Inside the Beijing Dance Academy: Pointe Visits China's Top Ballet School
In one of 60 spacious dance studios at the Beijing Dance Academy, Pei Yu Meng practices a tricky step from Jorma Elo’s Over Glow. She’s standing among other students, but they all work alone, with the help of teachers calling out corrections from the front of the room. On top of her strong classical foundation and clean balletic lines, Pei Yu’s slithery coordination and laser-sharp focus give her dancing a polished gleam. Once she’s mastered the pirouette she’s been struggling with, she repeats the step over and over until the clock reaches 12 pm for lunch. Here, every moment is a chance to approach perfection.
Pei Yu came to the school at age 10 from Hebei, a province near Beijing. Now 20, and in her third year of BDA’s professional program, she is an example of a new kind of Chinese ballet student. Founded in 1954 by the country’s communist government, BDA is a fully state-funded professional training school with close to 3,000 students and 275 full-time teachers over four departments (ballet, classical Chinese dance, social dance and musical theater). It offers degrees in performance, choreography and more. BDA’s ballet program has long been known for fostering pristine Russian-style talent. But since 2011, the school has made major efforts to broaden ballet students’ knowledge of Chinese dance traditions and the works of Western contemporary ballet choreographers. Pointe went inside this prestigious academy to see how BDA trains its dancers.
BDA’s admission process is extremely competitive, despite the school’s large numbers. The ballet program is made up of a lower division, lasting seven years, and a four-year professional bachelor program.
The professional division’s admission procedure is extensive. Every year, hundreds of students ages 16 to 18 audition in Beijing over the course of two days, presenting classical and contemporary variations and improvisational work, and taking an academic exam. “We are looking to produce artists with the technical skills to excel in professional companies and the knowledge to work in all jobs in the field of dance,” says the ballet department’s executive and artistic director and former National Ballet of China principal Zhirui (Regina) Zou.
Nearly 100 are currently enrolled in the professional ballet program. Though the school does admit foreign applicants, it does not host international students very often because the academic entrance exam measures Chinese language proficiency (most classes are taught in Chinese). BDA does participate in exchange programs with ballet schools around the world.
A Typical Day
Students begin their days with an early 8 am technique class. Following the Vaganova method, classes are strict and focus on precise positions and placement. Upper levels are split to keep class size small—around eight students per class. Teachers correct individual students—usually only the best ones, positioned front and center—using the terms “not good” (bù haˇo) and “better” (gèng haˇo), but rarely awarding praise.
The day continues with classical Chinese dance, character, contemporary, repertoire and pas de deux, as well as dance history, anatomy, music appreciation and injury prevention. “Classical Chinese dance is a large part of our identity as Chinese ballet dancers,” explains Zou. She points out an example from a girls’ ballet class, where students circle their heads as if in a reverse renversé during an attitude promenade. “Chinese dance focuses on circular upper-body movements, a unique coordination that complements ballet technique.”
Rehearsals and classes can end as late as 9 pm. Students live on campus in dormitories; with little free time and all focus placed on their futures, they consider BDA home until graduation.
BDA’s ballet department in a performance of “La Bayadère.” Photo Courtesy BDA.
Performance is the most important aspect of BDA students’ professional development, with annual productions featuring classical ballets, contemporary works and student choreography. Since dancers don’t usually audition internationally, these performances are their chance to be discovered—directors from surrounding Chinese companies, including the National Ballet of China, attend in order to scout new talent.
As a result, preparation is intense. In a studio rehearsal for La Bayadère, Act II, no understudies are present, and any imperfection is pointed out by one of four coaches at the front of the room. All lines, heads, arms and feet are perfectly placed. Although Pei Yu sparkles in her variation, the other dancers are similarly strong and dedicated. Students run the piece twice for stamina. Between run-throughs, each fastidiously practices difficult sections, never satisfied with the results.
Dancers approach more contemporary movement with a mature coordination mirroring many professional dancers. Recent performances have included works by Paul Taylor, Jorma Elo and Christopher Wheeldon; students often get to work with the choreographers directly. Pei Yu learned Over Glow from Elo himself. “He showed us how to handle rhythm with the whole body,” she says. “Ballet has so many rules, but contemporary ballet makes me feel excited and free.”
Sun Jie, a coach and men’s teacher at BDA since 2008, explains how introducing works from Western choreographers has broadened the overall abilities of Chinese ballet dancers. “When we started to teach new works at BDA in 2011, students struggled to move freely or adapt to new movement,” he says. “But learning these styles over time has opened dancers’ eyes to new possibilities.”
Life After Graduation
BDA students enter professional life somewhat older than in the West, with graduates ranging from 20 to 22 years old. Only the most promising students receive company contracts, but others accept teaching and other dance-related posts at BDA and surrounding dance schools and institutions.
Although many have won awards at international competitions, the school does not actively focus on competing. “To prepare competitors, so much attention must be placed on individual students, whereas performances encourage the entire student body,” says Zou.
Even so, competitions have given these students international exposure, though only a small percentage of graduates accept jobs abroad. BDA alumni in American companies include San Francisco Ballet soloists Wei Wang and Wanting Zhao and ABT corps members Zhiyao Zhang and Xuelan Lu.
With graduation in sight, Pei Yu shares the same dream as many of her classmates: a spot with the National Ballet of China.
A men’s classical Chinese dance class. Photo by Lucy Van Cleef.
Beijing’s Bournonville Connection
Exposure to the Danish Bournonville style is a special component of the diverse ballet education that BDA offers. Former Royal Danish Ballet artistic director Frank Andersen has been a guest teacher at the school since 2002, and was awarded a professorship in 2012. So far, BDA students have performed in Bournonville ballets including Napoli‘s Act III, La Ventana and Conservatory, and some danced in the National Ballet of China’s 2015 production of La Sylphide. Thanks to almost 23 years of Andersen’s work in Beijing, Bournonville has found a second home in China.
Though there are Bournonville technique classes when time allows, Andersen imparts those lessons through the repertoire and Danish mime. “The most important part is making the mime believable,” Andersen explains. “Young dancers often have the urge to overact. If I can’t describe what I want with words, I have to show them.” He holds his hands towards his chest, indicating the sign for “I.” “Showing can be more effective than telling. That’s the beauty of Bournonville’s work. It’s so honest.”