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Tiptoeing around China's ire

By Greg Barns - posted Wednesday, 8 February 2006

What is it about ballet dancers and politics? During the cold war, the defection of Russian ballet dancers to the West - most famously Rudolf Nureyev in 1961 - was a regular feature of the political landscape. Such defections were viewed by Western politicians as useful propaganda events to signal the west's superiority over the Soviet system.

While the cold war is long gone - the dust from the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 has long since settled - ballet dancers and politics are once again odd bedfellows. This time it's in the context of the Sino-Australian diplomatic relationship.

For Robert Curran and Lucinda Dunn, who dance with Australia's leading company, the Australian Ballet, the past few weeks have been fraught with difficulty. In the past 10 days, they have withdrawn from performing in a global broadcast in Sydney next month being organised by the New York-based New Tang Dynasty Television (NTDTV) network.


It broadcasts to Chinese communities in the United States, Europe, Australia and Asia, including Hong Kong. But Beijing takes a dim view of the network, claiming that it is linked to the banned Falun Gong spiritual group.

None of this would matter except that Curran and Dunn are due to form part of an Australian Ballet tour to China later this year. And the last thing that the Australian Government or the Australian Ballet wants is to jeopardise that tour.

Perhaps that is why Curran and Dunn went to ground so quickly - neither would comment to the media - after withdrawing from the NTDTV Global Gala. It is slated for broadcast in 17 cities around the world on February 18. The Australian Ballet's executive director, Richard Evans, was also keen to play down the incident. The decision of his two dancers to withdraw from the NTDTV event was their own, and the Australian Ballet has had no "direct involvement with the event or the dancers'" participation, Mr Evans said last month.

But this incident is not an isolated one in the context of Sino-Australian cultural initiatives. In October last year, Wang Xue-jun, who dances with the Sydney Dance Company, was deported from China.

Wang, participating in a collaboration between the Sydney Dance Company and the Shanghai Song and Dance Ensemble, was detained and deported after admitting to Chinese authorities that he was a Falun Gong practitioner and carrying two books critical of the lack of political freedom on the mainland.

One might have expected that the incidents involving Wang, Curran and Dunn would ensure howls of outrage from the Australian government and dance community. But there has been a notable silence from both camps, and the media has not pursued these controversies.


From the Australian Government's perspective, these isolated incidents must not be allowed to jeopardise the bigger picture.

A large-scale, three-year collaboration involving 2,500 artists from China and Australia is about to begin, and next year Sydney will host a major survey of Chinese art. Culture is a useful diplomatic tool. And, for cash-strapped arts companies like the Australian Ballet and the Sydney Dance Company, tours to China open new markets and audiences.

How times have changed. Forty years ago, ballet dancers who defected from the Soviet Union to the West were regarded as heroes. But today, Australian dancers who cause a diplomatic flurry are a problem that their masters wish would just go away.

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First published in the South China Post on February 4, 2006.

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Greg Barns is National President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

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