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Grand jete forward for China's ballet stars
A look at China's emerging ballet stars who are ready to dance on the world's stages.

It may be a Western art form but ballet has long had its fans in China.

Brought to the East by the Russians before the Cultural Revolution, a new generation of dancers is now catching the attention of the ballet world. But the journey has not been without its challenges.
LI CUNXIN, FORMER BALLET DANCER: The dancers can leap and land beautifully, very softly and so there is that innate graceful quality which I find thrilling to see.

DAVID MCALLISTER, ARTISTIC DIRECTOR, AUSTRALIAN BALLET: China has embraced ballet with both arms open, especially since the Cultural Revolution.

KATE ARNOTT, REPORTER: The National Ballet of China has come a long way since it was founded in 1959. It's chance formed from a troupe force to toe the Communist Party line to a unique fusion of Western classical ballet and Chinese culture.

FENG YING, ARTISTIC DIRECTOR, NATIONAL BALLET OF CHINA(Translation): We're pursuing a higher standard of art performance, and exploring this we want to continue to learn from the West. We also want to make progress in contemporary ballet.

KATE ARNOTT: There are 80 dancers in the company, and there's a strong bond between them.

It's something prima ballerina, Wang Qimin, is especially proud of.

WANG QIMIN, PRIMA BALLERINA, NATIONAL BALLET OF CHINA (Translation): We are a lovely troupe. We have been together since we were in the dance academy. We have a deep friendship, from the moment we enteredred the troupe we have been living in the same building. We have our own rooms but we spend our lives together.

DAVID MCALLISTER: They're an incredibly productive company. I mean you get a sense that they work incredibly well together. And just looking at the unison in the way they dance they obviously, they're very tight group and they've worked very hard to keep that beautiful sense of togetherness.

KATE ARNOTT: The National Ballet of China's first international tour was to Burma in 1961. Since then, the company has travelled to America, Europe, Australia and other parts of Asia.

FENG YING (Translation): Ballet is a Western art form which is new to us. World audiences are not too familiar with us Chinese ballet performers. We hope that by taking our performances out of China more audiences around the globe can get to know us.

KATE ARNOTT: The company has just performed one of China's most famous love stories in Melbourne. Dating back to the Ming Dynasty, the 'Peony Pavilion' explores the power of love over death. It symbolises changes attitudes in China, even 20 years ago the government would not have allowed something that expressed passions and emotions so openly and deeply on the stage.

FENG YING (Translation): We are relatively quite free when it comes to art creation. Art is always the guide.

LI CUNXIN: I am quite surprised from time to time to see the kind of ballets that they've been able to do, the kind of Western choreographers they will be able to invite to choreograph in China.

(Footage of Li Cunxin dancing with the Australian Ballet)

KATE ARNOTT: Li Cunxin defected from China in 1981, eventually ending up with the Australian Ballet. His story is well known from his book 'Mao's Last Dancer', which became an award winning film.

(Footage from 'Mao's Last Dancer')

LI CUNXIN (CHI CHAO): I did not see dancing as an opportunity, nor could I imagine how far I might go.

(Footage of Li Cunxin at the Beijing Dance Academy)

KATE ARNOTT: In his early years at the Beijing Dance Academy, Mr Li studied with the now artistic director of the National Ballet of China, Feng Ying. Later in the year he'll take over the reins at Queensland Ballet and one day hopes the Chinese government will allow Madame Feng to collaborate with him.

FENG YING (Translation): China is under reform and opening up. We should go out and learn from each other. We are looking for a chance to cooperate with other troupes.

LI CUNXIN: I do hope that they will continue to open up and with let's hope with no government political influence. And I don't think that is still the case. So they've still got some way to go.

KATE ARNOTT: In the meantime, the National Ballet of China will continue to establish its own identity and standing on the world stage.

The artistic director acknowledges the company needs to improve its choreography and creativity.

FENG YING (Translation): So far we don't have many young choreographers. But we hosted a work shop in 2010 in search of dancers with a passion and desire to become choreographers. We are also looking for people interested in things like stage design.

KATE ARNOTT: But the biggest immediate challenge for the National Ballet of China is attracting funding.

LI CUNXIN: The Government funding is not increasing, if anything it's decreasing, given the higher than the norm inflationary pressure in China. So consistently the artistic director and her management have to look for company sponsorships and private funding.

KATE ARNOTT: The pursuit of funding can put enormous pressure on the performers.

All professional dancers work hard. But at the National Ballet of China it's an especially gruelling schedule. Dancers train for up to eight hours a day; on top of that, they're a 150 performances a year, far more than Western companies.

FENG YING (Translation): We are giving lots of performances for survival. We have to rely on one-third of the income from the box office to keep the troupe running.

KATE ARNOTT: It's huge dilemma for Madame Feng, who is mindful of the toll such a workload can take on the dancers.

WANG QIMIN (Translation): At times when there are many performances we might get injured or sick. We have to adjust and protect yourselves. You have to do more warm ups before performances to ensure we don't get hurt.

LI CUNXIN: Considering the limited budget they have to work with, and for them to retain the top talents and people to do some really exciting ballets I think they have done a wonderful job.

And I don't think there will be that many people who can actually do it as well as they are currently doing it.
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