50 years of White-Haired Girl

Five dance experts on China's first surviving original ballet

As China’s first surviving original ballet turns 50, some of the country’s biggest names in dance tell Time Out what the Shanghai Ballet’s White-Haired Girl means to them

Created in 1964 and premiered the following year, the Shanghai Ballet’s White-Haired Girl is one of China’s seminal dance works.

The story tells of Xi’er, sold to her landlord by her destitute, indebted father. She flees to the mountains but the stress of fending off wild beasts and foraging for food turns her lovely locks ivory. Then she meets her Red Army-member fiancé; together they exact revenge on her tormentor and live a happy, post-Liberation existence. As Shanghai Ballet prepares their anniversary production, China’s leading dancers share what this classic means to them.

"Jin-Xing-by-Dirk-Bleicker-2-0"Jin Xing Founder and artistic director of Jin Xing Dance Theatre
When I first saw White-Haired Girl I was four or five and was impressed with the dancers’ beauty. I thought they must come from a fairyland. I put a pillowcase on my head and twirled, pretending to be the heroine. I never danced it onstage, just at home. Neither White-Haired Girl or The Red Detachment of Women are my favourite for dramaturgy, but Red is appealing in terms of music and composition, while White has romantic elements. Both have influenced generations of Chinese dancers. They laid the foundation of dance in China.

"Xin-Lili2-0"Xin Lili Shanghai Ballet artistic director
I was ten years old when I saw White-Haired Girl for the first time, and my initial reaction was, ‘So this is ballet!’ Later on I danced the lead role of the White-Haired Girl, which was extremely challenging for me, but I was proud to be a part of this aesthetic piece. White-Haired Girl and The Red Detachment of Women were produced in the same period of time but they both influenced generations. To compare the two, White presented a more humane and romantic side of love compared to Red, which projected revolutionary ideas. But White was the first original ballet production to take place in China, infusing Chinese elements into ballet performances. This new form was invented by a group of respected dancers in this country, and their success proved to be an indelible contribution to the development of Chinese ballet.

"nunu-Kong-0"Nunu Kong Leading figure in China’s independent dance scene
I can’t actually remember when I first saw White-Haired Girl, it was more a classic for my mother’s generation. I never even got to see the complete version on television. But now I ask myself why that was. Maybe because when I saw it I felt an immediate disconnection, so I may have turned away and never looked back. But it was so powerfully -produced and publicised in China for many years, you knew the White-Haired Girl too well, people always had a ‘connection’ with this piece already. But there are four possible reasons why I should watch the White-Haired Girl in performance soon. Because I am a dance choreographer? Because it will be a shame if I never watch it once, as I am Chinese? Because I need to know the history? Because of inescapable reasons or pressure? But none of these reasons above are mine.

"Ma-Bo-0"Ma Bo Beijing Dance/LDTX choreographer
As a child I grew up in the heart of a dancer’s family, and watched my parents practice and perform the White-Haired Girl and The Red Detachment of Women, so back then I could imitate and choreograph parts of the dance myself. In those days everyone worked extremely hard, especially my mother. As a dancer without formal ballet training she had to change bandages every day to stop her toes from bleeding. Back then I thought I would never pursue ballet. But to me, White-Haired Girl is a contemporary dance because it is brave and adventurous. Chinese ballet transforms tradition by putting pointe ballet shoes on modern dance classics.

"WangYuanYuan-1208-0"Wang Yuanyuan Founder and artistic director of Beijing Dance Theatre
I was 13 or 14, and just learning to dance; we thought the dancers on stage were very pretty. I remember that [her father] gave her a red ribbon to make her hair look pretty. It really touched me, the relationship between father and daughter. Even though she was very poor, he wanted something bright in her life – it was important for her, girls always want to be pretty. That generation, everyone knew that story, you knew who was the good guy and the bad guy, it was easy to follow. And I felt we should follow something, follow the revolutionary spirit. But when you grow up, you have the sense to know what is real and what isn’t. You can choose your own ideas; you can change what you think.

The Shanghai Ballet’s White-Haired Girl is at the Shanghai Grand Theatre on Tuesday 29 and Wednesday 30 April.