It’s Swan Lake – but not as we know it. The classic ballet has been performed in China for decades – but 10 years ago, the nation turned Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece inside out.
In 2005, the Guangdong Military Acrobatic Troupe of China debuted a distinctly East-meets-West production in Shanghai.
A sensational sell-out mixing ballet and acrobatics, much of the hype centred on the moment the lead ballerina performed a pas de deux balanced atop the male lead’s head. One night, Wu Zhengdan and Wei Baohua, the husband-and-wife team behind this instant YouTube hit, were summoned at short notice to Beijing to perform for American president George W Bush and China’s leader Hu Jintao, leaving 3,000 ticket holders disappointed and offered refunds.
In 2008, the show went on the road, with a production that was internationally branded as the Great Chinese State Circus. It has since visited more than 100 cities around the globe, playing to about 1.5 million people.
It makes its regional debut on Thursday, kicking off a three-night, six-show run at Dubai World Trade Centre.
To say this show is a hit would be an understatement. A YouTube clip of one climatic scene has gathered more than 28 million views.
Exploiting exotic interest in China’s distinct performance traditions, the touring production has evolved into a more family-focused spectacle.
Man Lingling and Li Yan now take the lead roles, although they still perform the kind of dramatic twirls-on-head sequences that made the show famous from the start. Fresh choreography, new costumes and more circus elements have also been added.
Not that there is anything less than steely seriousness about the company, who are technically employees of the Ministry of National Defence of the People’s Republic of China. As a result, promoters DreamScape told The National that no interviews with any members of the cast or crew are allowed.
Journalists who have been given permission to visit the company’s base in Guangdong, in the south-east of China, describe it as a military barracks with carefully enforced rules and curfews. And, of course, a relentless and rigorous training schedule and selection process.
One might think that ballet and the military make for strange bedfellows. But in China, army-inspired discipline and regiment is the key, creating the conditions necessary for the dancers to reach the art form’s most profound peaks of technical precision.
You can find out for yourself how well this approach pays off this weekend.
• The Great Chinese State Circus perform Swan Lake at Dubai World Trade Centre, from Thursday to Saturday. For performance times and tickets, from Dh195, visit platinumlist.ae