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Dancer open to challenging convention

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It's a safe bet that any dancer who lists the spacey Pink Floyd Ballet in his repertoire is going to feel at home in a Q Dance production.

Liang Xing, 25, happens to agree. As one of the three-year old troupe's newest members, the Chinese-born dancer -- who has performed in the avant-garde rock ballet by groundbreaking Roland Petit -- marks his debut in Peter Quanz's innovative ballet company's new mixed repertoire show that opens today.

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"I have learned many things from Peter," the soft-spoken artist, whose first language is Mandarin Chinese, reveals during a rehearsal break. "It's been very positive. And that's one of the reasons why I came here. I wanted to learn more about different kinds of ballet. I wanted to make myself better as an artist."

He'll have that opportunity as Q Dance, billed as a "creative laboratory," unveils its fifth production at the intimate Gas Station Arts Centre this week. Notably, the entire five-show run sold out three months ago, offered for the first time with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet's regular "five-pack" subscription series.

More than 1,000 lucky ballet fans able to secure advance tickets will be treated to two of the renowned choreographer's signature works: Quantz by Quanz and Double Bounce, as well as the world premiere of his new slapstick comedy, Murder Afoot. The 101-minute (including intermission) production will be performed by Q Dance's largest ever, 24-member company, composed of RWB dancers (the two troupes share a supportive, simpatico relationship). It features Anne Armit's costumes with video projections/lighting design by Hugh Conacher.

Previously a principal dancer with the National Ballet of China, the Xinjiang, China-born Xing joined the RWB as a guest artist for the 2013-14 season, arriving in the city from Beijing with his actress wife and eight-month old baby girl in early September to tackle his first lead role as the Commander in The Handmaid's Tale.

Acclaimed for his graceful lines and commanding stage presence, the versatile artist's many accolades include Silver Prize at the prestigious Moscow International Ballet Competition (2009) and silver medal at the Shanghai International Ballet Competition (2007).

"Liang's dancing is just so elegant," Quanz says during an interview. "He always exudes this quality of being relaxed. At the same time, there's this perfection of proportion in his body in how he shapes himself into a classical form that is extraordinary," he adds. "He also has this bright, delightful energy that I thought would work well in a very quirky way in my new piece."

Quanz "instinctively" cast Xing, accustomed to portraying dignified princes and nobles in such classics as Swan Lake and The Nutcracker, as the lip-smacking, pelvic-thrusting, Elvis-esque costume designer in his madcap work. The satirical, 45-minute "play without words" set to a pastiche score is decidedly tongue-in-cheek, hinting at the real-life drama that often runs as an undertow in today's ballet world.

Set in a fictitious company, an ambitious new ballerina (Sophia Lee) is murdered by envious -- and devious -- company members. After Xing's character falls madly in lust with Tristan Dobrowney's cocky principal dancer, the two male dancers deliver an athletic pas de deux that turns romantic ballet convention on its ear.

"The first time it was hard because we had to find each other's balance," Xing says when asked about the duet's artistic and technical challenges. "But the hardest thing is to make the audience trust that my character is in love with the principal dancer, not really with movement but with details -- using my eyes, or measuring his body (with a tape measure)."

As the unique duet's "straight man" -- pun intended -- Dobrowney shares a similar perspective, while simultaneously praising Xing for his easy partnering and good humour.

"Doing all the close and awkward movements while maintaining my composure can be difficult because Liang is extremely funny," he says. "But we made a connection right away and I think our characters play very well off of one another."

Comedy is notoriously hard to pull off. Most classical ballets depict tragic, love-and-loss tales with only a handful, such as Jerome Robbins' The Concert or Sir Frederick Ashton's La Fille mal gardée, daring to be funny. The point is not lost on RWB artistic director André Lewis.

"It's one of the hardest things to do, and do well, and so I was very pleased to see the results," he says after seeing Murder Afoot in rehearsal.

"The work is well-crafted and obviously has a lot of funny moments, but also many technical elements," he elaborates. "I think the audience will love it."

holly.harris@shaw.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 13, 2013 D3

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