aged father.
As the principal dancer, Yu and dozens of other dancers from the Liaoning Ballet of China will take their original ballet Hua Mulan to the United States and Canada in late August, representing the troupe's first performance of the classic outside of China.
For Yu, who entered the Liaoning Ballet in 2009, it has been a unique process.
"In the past, I often played the roles of a swan or a princess. This time, I had to become a man who is ultimately found to be a woman," she says. To act Mulan's part well, she had to do push-ups and fight with sticks on stage, just like the male dancers.
The story originates from a Northern Dynasty (386-581) folk song, known as the Ballad of Mulan. The song tells the tale of a valiant girl who joins the army on behalf of her ailing father, battles enemies to defend her country and fights with high distinction. However, she refuses the accolades thrust upon her and ultimately retires to her hometown.
Besides the physical techniques required, Chinese ballet cares about portraying its characters' inner world and expressing emotions.
"Playing the legendary warrior has made me grow up and deepened my understanding of performance, life and Chinese culture," Yu says. "You should be able to impress yourself before you can impress your audience."
Qu Zijiao, 57-year-old director of the Liaoning Ballet, says: "To tell Chinese stories to global audiences, the legend of Mulan is more relatable than others."
She says it is a touching story, and Mulan's heroic spirit, perseverance, and love for country and peace can resonate with people everywhere, adding that many European and American audiences are already familiar with her story thanks to Disney's classic animated film, which introduced the legend of Mulan to the West. Additionally, the recent release of initial footage from Disney's upcoming live-action remake of Mulan has sparked renewed interest in the character.
The 100 plus-minute ballet Hua Mulan incorporates classic and modern art elements that will suit the taste of today's audiences at home and abroad, according to Wang Yong, choreographer-director of the show.
In terms of music, it makes a novel and bold attempt at combining Western orchestra with traditional Chinese musical instruments, including flute and the lute-like pipa. This new version of the Mulan story also incorporates modern ballet choreography with Chinese folk dances and martial arts.
Chinese ballet dancers including Qu have been seeking answers on how to tell Chinese stories through ballet, a Western art form rooted in Europe's Renaissance period.
"Chinese ballet dancers cannot just perform world-famous romantic pieces such as Swan Lake and Giselle," Wang says. "Chinese ballet should have its own style, producing original works with a distinctive Chinese flavor."
Hua Mulan is among more than 20 such original ballets created by the Liaoning Ballet of China.
Other works, including the Last Emperor, Moon Reflected in the Second Spring and the Butterfly Lovers, have been staged in countries including the US and South Africa, with nearly every show close to a sellout.
"Language is not a barrier for people to appreciate ballet. The stories can be effectively told through music, stage settings and the dancers' performance," says Svyda, a Russian ballet teacher at the dance school of Liaoning Ballet.
Svyda has been teaching at the school for over four years. Around 31 years ago, she performed in China for the first time. "China has seen a big change. Chinese ballet is very powerful now," she says.
It took around three years for the Liaoning Ballet to produce Hua Mulan. "We faced challenges in choreography, music, even makeup, and it was not an easy task for dancers to get into character," Qu says.
Since its debut in July 2018, Hua Mulan has been performed more than 40 times in China.
HONG KONG NEWS