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National Ballet of China

Raise the Red Lantern

by Stuart Sweeney

August 1, 2008 -- Royal Opera House, London

The ballet, “Raise the Red Lantern”, comes with an unusual pedigree: not only is it an adaptation of a film, but both these interpretations have the same director, Zhang Yimou, and there is no doubt in my mind that this is a key ingredient in its success. Not only do we get crystal clear, yet innovative story-telling methods, but an astonishingly rich visual palette from one of the leading film directors working today. And in the time since the National Ballet of China brought the ballet to London, Zhang Yimou has directed the spectacular and artistically satisfying Olympic Games Opening Ceremony from Beijing.

In the programme notes, the director explains the necessity of reducing the story to its key elements to accord with a dance framework: a beautiful young woman is sent against her will to be the second concubine of a rich Master, but unexpectedly encounters her former lover, a Peking Opera actor. The two meet in secret to renew their relationship, but are observed and betrayed by the jealous first concubine, who, rather than reinforcing her position by her betrayal, finds she is undermined; in anger, she shreds the red lanterns that announce which of his wives the Master will choose each night, and seals her own execution alongside the lovers.

The narrative unfolds employing classical ballet, Chinese dance – sometimes raised on pointe – and Peking Opera, accompanied by an eclectic score by Chen Qigang to match these varied styles. The designs by Zeng Li are both beautiful and serve the drama well: paper walls burst open by the new bride as she seeks in vain to escape her lustful Master; gaming tables transform into mahjong tiles as a backdrop to a passionate pas de deux. The final scene of stylised execution has the Master's soldiers furiously beating a white background with long poles, ending in blood red pads. As the crimson marks multiply with the sharp crack of contact with the board, the three prisoners collapse at the front of the stage – a disturbing and unforgettable scene, augmented by a final, slowly thickening snowfall.

However, the choreography by Wang Xinpeng and Wang Yuanyuan is of variable quality: the female corps de ballet sections are often dull, yet the choreography for the male corps is the most effective macho dancing I have seen, enhanced by perfectly synchronised performances. While there are too many développés and spins for the principals, the dancers generate much emotion, whether it is the violence of the wedding night, the passionate duets for the illicit lovers, the anguish of the first concubine, played by Meng Ningning, or the reconciliation of the three before their execution. Zhu Yan as the Second Concubine steals the show with her clean, elegant dancing, exquisite line and powerful stage presence.

Overall, with its dramatic and visual qualities, combined with the high performance standards of The National Ballet of China, “Raise the Red Lantern” is one of the most successful ballet theatre productions of the past decade.

Although set in the feudal society of 1920's China, when the Master has absolute power over his family and servants, there is a deep resonance for me in the human rights concerns of the work: individual freedom and justice. Zhang Yimou was asked in the programme interview why he always favours historic stories. He responded cautiously: “ is more difficult when dealing with present day topics.” Whereas a work dealing with some of the many human rights problems of present day China would be out of the question, related themes from the Imperial era can be safely addressed, without drawing the attention of the government censors. I look forward to the day when a great artist like Zhang Yimou has the freedom to address the full range of themes and issues which concern him.

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