LONDON (Reuters) - As a young ballet dancer, Zhao Ruheng would traipse across the Chinese countryside performing a carefully selected repertoire to factory workers and peasants and do her bit for the now notorious cultural revolution.
Although relatively privileged during those dark days, she says that the 1966-76 mass campaign to transform China into a militantly Communist society, which descended into violence, denunciations, purges and warfare, was "a big tragedy."
But as Zhao brings the National Ballet of China to London's prestigious Covent Garden this week, she also recognizes that the cultural revolution ensured the country quickly became aware of ballet, a benefit that is still felt today.
For ballet to maintain its popularity, amid rampant consumerism and competition from new forms of entertainment, it must reinvent itself and rely not only on Western influences but also Chinese traditions.
"The reason ballet in China now is very popular is because of the film 'The Red Detachment'," Zhao said, referring to the film version of the propagandist Chinese ballet "Red Detachment of Women," one of only a handful of plays, operas and ballets allowed from 1966 to 1976.
"Everyone knows it and everyone can dance something from it," she told Reuters in an interview, speaking in English.
At the same time, she added, "tragedy influenced almost each family (during the cultural revolution). "That time I think was a big tragedy."
Zhao, 64, has recounted how the ballet company's conductor hanged himself after being denounced for crimes he did not commit.
She paid a smaller price, injuring her feet while performing outdoors in freezing temperatures, bringing her dancing career to a premature end.
But she has stayed with the national ballet company since its creation 49 years ago, and is now its director.
Zhao understands Chinese ballet cannot rest on its laurels.
"We want to try to find a way to combine Western ballet and Chinese folk dance and Chinese dance together to make a new vocabulary," she said.
During its first visit to the Royal Opera House from July 28 to August 2, the National Ballet of China is performing "Swan Lake" and "Raise the Red Lantern," adapted by director Zhang Yimou from his own film of the same name.
That will be followed by the Guangdong Acrobatic Troupe of China, also making its debut at Britain's most prestigious opera and ballet venue, from August 5-10.
"In order to survive we must find a way to encourage the younger generation and older generation to come to the theatre to see ballet," Zhao said. "I think the big future lies in doing Chinese ballet."
Zhao is struck by the difference between her career as a young dancer and that of ballet stars of today.
"Young people nowadays have everything they want," she said with a smile. "It's like they were raised in honey. But we have one thing in common -- ballet is like a religion to us."
She also believes that contemporary dancers are more practical than 40 or 50 years ago.
"They have seen the world and had their eyes opened. Many of our young dancers choose to go and do further studies. I think this is a very good thing because ballet is a very short career."
Editing by Paul Casciato