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National Ballet of China - 'Raise the Red Lantern'

City Contemporary Dance Company - '365 Ways of Doing and Undoing Orientalism'

by Holly Messitt

October 11, 2005 -- Brooklyn Academy of Music, NYC

October 15, 2005 -- The Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College, NYC

Politicians may debate and fret over China as our newest, and perhaps most formidable, economic rival, but two Chinese dance companies that premiered works in New York during October showed that the Chinese are also a formidable cultural powerhouse.  The National Ballet of China and the City Contemporary Dance Company of Hong Kong both challenged New York audiences’ perceptions of China’s vast culture, with one working directly within Western concepts of China, the other critiquing them.

The National Ballet of China’s “Raise the Red Lantern,” based on the movie of the same title and directed by the same Zhang Yimou, was a lavish production of breath-taking sets designed by Zeng Li and jewel-toned costumes designed by Jerome Kaplan.  Along with the precision of the company’s talented dancers, these sets and costumes flooded the stage with visual beauty, even as the imagery conformed to Western expectations of China.

The production opened with a spectacularly elaborate scrolled ironwork backdrop positioned behind eleven red paper lanterns hanging down over the stage.  The story, choreographed by Wang Xinpeng and Wang Yuanyuan, centers on a young woman, danced by Zhu Yan, who, as second concubine to a brutal master, defies her proscribed role and falls in love with a young man of the court.  Performance highlights of the show included Zhu Yan, dressed in ruby red for most of the performance, in the lead role as second concubine; Meng Ningning, dressed in turmeric, as the first concubine; and Sun Jie as the second concubine’s lover.  The wife, danced by Jin Jia in emerald, and the first concubine danced their roles alternatively as spoiled children vying for their master’s attention and as glowing, graceful projections pleasing to their master’s masculine imagination.  The corps men as court soldiers danced their roles with power and speed demonstrated through running jumps and leaping spins. 

Americans, with our deep beliefs in personal freedoms, are offended by notions of restrictions.  The narrative of “Raise the Red Lantern” played into those sensibilities, and both the first and second halves of the performance ended with brutal scenes of repression.  In the first half, the young ingénue is sold to the court by her peasant mother, but she resists her role and runs from her master, danced by Huang Zhen.  As he is about to take her, a scrim descends over the stage and the master’s shadow is projected as huge and monster-like, towering over the small figure of the girl.  We next see them running in and out of a screen at the back of the stage bursting through the paper as the master chases the girl.  Finally a large red silk cloth descends over the top of the two.  The rape scene takes place as the red silk billows across the stage and the figures of the two dancers only slowly become defined underneath.  The second half of the performance ends with the execution of the first and second concubine and the second concubine’s lover.  As the three huddle together at the center of the stage slowly falling to act out their death, the soldiers slap a white backdrop with large planks covered in red paint.  The noise reverberates throughout the theater and the white backdrop retains the shadow of the whipping through the red slashes left behind. 

In opposition to the lavishness of the National Ballet of China, in a smaller venue uptown, the City Contemporary Dance Company of Hong Kong performed “365 Ways of Doing and Undoing Orientalism.”  Willy Tsao, choreographer and artistic director of the company, critiques the ornate sets and costumes of productions represented by “Raise the Red Lantern,” challenging stereotypes of China and the Chinese through his use of images ranging from fans and flags to swords, sleeves, parasols, and elaborate headdress. Tsao writes in the program notes, “There seems to be a Western perception of Eastern dance – a stereotype of what an Eastern dance or dancer should look like onstage….The misconception that the Western world is ultramodern and the Eastern world is traditionally bound takes a strong hold not only in the minds of most of the western critics and audiences alike, but also in the minds of the government officials with whom I’ve had to deal.” 

Tsao and co-choreographers Xing Liang and Sang Jijia divided “365 Ways of Doing and Undoing Orientalism” into six separate sections within three acts.  The first act, “Earth, Water, Fire, Wind,” focuses on Xing Liang, whose muscular body is emphasized by his minimalist clothing, white gauzy shorts and thin white socks.  As he slowly unfolds from a crouch around a Karin of pebbles and fire I was reminded of DaVinci’s human body in his sinewy balance.  His part emphasizes a stillness that is interrupted by quick, sharp movement.  Though his movement and focus never changes, the stage is interrupted by moments of Western dance, including four men dressed in tuxedos chasing after a woman in a black dress, four women in tutus and black jackets, and one man in black balloon bottoms and a wire top that stretches high above his shoulders as if he were trapped in a cage.  Despite the interruptions, Xing Liang moves continuallly, almost otherworldly, with outstretched arms and legs that make us aware of his strength and humanness. 

The second act is broken into four sections:  “Spring,” “Summer,” “Autumn,” and “Winter.”   This is the longest section of the piece and contains the most obvious of the critique.  As the piece moves in and out of the seasonal sections, the dancers reappropriate stereotypical Chinese props.  Two women, for example, wear an elaborate headdress of pheasant plumes.  In another section the women carry red fans and parasols, and in another section the women wear the undulating long-sleeved tops that seem to embody Chinese dance.  The men, dressed in black-belted robes, wield the sword or wear traditional masks.  In another section, they become the head, middle, and end of a red paper dragon.  While it is difficult in some of these sections to tell the difference between appropriating and reappropriating the props, the difference is made clear in the last section when the dancers carry all the props back out on stage one by one until the company is completely surrounded by these inescapable cultural references and then finally they walk off the stage one by one. 

While the “Winter” of Act II would have been a strong ending, the final act is “Nothingness, Humankind, Heaven, Void.”  In this short section, long, shimmering ropes descend from the ceiling and hang in the darkness.  A scrim comes down the back of the stage and is used as a screen for images:  a lotus flower, Buddhist statuary, a Chinese emperor, and close-ups of the dancers’ bodies as they dance.  Xing Liang returns to the stage but now he looks as small as he did large in the first act.  The piece ends with his stripping down against the image of flames.

Both productions were a joy to watch.  The National Ballet of China, with its elaborate sets and the beauty of its dancers, carried me into the narrative and the movement.  CCDC, however, reminded me not to insist on narrow definitions of Chinese culture, to be aware of how cultural expectations shape our experience of the dance, and to enjoy the range of talent, including those such as the formidable Shen Wei who can fit firmly into Western dance traditions, from this far-reaching culture.

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