Guan Yu, a professor with Beijing Dance Academy, and Zhang Ping, his wife and a choreographer, have traveled between Beijing and Duancun, a village in Anxin, a county in North China's Hebei Province, during weekends for the past six years. They teach children in the village how to perform ballet. The couple has established an art bridge for the rural children, and that is helping the children broaden their horizons.
Beijing Hefeng Art Foundation initiated an arts-promotion project in Duancun in 2013. The purpose of the project is to provide arts education to rural students who have limited access to the arts in Duancun. The foundation has arranged for teachers and students from some universities, including the Central Conservatory of Music, Beijing Dance Academy and Beijing Normal University, to provide free lessons in the arts, including orchestral music, the ballet and the fine arts.
Guan and Zhang are the ballet teachers. "I hope the arts can be a part of the lives of rural children. It is a great pity that a person cannot listen to the music of Tchaikovsky all of his/her life. Most children in rural areas do not have the opportunity to study the arts. I hope arts education will equip children with confidence and self-respect, and that it will help them change their lives," says Guan.
Initially, the ballet education did not go well. Even though the ballet lessons were free, the villagers did not know why their children should learn ballet. Guan and Li Feng, founder of the foundation, went door to door to visit families, and they encouraged parents to let their daughters study ballet. "There was no use in explaining the charm of ballet and the Renaissance to them. I told them that girls would become beautiful after they learned ballet. Then, the villagers allowed their children to learn ballet," recalls Guan.
Now, Guan and Zhang are famous in Duancun. Nearly all of the residents in nearby villages know them. The couple has not only brought arts education to the rural children, but they have established a channel for them, through which they can change their destinies.
Every Sunday, Guan and Zhang leave their home at 7:30 am, and they drive 166 kilometers to Duancun. They arrive at the village at about 10 am. They give two ballet lessons, and each lesson lasts for two hours. They return to Beijing at about 4 pm.
"The distance of 166 kilometers is the distance between Duancun and the arts. The village cannot 'walk' toward me. So, I go to the rural area. I love the work. When I see the eager eyes of the children, my mind becomes clear. Duancun is similar to an experimental plot, and I hope to 'plough' the land in a deep way," says Guan.
During the past six years, Guan has invited some ballet teachers, a ballet professor from University of Nice-Sophia Antipolis (in France) to Duancun.
"I hope the pupils in Duancun will learn the arts from different countries. I often bring children to Beijing, and guide them as they visit exhibitions and perform ballet in public. They have participated in classic arts lectures, held by the National Centre for the Performing Arts. They have also performed ballet at Peking University Hall. The arts do not belong to some particular groups. We can please ourselves through the arts. Everyone can 'own' the arts," Guan says.
Guan and Zhang helped children in Duancun participate in the North China Five Provinces (Municipalities and Autonomous Regions) Dance Contest in 2016. They won first prize in the children's category. The couple has also helped the children study ballet in arts schools. They have invited teachers from some arts schools, including the National Ballet of China and the Hebei Vocational Art College (HVAC), to enroll students from Duancun.
Now, some of the children are studying ballet in arts schools. In September 2016, Ma Yue enrolled at the ballet school affiliated with the Liaoning Ballet of China. Liu Yetong and Zhu Bingrui were enrolled by HVAC. "They were the first group of children from Duancun to be enrolled by art schools in Hebei or other provinces. In the past, that was unimaginable for the villagers," says Guan.
Like Spring, Like a Rainbow
What have the couple and the ballet brought to the village? The couple has helped the children change their destinies.
Wang Xuya is from an underprivileged family. Wang's mother suffers from cancer. The ballet has become a beam of light that lit up her life. She is now studying ballet at Shijiazhuang Arts School. The couple and some loving people pay the tuition fees and living expenses for her.
Of the children, Ma Yue has the best physical stature; she has long legs, and she is a natural ballet performer. She dances well, and she studies well. She often finishes first in examinations. However, she failed the entrance exams for the National Ballet of China and the Affiliated Secondary School of Beijing Dance Academy. Guan and Zhang helped her enroll in the ballet school affiliated with Liaoning Ballet of China. Ma's former ballet dress and shoes are displayed in the school's exhibition hall. She sets a good example for all of the children in Duancun.
Only a few girls in Duancun have been enrolled by art schools. Most of their classmates do not have good physical statures, and they cannot pass the entrance exams of the arts schools. Even though these children cannot become professional ballet dancers in the future, the ballet has still changed their lives. "Every day, what I should do is arranged in good order. I am clear what dance movements I should practice, and what exercises I should finish. My life is meaningful," says Li Xinyi, a friend of Ma.
Wang Jiacun is a left-behind child. Her parents are working in Beijing, and they have not returned to see her for a long time. Guan and Zhang asked Wang Jiacun to study ballet. They often look after her. Wang Jiacun said it seemed that she was dancing on a rainbow when she was studying ballet. Guan and Zhang give warmth to the local children, and the children often call them "Father Guan" and "Mother Zhang." Zhuzhu, a student, said ballet was "like the most beautiful spring."
Duancun is now part of Xiong'an New Area, which was established in Hebei in April 2017. Photos of Guan and the children in Duancun were included in a video, which was used to introduce Xiong'an to the world. In the future, more resources will be allocated by Xiong'an to promote arts education in rural areas.
"As a pioneer in promoting arts education in rural areas, I have a sense of mission. My wife and I initiated a project to bring dances to impoverished villages where people of ethnic groups inhabit. I hope to bring civilization to the rural areas, and to help excavate and protect the valuable art resources there. The Belt and Road Initiative has helped us go abroad, to Vietnam and Myanmar, and we can use the arts to change the world," says Guan.
(Source: Women of China English Monthly August 2018 issue)