Japan’s Matsuyama Ballet brings ‘White-Haired Girl’ back to Chinese mainland

By Huang Tingting Source:Global Times Published: 2017/5/22 17:33:39


The Matsuyama Ballet Company performs ballet White-Haired Girl at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Friday. Photo: Courtesy of the China International Culture and Arts Company

During their 15th visit to China last week, the husband-and-wife heads of Japan's Matsuyama Ballet Company, Tetsutaro Shimizu and Yoko Morishita, became red-eyed at the mere mention of Beijing's Great Hall of the People, the place where the troupe were to perform the ballet White-Haired Girl, their best-known work in China.

"It's an honor to perform in the hall that faces the Monument to the People's Heroes," said Shimizu, the troupe's director, in an interview with the Global Times on May 16. "So many 'white-haired girls' lie right under that monument. I can hear their cries," he said.

A modern folktale that has been adapted into numerous genres, White-Haired Girl tells the story of a rural Chinese girl named Xi'er who is struggling to run away from the landlord who enslaved her after killing her father and taking her away from her fiancé Dachun. After fleeing into the mountains and living there like a savage, the poor girl's hair turns white due to all the misery she has suffered.

Eventually adapted into a yangbanxi (Model Drama) during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), White-Haired Girl became one of the most well-known red dramas of the era and is now a shared collective memory for many Chinese, especially those over 45.

Reliving memories

These red memories returned to life again on Friday night at the Great Hall of the People in downtown Beijing. The audience began flooding into the main hall around 6:30 pm, and within an hour, the nearly 8,000 seats on the first and second floors were filled. Seniors, young men and women and even children could be seen among the audience.

Morishita, the troupe's 69-year-old president, played the teenage heroine Xi'er in the performance, a part of a series of cultural events commemorating this year's 45th anniversary of the normalization of Sino-Japanese diplomatic relations.

As the red-clad Xi'er danced on her tiptoes to the center of the stage against a background of drifting snowflakes to the classic theme song "When the Northern Wind Blows," cheers and thunderous applause came from the audience.

Though some in the audience told the Global Times they noticed some "not-very-Chinese" elements in some of the show's costumes and stage design, veteran fans of the classic performance were very positive about the show.

"Xi'er and Dachun's solos were quite impressive," a 60-year-old Chinese audience member told the Global Times during the show's intermission. A fan of the classic 1965 Chinese ballet version of White-Haired Girl, she said Morishita's elegant moves while dancing made her seem like a "real teenage girl."

Modern relevance

"Xi'er fights for peace and happiness, which is a common dream that appeals to us all," said Morishita, who played the character of Xi'er for the first time in 1971.

Sixty-five years ago, the troupe's founders, Japanese ballerina Mikiko Matsuyama and her husband Masao Shimizu, decided to adapt White-Haired Girl into a ballet drama after watching the 1950 Chinese film of the same name. Matsuyama played Xi'er when the show premiered in Japan in 1955.

She also played the role when the troupe performed in China in 1958, which was a big deal considering the two countries did not have official diplomatic relations.

According to Masao Shimizu's 1983 book, the invitation documents were brought along by Sun Pinghua, deputy head of the Peking Opera delegation that Peking Opera master Mei Lanfang took part in to visit Japan in 1957.

In 1971, the troupe embarked on their third visit to China, putting on shows in cities including Xi'an, capital of Northwest China's Shannxi Province, and Changsha, capital of Central China's Hunan Province, in addition to Beijing.

Before the normalization of Sino-Japan diplomatic relations in 1972, the troupe encountered numerous roadblocks to put on the show.

"We have been treated poorly in our own country during the past 35 years of [the troupe's] cultural exchanges with China," wrote Masao Shimizu in his 1983 book Matsuyama Ballet: White-Haired Girl.

Even today, there are still misunderstandings concerning the performance - not just in Japan, but also in China.

Tetsutaro Shimizu, who decided to follow in the footsteps of his parents Mikiko Matsuyama and Masao Shimizu, recalled that once during an interview with a Chinese television program the young host asked him if the troupe's performance should be seen as Chinese propaganda.

"It was a strange question," Shimizu said.

In his opinion, White-Haired Girl is not specifically a Chinese story so much as it is a story about liberating women from misery that "still clicks with our times." Even though the troupe is also famous for their other adaptations such as The Nutcracker, he said he feels that White-Haired Girl will always be the troupe's most important work.

"We are hoping to show people, especially young people today who know little about war, the hard-trodden road their ancestors took to save the thousands of 'white-haired girls,'" said Shimizu, who studied in China as an overseas student from 1966 to 1971, during the height of the Cultural Revolution.

The couple said they wish to use White-Haired Girl to express their gratitude toward China, as well as apologize for the pain and misery that their country brought the Chinese people during World War II.

Historical bonds

Founded in 1948, the Matsuyama Ballet Company became the first Japanese ballet troupe to perform in China after 1949 when they performed White-Haired Girl at Beijing's Tianqiao Theater in 1958.

In 1964, upon their second visit to China, the troupe performed the ballet at the Great Hall of the People. Chinese leaders, including Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, watched the show and met with troupe members after the performance.

During the turbulence Sino-Japan relations experienced after the World War II, the troupe's continual visits to China became a unique and important bond between the two countries, even during the Cultural Revolution.

"The Matsuyama Ballet Company was the only Japanese ensemble allowed to perform in the Chinese mainland during the Cultural Revolution," Masao Shimizu wrote in Matsuyama Ballet: White-Haired Girl.

The troupe is scheduled to perform at the Shanghai Grand Theatre on Tuesday night.

Newspaper headline: Red nostalgia


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