Book review: “The Story of Dai Ailian” by Richard Glasstone

I was interested in reading “The Story of Dai Ailian” by Richard Glasstone (Dance Books, 2007) to learn more about Chinese dance. It was also a chance to learn about the origins of the Beijing Dance Academy. The complete title of the book is “The Story of Dai Ailian. Icon of Chinese folk dance. Pioneer of Chinese ballet.” What I also found was a story about a person of Chinese descent discovering her own culture and then contributing to it.

戴愛蓮 (Dai Ai Lian) was born in Trinidad to parents with Chinese descent. She was trained in ballet and went to Europe for further training. China was always calling to her for her to discover the dances. I also found it interesting that her Chinese language skills were not very good when she finally went to China. She established the structured dance curriculum that is currently in place in China. I think she combined the best of Eastern and Western dance to produce a great dance form. I am particularly inspired by Dai Ailian and her continued pursuit of discovering Chinese culture even though she began far away from it.

[She] was also involved in some of the first dances created as part of the earliest experiments in British television. For these, and for the fund-raising Artists International performances, she had now started to choreograph dances based on Chinese themes. Although, at that time, she had never seen any authentic Chinese dance, she was inspired by reading about Chinese history and culture in the British Museum library. (Pages 10-11).

Dai visited minority groups throughout China and documented their dances:

By 1946, Dai Ailian had collected enough material to enable her to mount, for the first time in China, a full programme inspired by the traditional folk dances of Cultural Minority populations. This historic performance, staged in Chongqing under the title ‘Borderlands Music and Dance’, included dances and songs from the Uyghurs, Qiang, Tibetans, Yi and Jia Rong peoples: a triumphant realisation of Dai’s long-held ambition to celebrate the folklore of her ancestral homeland. (Page 29).

The dances inspired by traditional Chinese folk dances was a “fusion of Chinese dance with elements of ballet and modern dance…” (page 32).

I think the inclusion of the public to participate in dance was a very good thing. “It is important to stress that, in addition to her work in adapting folk dance forms for the stage, Dai was also instrumental in encouraging ordinary people to participate in simple, recreational folk dance gatherings.” (Page 43). I think, too often, with dance forms like ballet, the professionals attain a level of physical ability that is not possible for the average person. But one way for a person to appreciate an art form is to actually participate and experience the art form. I think this is one reason why Chinese dance has been kept alive in overseas Chinese communities, because it has become a community and group activity. There are those with an extreme amount of talent and ability who become professional dancers. And there are also those who are non-professionals who can still pursue lessons and performance opportunities.

I also had my questions about Chinese classical dance answered:

As well as classical ballet and Chinese folk dance, the Beijing Dance School also taught classes in so-called Chinese Classical Dance. This is actually a hybrid form based on ancient traditions, stemming in part from some of the acrobatic and mimetic elements found in traditional Chinese Opera. Commenting on that aspect of the Beijing Dance School’s curriculum, Marie Rambert wrote that ‘… they have evolved a complete system of training, based on the deepest features of Chinese tradition, and so it can be preserved, just as our European tradition is.’ (Pages 45-46).

The book devotes an equal amount of explanation about Dai’s ballet background and the development of ballet companies and schools in China. There are also a lot of personal stories from Dai about living through some very difficult times in China. I think this book will appeal to a wide variety of interests: from those interested in the development of dance (or any art) in China to those specifically interested in ballet or Chinese dance. I definitely recommend this book for anyone who would like to know more about Dai Ailian and dance in China.

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