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National Ballet of China - 'Raise the Red Lantern'

by Toba Singer

September 15, 2005 -- Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, California

What a bold experiment! The National Ballet of China invited the award-winning director, Zhang Yimou, to adapt his film, “Raise the Red Lantern” for the ballet stage. There have been a number of “novelizations” of films into books, but this is my first exposure to a film that has been made into a ballet. According to a company press release, the dancers, at first skeptical about the project, were quickly won over, and now treasure “Raise the Red Lantern” as a precious jewel in the company’s repertoire.

In front of a curtain displaying what look like approximately 48 large blocks, an old man appears carrying a long staff. He lifts the staff toward the blocks, illuminating what change into 48 lanterns. The curtain of lanterns rises, and the dancers enter carrying more lanterns, and form a circle in front of a backdrop of black lace panels. As they lower the lanterns, a reedy voice rises, so reedy that you are not sure that it is a human voice. It could be a stringed instrument. Other instruments support the voice in a contrapuntal rhythm. The dancers begin a ceremonial dance that derives its balletic quality from long-limbed ballonnés and enveloppés danced en relevé. There are no dancers with flagging technique. Each member of the company is to be admired in perfectly tailored costumes that never move against the choreography. Zhang Jian, enters, carrying a suitcase. She wears a dress with a white bodice and long-waisted fitted gray skirt. She picks up the contrapuntal rhythm, opening her supple spine in bright gestures suggesting that an awakening is imminent. She has been pledged to the master of the house as his second concubine.

The Second Concubine has entered a house where there are rivalries between the First Wife (Lu Na) and the First Concubine (Jin Jia), which reveal themselves as they dance a pas de trois with the Master of the House (Yang Lei). Lu Na, wearing a green silk 1930s pencil dress, dances with a chilling hauteur that succeeds in instantly diminishing the stature of her rival. The corps dancers arrive onstage carrying carved wood screens about half the size of their bodies. These are parried like shields, as the ensemble boxes each woman into her own private, minimally modular hell, demonstrating the machinations of the house, a motor wound around its insular politics and the whims of its master.

If the story so far seems trivial or parochial, its gravity is established when a complement of soldiers appears onstage. Here is the muscle that can be counted on to enforce a suffocating social system granting no quarter to women. The soldiers dance in a ballet/martial arts style, informed by very Russian elevation in their jumps. It all works splendidly to portray them as cogs in a reliable and well-oiled machine, heartless and potentially unforgiving in response to any challenge to what is, after all, a 2000-year-old way of life.

The Second Concubine is welcomed into the house by the women rivals, and then promptly raped by her new master. In the course of her stay, she runs into a former lover, an actor with the Peking Opera, with whom she takes up and makes up for lost time. She is observed in her activities and betrayed to her master by the First Concubine, whose roiling resentments have rendered her rotten, ripe for being the agent of such malfeasance.

The eye and hand of film director Zhang Yimou are evident throughout, and yet, instead of stealing the show, he dresses its deftness in cinematic splendor. If it is not considered balletic “enough,” perhaps that is because it relies in large part on artful prop manipulation, and steps that are more like poses interrupted by movement, employing mimetic and operatic devices to tell the story. Swaying hips carry the theme of intrigue from scene to scene. Penchées and developpés are there to punctuate, rather than overwhelm, and so balances are held briefly because the story keeps moving, and the gorgeously stretched and sculpted feet of Zhang Jian spirit it to its tragic dénouement. Each segment is short, compact and deliberate, so that it has more the feel of an operetta than a story ballet.

Still, there is time given to “moments,” such as when the Second Concubine steps forward, dressed in an exquisite burgundy silk costume, embossed with gold rectangles. She is filled with longing, and takes the time to show us. Her longing will be violated and misappropriated in short order by the Master of the House, in a scene so richly dramatic that it may not have an equal in the dance genre. Parents who pride themselves on the vigilance with which they “protect” their young from scenes of sex and violence in the arts, may want to give themselves permission to allow their children to glimpse this one. It may not come this way again in life. A persimmon sash is used to loop the Second Concubine into the lair of the Master of the House.

The action suddenly moves behind translucent rice paper screens, and they appear larger than life, as if they were shadow puppets of themselves. The silhouetted dancers engage in a struggle, where she desperately pulls away from him and claws the air hoping to find egress from his depredations. Anyone who has been the victim of sexual mistreatment is fully identifying and in the moment with the Second Concubine. The master conquers her, and they burst through the rice paper, her submission suffused by a river of persimmon silk that eclipses the stage in waves. The Second Concubine emerges from the center of it, drawing the now-hapless fabric to her, a futile gesture, because while luxuriant, it is fatuously incapable of offering solace or comfort, under the circumstances.

There are elegant touches, such as the two lovers dancing passionately, though unobserved, by elders seated around a table gossiping, as they play Mah Jong in an adjacent niche. When two couples dance in front of a daïs, in place of its skirt, there is a veneer of giant Mah Jong tiles. It is as if the characters on the tiles—with their obscurantist identities and authority—merit an exaggerated place of importance as ceremonial guests of honor, presiding over a feudal order that harbors chaos. To enact the execution of the lovers and their betrayer, soldiers bang giant batons against the backdrop. Each loud bang splashes a life-sized gash of blood-like red paint on the scrim, until the executed fall to their deaths.

If National Ballet of China comes to your town, see it! Bring as many generations as possible. The excesses of Maoism have been justly exposed and rejected. Among those doing the exposing and rejecting, there are some who would like to see a return to pre-revolutionary times, without knowing much about the feudal excesses that prompted the Chinese Revolution. It could be that they’ve metaphorically wandered into the movie after it has started. “Raise the Red Lantern” offers everyone a rare go at the many-storied prequel. Don’t miss it!

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