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Bringing China to New York, orchestra and all

Wang Qimin, left, and Lu Na of the National Ballet of China perform during a dress rehearsal of the ballet ‘The Peonie Pavilion.’ Photo: The Wall Street Journal

The National Ballet of China doesn’t travel light.

The Beijing company is visiting New York with 180 company members—including 76 orchestra musicians—for performances at the David Koch Theater through Sunday as part of Lincoln Center Festival.

Onstage this week are two full-length ballets, “The Peony Pavilion” and “The Red Detachment of Women,” that are so closely associated with the company, and with Chinese culture, that touring with the orchestra was a necessity.

“It’s like eating Chinese food,” said Artistic Director Feng Ying, who spoke through a translator. “You have to have the original recipes.”

The right ingredients help, too. In this case, that means bringing distinctive instruments such as the bamboo flute, some types of percussion and the “sheng,” which is in the wind family. Finding musicians to play them abroad would be difficult, said Music Director Zhang Yi, also through a translator.

Despite the artistic advantages of traveling with an in-house orchestra, costs can balloon, so even internationally renowned touring ballet companies make do with a local counterpart.

Last month, London’s Royal Ballet performed at the Koch Theater with the orchestra of New York City Ballet instead of bringing its own. City Ballet brings its orchestra on domestic tours, but not international ones.

Lincoln Center Festival has hosted other ballet companies that do bring their musicians along. Last summer, Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet visited with its own orchestra and chorus, which also performed an opera beyond the dance stage.

Nigel Redden, director of Lincoln Center Festival, said the National Ballet of China’s orchestra, like that of the Bolshoi, has a particular way of playing that enhances the pairing of music and movement.

“We wanted to have the company come in its full glory,” said Mr. Redden. “To have the company orchestra do it made much more sense than to try to rehearse an orchestra here.”

It does mean that Lincoln Center has to find hotel rooms for the group—but that, as well as a fee paid to the company, is a standard aspect of presenting, Mr. Redden said. Costs such as flights are often shared with other tour presenters, supporters or national ministries.

“With a company of this size, we are always hoping the government will provide help, and they did,” said Mr. Redden.

The two ballets scheduled for this week are strikingly different, but, said Mr. Redden, “both tell us something about the long history of China.”

“The Peony Pavilion” is an epic love story, set in the Ming Dynasty, about a woman who falls in love with a young scholar in a dream. She dies, only to be resurrected and united with her lover. While some operatic productions can last as long as 18 hours, this ballet was condensed to two hours with the help of a dramaturge.

This 2008 production also melds West and East throughout. The original score, created by composer Guo Wenjing, weaves traditional Chinese sounds with references to the music of Western composers Ravel, Debussy and more.

And while the movement is rooted in classical ballet, the design elements evoke Asia, notably in the costumes by Emi Wada, who won an Academy Award for costume design on the 1985 Akira Kurosawa film “Ran.”

In contrast to the light and lyrical style in “Peony,” “The Red Detachment of Women” glorifies Chinese communism with gun-toting ballerinas wearing military uniforms. Created in 1964, the ballet was famously performed for Richard Nixon during his 1972 visit to China.

“For many Chinese, it is the iconic ballet,” said Mr. Redden, who didn’t shy from presenting the ballet because it reflects “a moment in history.”

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