>raise the red lantern by national ballet of china

>reviewed by malcolm tay

>date: 2 nov 2002
>time: 8pm
>venue: the esplanade theatre
>rating: ***1/2

>tired already? go home then
>review junkie? whitney, give them this click to sniff

>look, we know that you need to know that we, as responsible reviewers, have some quantifiable categories to rate productions, and are not just relying on some undefinable instinct or gut feeling. So to put your mind at ease, we will give you a logical rating system based on the practitioner's vision / and the reviewer's response of a particular production. Here it is then: ***** : Transcendent / Rapturous. ****: Crystal / Appreciative. ***: Transmitted / Thoughtful. **:Vague / Unsatisfied. * : Uncommunicated / Mystified. Yet in the end, you will feel that this is (1) a cheap attempt to justify the subjective arbitrariness of our rating system (2) buttressed by an interest in the logical (and inevitable) categorisation of such productions, which is (3) undermined by the cheapness of the attempt, and (4) confused by the creeping feeling you are getting that we are dead serious in our feeling that this rating system is an accurate description of the content, intent and quality of the production. Oh please -- does it even matter now? Look, at least we tried.


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.'

You are first introduced to the third wife-to-be (see, this is when character names would be helpful) in the Overture, danced by Wang Qimin on this night, a shy schoolgirl in a modest white dress. Her arms softly curving and grasping the space ahead of her, she longs for a happy, simple life. When she returns to this solo later in the ballet, her dreams remain the same, but have grown more distant and unattainable. Before she is unceremoniously boxed into the bridal sedan by four men, she dances into the arms of her remembered lover, who appears in full armour. Wang is lovely to watch, a willowy dancer with a mean arabesque.

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.

Two scenes in RED LANTERN, for good reasons or otherwise, have become somewhat famous. Towards the end of Act I, there is the rape scene, where the third wife struggles in vain against Chen Zhiqing's greasy, smarmy feudal lord in the nuptial chamber. Their entangled silhouettes expand and shrink against a large screen. Rejecting the lord's advances, she bursts through the screen, and does it again and again. (After the third or fourth time, it began to look faintly ridiculous; somehow, I don't suppose this was the intended effect.) The deed is done under an enormous sheet of scarlet fabric, spilling over the stage like a sea of blood. Wrapping herself in the cloth, she sadly accepts her fate.

And in the latter half of Act II, there is the mahjong scene, the purpose of which I don't quite get. With several tables placed onstage, four players at each table, circling their outstretched arms in space while the ballet's Symphony Orchestra mimics the sound of shuffling mahjong tiles - not surprisingly, the audience found this very amusing. Then, the tables are assembled in the centre and the ensemble stamp around in sharp, abrupt movements as dancers gather atop the tables. Emerging from under the tables, the Beijing opera actor touches the third wife's foot from behind as the second wife looks on; the two lovers are frozen in this position just before the curtain is lowered for the interval, and the ballet resumes from this moment in time.

Come the Finale, the three sinners, now stripped down to cream-coloured unitards, are brought to the execution ground, where the remorseful second wife begs for the couple's forgiveness, and the third wife dances her last pas de deux with the Beijing opera actor. Moulding shapes of togetherness, the doomed couple tenderly reinstate their love for each other. With the master and the first wife in attendance, the executioners batter a white-panelled wall relentlessly with their red-tipped staves, leaving behind blood-red stripes; the three stagger and writhe in pain until the thrashing finally stops. Their lifeless bodies lie in a heap, decorated by a light snowfall. Indelible.

RED LANTERN, 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.