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American Ballet Theatre returns to China after a decade as US-China ties show signs of improving

Washington and Beijing have made overtures to each other in recent weeks as they prepare for a meeting between presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit

María Kochetkova, of American Ballet Theater, in One Overture by Mozart.
María Kochetkova, of American Ballet Theater, in One Overture by Mozart.Casey Herd

American Ballet Theatre returned to China on Thursday for the first time in a decade in the latest sign that strained U.S.-China relations are beginning to improve. The New York-based troupe’s 85 dancers prepared for opening night at the Shanghai Grand Theater, where they were to perform “Classic Old and New,” a program of three varied works encompassing contemporary as well as classical choreography, said Susan Jaffe, the group’s artistic director.

The tour marks a revival of cultural exchanges between China and the United States. The Asian nation will also host a series of performances starting next week by the Philadelphia Orchestra, marking the 50th anniversary of the orchestra’s historic visit to China in 1973.

After four nights of performing in Shanghai, ABT will move to Beijing, where it will stage its highly acclaimed version of “Giselle,” a classical romantic ballet, at the National Center for the Performing Arts from Nov. 9 to Nov. 12. “It’s a very special year for me,” said Jaffe, who took over as the company’s artistic director less than a year ago and last performed in China in 2000 as a principal dancer.

“Ballet is a universal language,” she added. “We share emotion and beauty and form and musicality and love through our art form, and for Americans to be able to share this love and this universal language with the Chinese people at this moment in time of cultural exchange I think is a very healing experience for everyone — for us, and we also hope for the Chinese people.”

The shows were initially scheduled for 2021 but were postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Zhang Xiaoding, general manager of the Shanghai Grand Theatre, said it had been looking forward to resuming its relationship with ABT as soon as possible following the pandemic restrictions.

A 43-year-old Shanghai resident, Zhu Xiaoyi, who took ballet classes during her school years, prepared to watch the inaugural performance of “Classic Old and New” on Thursday. She said cultural exchanges between the U.S. and China “are very necessary” at this time.

“I hope that through cultural exchange ... communications and exchanges in other fields can increase,” she said.

Washington and Beijing have made overtures to each other in recent weeks as they prepare for a meeting between presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping later this month at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco.

Last week, California Gov. Gavin Newsom was warmly received in Beijing, while Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Washington. Wang said, however, that the path to a Biden-Xi meeting would not be “smooth sailing.”

China-U.S. relations have soured over issues ranging from security, trade and human rights to international conflicts such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Despite their differences, both countries want more people-to-people exchanges, U.S. Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns said Monday during an event celebrating American World War II veterans who helped China battle Japan.

“We’re at a difficult moment in the U.S.-China relationship,” Burns said. “We are in many ways rivals, strategically. ... But the two peoples of the countries have always been together.”

The ABT last performed in China in March 2013 in Beijing. Founded in 1939, ABT was the first American dance company to perform in the former Soviet Union, in 1960, as part of then-President Dwight Eisenhower’s cultural diplomacy initiative.

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