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East Meets West

I'm grateful to Janice for sending me this clip of the Guangzhou acrobatic troupe performing Swan Lake. The clip is roughly 7 minutes long and I advise you to watch to the end (or at least until the annoying German MC comes onstage): the real magic is in the second act. The ballet has been performed extensively in China and in many other countries. Everywhere it is greeted with rapturous critical and popular acclaim. Watch the video and you'll get an idea of why. When I saw it, the question immediately rose, "Is this circus or is it ballet?" The answer is "yes".

I know I'm simplifying this, but ballet is an art form where movement is used with music and story to present a unified and aesthetically pleasing whole. In ballet the extreme skill and athleticism of the dancer is a tool used to present the artform. In many ways the talent of the dancers and the sheer grind required to prepare for the performance are hidden: all appears effortless and the individual performer is sublimated to the overall flow of the piece. Circus, by contrast is a popular entertainment where the skill of the performer and his/her grace and strength are what it is all about. The acrobat performs a series of ever more spectacular tricks for their own sake, and there is little if any attempt to tell a story or interpret music or present an artistically pleasing whole. So, despite the similarities in grace and skill levels, you might think that ballet and circus were at opposite ends of a spectrum and could not be combined. This clip says they can be.

There is a long and rich tradition of circus in China. There is also a long history of dance and both of these are present in the Guangzhou performance. As well as drawing from their own cultural traditions, the troupe has also drawn on those of Europe, for Western classical ballet training and choreography are overtly present. Tchaikovsky's music is reinterpreted and given dimensions not seen before in this most popular and famous of ballets. No one in Europe has seen a ballet quite like this one before. No one in China has seen a circus quite like this one before. Here we have the gee whizz extravagance, the humour and the energy of the circus not detracting from but adding to the grace, beauty and artistry of ballet. The combination is astonishing. Breathtaking. Mind blowing. Wonderful.

The Guangzhou troupe show what can happen when paradigms are broken; when we allow our traditions to be reinterpreted in the light of something new.

Or, as in this case, in the light of something old.


Alden Smith said…
When I watched the Youtube video I was not making distinctions between which bits were circus and which bits were ballet, I was simply held in the moment by the beauty, skill, discipline and daring of the piece. Such a synthesis creates something new and exciting.

I don’t think there are turf wars or philosophical standoffs between ballet and circus performers, although no doubt there will be amongst the art critics.

Of course there is a dark standoff in two other disciplines which if they had the Common Sense to combine their respective perspectives could synthesise something just as exciting.

I call the standoff dark because unlike ballet and circus which can stand alone undiminished, Religion and Science are actually diminished by not having the knowledge and rigour of both perspectives bought together. They both seek the same goal which is - Truth. Science and Religion belong if not together then in close association.

Science without Religious values and ethics simply becomes a collection of instrumentalities, methods, and techniques for good or evil purposes. The Nazi doctor experimenting without anaesthetic on children is the omega point of Science without a Religious perspective.

Religion without Science severs itself from new knowledge, from further discovery, from the possibility of sceptical investigation and from the possibility of improvement, evolution, change and a redefining of current partial truths, thus bringing those partial truths into focus in a sharper, brighter and more fulsome way.

It is when Religion and Science cooperates and works together that new forms of knowledge, new ways of thinking and being begin to take shape; a new ‘dance ‘ is born – not unlike the fusion of the circus and the ballet in the YouTube video clip.

Of course the possibility of new understandings are not confined to dialogues between Religion and Science but also as this post implies, between Western and Eastern forms of spiritual knowledge and practise.

The circus and ballet synthesis with its Tchaikovsky catalyst showed me that one ballet dancer can dance on the head of another. Maybe a synthesis of Science and Religion will show me how many angels can dance on the head of a pin :-)
Kelvin Wright said…
There's a cultural issue here, pointed out by a friend of mine the other day:It's significant that the innovation comes from the Chinese side: that is, it's not from one of the great traditional ballet nations -Russia, France or England - that this amazing innovation has come, but from a nation new to Ballet. A place opening up it's traditions in a thousand thousand different ways as it seeks to find a new place in the world. I guess this is a small sign of things to come as China expands her own culture, and examines, understands, appropriates and adapts the best in ours.

But also, at a time when the Western Church seems to be crashing and burning, I see the synthesis offered here as a very great hope. We don't have to be stuck in our own paradigms. We can grow something new. Science and religion is one area where paradigms could do with a bit of a head on collision. East and West is another
Sunny said…
Hello, Kelvin.

I found your blog accidently and liked it very much. Hope you wouldn't mind me reading it.

As for the circus I watched it here in Russia. Frankly speaking the Swan Lake performance took me aback at the beginning. It seemed to be really outrageous and not-classic-at-all! However little by little the music and the dance carried me away and smoothed the shock over so that in the end I did appreciate the inconceivable charm of a different Swan Lake, which combined the music and storyline I loved so much and the dance I never knew existed.

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