Art injection

Updated: 2013-09-24 06:41

By Zhang Yue (China Daily)

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A group of students in rural Anxin county were handpicked in February to take part in arts lessons. They are now preparing to stage a performance to show off their new skills. Zhang Yue reports in Hebei province.

It's 10 am on a Sunday, and 12-year-old Li Ziyi from Duancun village in Anxin county, Hebei province is practicing the basic movements of ballet in the dance studio at a middle school with 17 of her peers.

She practices splitting her legs. As her legs stretch wider, she feels increasing pain. "Our teacher told us in the first lesson that if you feel pain, you may shed tears. But you should not cry out loud," she says.

This is her 21st ballet class this year. She took her first in February. Bearing her teacher's words in mind, Li and her peers, all girls, are practicing Dance of the Four Little Swans.

This is a group dance that is usually performed by girls who have learned ballet for more than five years.

Though the girls have not fully mastered the technique of standing on their toes, they are enjoying the beauty of the performing art with excitement.

Before February, Li spent most of her weekends playing with her friends and watching TV at home.

Then, a group of about 20 teachers and students from Beijing Dance Academy, Central Conservatory of Music and the National Ballet of China, gave the children the chance to try something different.

They have since visited the village every weekend to give the children free classes namely ballet, drama, symphony (which includes violin, horn and drum), painting and choir.

Li Feng, a 58-year-old investor in Beijing, initiated the idea of bringing art classes to rural China. Duancun is his ancestors' hometown. Li Feng's elder brother donated money to build a primary school in Anxin county several years ago.

Having spent his childhood in well-equipped schools in Beijing and learned the violin as a teenager, Li Feng says art education is important for a person's lifelong development. He owns an investment company in Beijing and has invested in many art exhibitions and publications.

All the expenses of the weekly art teaching program are sponsored by Hefeng Art Foundation, which Li Feng founded with 2 million yuan ($326, 800).

When he visited three primary schools in Anxin county in 2012, he was shocked that the schools did not provide art lessons.

"One reason is that local schools do not have the money to buy enough equipment. But the root cause is that it's never easy to employ art teachers in rural areas," Li says.

"And parents do not see the need to spend on such kind of education. The first time we met local villagers and tried to spread the idea of free art classes, the crowd was so quiet and nobody even raised a question, because what we were talking about sounded strange to them."

The village relies on growing corn and wheat as well as tourism because of its location, which is near the picturesque Baiyangdian Lake.

While most of the symphony and painting lessons were conducted by college students, ballet was taught by Guan Yu and his wife Zhang Ping, two professional teachers from the ballet department of Beijing Dance Academy.

Guan, 42, vividly remembers the day he met the girls for the first time.

Eighteen girls stood in a freezing classroom wearing heavy, colorful jackets, waiting for the class to begin. The classroom was not heated.

Having taught ballet for more than 20 years in various universities and performed in some of the best theaters worldwide, Guan was speechless at the scene, as the girls looked at him with their eyes full of hope and excitement.

The 18 girls were selected from more than 100 applicants from three primary schools.

Li Feng recalls the day when parents brought their children to him for the audition. "It was like the art test of the college entrance exam," he says.

The children and their parents have to start with the basics. Guan and Zhang's first ballet class started with stressing to the parents and children that they had to take off their shoes before entering the dance studio.

During their second class, Guan taught the parents how to help their girls to do up their hair.

"This is something that I have never done before," he says of that eventful day.

"The girls do almost anything that we tell them to 100 percent, no matter how hard it is."

Li Ziyi now spends her weekends taking ballet classes, and practices ballet two hours a day at home after school, on a yoga mat donated to every child by the foundation. Like many girls in rural areas, she is very shy and not talkative in front of strangers. But upon asking the question, "Do you love ballet?", her eyes light up.

"Very much," she says, smiling brightly.

Li Jiapei is a 20-year-old junior from the Central Academy of Music, majoring in the violin, an instrument she has been learning since she was 6.

Before volunteering as a teacher in Duancun, she used to spend her weekends teaching children or performing at weddings, which earns her about 200 yuan an hour.

The teaching condition in the village is not as desirable as Beijing, but Li says she enjoys the opportunity of experiencing countryside life.

Chen Guang, a professor of trumpet from the Central Conservatory of Music, has been motivating the university's students to participate in the teaching program from day one.

"Almost all our students have gone through strict training for at least 10 years in music before entering college, because the competition is so fierce," Chen says. "But whenever we ask our students to imagine about the wild, they can hardly picture anything. Most of them have never been there."

On Sept 28, all the students from the three villages in Anxin County will move into a new boarding school that Hefeng Art Foundation co-founded with the local government.

Art education will continue there, where a fully-equipped dance studio and music room have been built. The children's performances will include choir, ballet dancing, drama and symphony on the opening night of the boarding school. It will be the first-ever stage performance for the children there.

"I dreamed about learning a musical instrument as a teenager, but it was something impossible for us in the rural area," says Li Fang, mother of a 9-year-old girl who has been taking violin classes with the foundation for three months. "I am so excited about my daughter's upcoming performance that it's keeping me awake at night!"

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 Art injection

Students practice instrumental ensemble on the bank of Baiyangdian Lake in Anxin county, Hebei province. Photos by Wang Jing / China Daily

 Art injection

Hefeng Art Foundation founder Li Feng (middle) on a boat in Baiyangdian Lake with other members of his art education project.

 Art injection

Students prepare to rehearse a ballet performance in the dance studio at a middle school in Anxin county.

(China Daily USA 09/24/2013 page9)