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National Ballet of China.


FOR ITS return tour to London after an absence of seventeen years, the National Ballet of China brought a uniquely Chinese full-length ballet that was premiered in Beijing in 2001, and was slightly revised earlier this year. Raise the Red Lantern was based on the 1991 award-winning film of the same name directed by Zhang Yimou, who is also the director of this ballet. The choreography is a joint effort by Yimou, Wang Xinpeng, and Wang Yuanyuan. The score blends Chinese and Western music composed by Qigang Chen.

The story, which was modified by Zhang for this ballet, takes place in still-feudal society in China in the 1920s, and centers on the life of a beautiful girl, who is sold by her mother to a much older man to be his third wife. A row of red lanterns is lit outside the home of one of the master's wives every night, to designate which wife the master is honoring with his presence. The jealous second wife tips off the master about the new wife's secret liaison with a Peking Opera actor, and the master condemns all three to death in a fit of rage.

The drama is clearly narrated in two acts in the ballet. The first act is tight, but the second act has some obvious padding, and suffers from longueurs as well as moments that are simply not believable, especially a scene in which the second wife begs for forgiveness from the betrayed.

The choreography overall is sound though not particularly inspired or inventive. The several pas de deux for the heroine and her lover have a limited assortment of steps and plenty of identical lifts. The most pleasing is the pas de deux at the end of Act 1, where the dancing is mirrored by a couple of Peking opera singers who are performing for the master. This scene is ideal to show a Western audience some extracts from traditional Peking Opera, reminiscent of the opera solo in Kenneth MacMillan's ballet Mayerling.

Fortunately Zhang Yimou's theatrics are more impressive than the choreography. The scene when the heroine is raped by the master on the wedding night is cleverly depicted in a shadowplay: Shadows of the master and his new bride are projected onto a big white paper wall, which the bride later breaks through several times to escape from her husband. But then the bride emerges from a vast red fabric totally emotionless, with not a hair out of place. And the mahjong game scene at the end of the first act is simply ridiculous, with dancers moving on top of the game tables. The execution scene at the end of the ballet is artfully presented. A gang of violent thugs uses red flails to repeatedly thrash a white screen, leaving red marks that symbolize the torture of the new wife and her lover. The tragic ending is atmospheric, with snow falling on a procession of women carrying red lanterns.

The dancers on opening night were superb. Zhu Yan, an exquisite long-limbed dancer in her mid-twenties, movingly danced the heroine.

Meng Ningning was compelling as the second wife. The scene when she goes insane is worthy of the mad scene in Giselle, and her wickedness would make her an ideal Gamzatti in La Bayadere. Sun Jie danced the opera singer with dignity. Zeng Li deserves praise for the sumptuous sets, and Jerome Kaplan for the opulent costumes. The one-week season in London was sold out.
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Title Annotation:Raise the Red Lantern
Author:Ng, Kevin
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Dance Review
Date:Mar 1, 2004
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