Dai Ailian

'Mother of Chinese ballet' and student of Chinese folk dance

Dai Ailian, dancer, choreographer and director: born 10 May 1916; died Beijing 9 February 2006.

Dai Ailian was widely regarded in China as "the mother of Chinese ballet". She deserves much of the credit for the founding in Beijing of a national ballet company, performing a classical Western repertoire as well as works inspired by indigenous culture. It is some measure of her achievement that a bronze bust of her is displayed in London, in the reception hall of the headquarters of the Royal Academy of Dance.

She was born in Trinidad, to an expatriate Chinese family, in 1916. In 1930, after studying dance in Trinidad, she came to England. She worked with Margaret Craske and Anton Dolin, both eminent specialists of classical ballet working in London, and with Rudolf von Laban and Kurt Jooss, seminal figures of European modernist dance who had fled Nazi Germany for Dartington. This link between classical ballet and modern dance in her training was to be an important feature in her later development.

In 1940, she returned to her ancestral homeland, arriving first in Hong Kong. China was at war with Japan and Dai organised patriotic benefit performances in Hong Kong and mainland China.

During the 1940s she taught modern dance as well as performing in solo and group recitals. She also made a special study of Chinese folk music and dance, pioneering field research into different ethnic traditions. She choreographed dances based on her findings. Yao Drum, for example, was inspired by the Yao mountain people, and Ba'an Xianzi was a Tibetan dance. These solo and group stagings exerted a big influence and with them Dai made an important contribution to the popularisation of folk dance.

When the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949, she was appointed director of the Central Song and Dance Ensemble. She continued to choreograph. One group piece, Lotus Dance, was an adaptation of a traditional dance popular throughout eastern Gansu and northern Shaanxi. In it, she showed the pristine purity of the lotus that grows out of soil, and gave it a symbolic value, so that it seemed to represent the birth of a new China. Another piece, Flying Apsaras, was a female pas de deux that drew images from well-known frescoes in Dunhuang and moulded them into expressions of people's hopes and longings. These pieces were shown in Berlin and Warsaw in 1953 and 1955 where they won awards.

In 1954 Dai Ailian founded the Beijing Ballet Academy, the first state centre for professional dance training. During the next decade, she played an important part in introducing the Russian ballet tradition to China. Ties were formed with Soviet Russian companies and their performances in China helped familiarise audiences with classical ballet. As Principal of the Beijing Ballet Academy she invited teachers from the Russian Kirov and Bolshoi schools.

Under the guidance of the famous Russian ballet master Pyotr Gusev, the Beijing students made their début in 1959 as ballet swans. This production of Swan Lake marked the founding of China's national ballet company, later named the Central Ballet of China. (One year later the Shanghai Dance School opened, also with Russian teachers on its staff, from which was to emerge the Shanghai Ballet.)

In 1960, when China and the Soviet Union broke off relations, the Russian ballet teachers returned home and the academy, like many Chinese institutions, was left on its own. In 1962 the company made its first appearance outside China, performing in Burma, and in 1964 the British ballerina Beryl Grey arrived to work with the company.

During these early years the academy and company concentrated on traditional Western ballet. This emphasis, though, earned it disapproval when the Cultural Revolution was launched in 1966. Ballet found itself classified as "the weed of capitalism" and the academy was closed for six years, until 1973.

Gradually, though, it dawned on the political powers that ballet could in fact be a vehicle for promoting ideological correctness and national pride. Choreographers had already started combining Western ballet technique with Chinese themes and skills, resulting in such signature works as The Red Detachment of Women and (staged by the Shanghai dancers) The White-Haired Girl, both choreographed in 1964, under the personal supervision of Mao Zedong's wife, emblems respectively of Chinese Communism and folklore.

Dai Ailian continued as Principal of the Beijing Ballet Academy until 1964 and in 1963-64 also held the title of director of the ballet company. She was marginalised during the decade of the Cultural Revolution, but from 1976 to 1980 was once more Director of the Central Ballet of China (also called the National Ballet of China), later becoming artistic adviser. Western ballet was reintroduced and the Central Ballet of China has now toured widely abroad, scoring great success in London.

Dai continued her researches into Chinese folk dance forms. "Ballet is my work," she said, "while folk dance is my greatest pleasure." As such her legacy is twofold: she brought Western ballet to China and Chinese folk dance to the wider world. In 1989 she was the founder director of the London-based Chinese Dance & Mime Theatre Company.

Nadine Meisner

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