>raise the red lantern by national ballet of china
>reviewed by malcolm tay
2 nov 2002
RAISE THE RED LANTERN is not the National Ballet of China's newest production - that would be Ben Stevenson's 'The Fountain of Tears', which premiered in China last month - but it is perhaps the company's most challenging work thus far. Set in 1930s China, it is a simplified, romanticised version of Zhang Yimou's film, a sumptuous theatrical spectacle that tells a tragic love story; I don't think the ballet was ever meant to recreate the film's searing socio-political commentary.
In RED LANTERN, a young woman in love with a Beijing opera actor is forced to marry an old feudal lord; the two wives he already has aren't too hot about the idea, but receive the new bride nonetheless. With his three wives, the lord indulges in opera and mahjong; the third wife inadvertently meets her opera-actor boyfriend, and they secretly rekindle their love. The jealous second wife chances upon this affair and, hoping to regain the master's affection, tells on the third wife. Subsequently, the lord catches the two lovers red-handed; however, he doesn't appreciate his second wife's efforts. Stricken by despair, the second wife destroys the red lanterns in the yard and is discovered by the first wife. At the execution ground, the three transgressors reconcile before they receive their fatal punishment.
Along with Zeng Li's stately sets, Wang Xinpeng's classically functional choreography, and Chen Qigang's Chinese opera-inflected score, RED LANTERN departs considerably from the film. For one thing, the characters have no names - in the libretto and cast list, the feudal lord is simply "the master", the first wife is just "first wife" and so on - which I find rather odd. There are only three wives in the ballet (in the film there are four), the third wife being the ill-fated protagonist; inter-wife politics have been significantly reduced, focusing on the forbidden love between the third wife and the Beijing opera actor. There is no adulterous family doctor, no spooky death house, no delusional maid.
Besides being fronted by a group of brilliant principals and soloists, the National Ballet of China has a nicely drilled corps de ballet. Wielding portable lanterns by the stick, the women gently weave into circles and straight lines in the Overture; as fan- and hankie-toting attendants of the first and second wives in Act I, they knit their way through girlish, gossipy steps. Clad in Jerome Kaplan's gorgeous cheongsams, dancing on point never looked more attractive. The men don't appear all that much in this ballet, but as the master's black-uniformed minions, they exert a strong, severe presence.
>>'It is a simplified, romanticised version of Zhang Yimou's film, a sumptuous theatrical spectacle that tells a tragic love story.'
Courtesy of the China Beijing Opera Theatre, an extract from 'Changbanpo' is performed with musicians onstage for the entertainment of the master and his three wives in Act II. Here, the opera performance isn't just a mere divertissement; it offers the third wife and the Beijing opera actor (Li Jun), who happens to be in the troupe performing for the master and his entourage, an opportunity to reunite. Their renewed passion for each other is foregrounded as the rest of the stage action proceeds in slow motion. Li is a solid partner who should be doing more than what the choreography allows. But even as the third wife is lifted high in the air or leaps into her lover's arms, there is little ecstasy in their duet; sexual abandon is a luxury they cannot afford, not even in private.
At this point
in Act II, the second wife (played excellently by Jin Yao) discovers their
secret, slyly treading and twirling around the couple. A hankie-waving
flirt in a high-slit yellow cheongsam, she's nothing like the mature
first wife (Jin Jia), a reserved figure in her long green cheongsam; smartly
bearing a silk fan, the most senior wife feels only mildly threatened
by the newest member of the household. In Act III, the second wife waits
for the lovers to sneak away for sex before she literally points them
out to the master. Contrary to expectations, he rewards her efforts with
a tight slap. Her mounting insecurity eating into her, she rips up the
rows of lanterns in the yard, symbols of the master's favour.
for all its flaws, is a splendid production that deserves revisiting.
Perhaps it wouldn't hurt for Zhang and his artistic team to consider
restaging the ballet following some revision. After all, a great ballet
isn't always declared a masterpiece on its very first run.