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.