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National Ballet of China

‘Raise the Red Lantern’

By Cassandra

November 2003 -- Sadler's Wells, London

In China red is considered the colour of good fortune, but in "Raise the red Lantern" red becomes the symbol of servitude when it indicates the dubious "honour" accorded to the woman chosen to spend the night in her master's bed when a red lantern is positioned outside her door.

Having seen and admired the film of the same name, I have to report that the ballet is entirely different and only the theme of female subjugation remains. Although the film was set in the 1920's, the ballet offers no clues as to when the tragic events on stage take place; in fact the savagery that befalls the unfortunate lovers and the traitorous second wife could easily be assumed to be happening in some distant medieval period. The story in essence is of a young girl sold into marriage against her will, whose enduring love for a young actor is discovered by one of her co-wives. All three are slaughtered by the jealous husband/master.

If there is no sense of time in this ballet there is a wonderful sense of place as walls of patterned screens in the colours of Chinese lacquer wonderfully evoke the claustrophobic atmosphere of a Chinese household. The sets by Jérôme Kaplan become an integral part of the action as the Third Wife is raped beneath a red silk floor cloth, hanging lanterns are ripped apart in a dance of anger and frustration and the murder of the three victims is depicted by blood-soaked clubs slammed against the backcloth like the bloody weal's on the backs of the three being tortured to death.

Clearly there is much creative talent within this company and the packed house and wholehearted applause were well deserved. The two leading dancers on Thursday evening were Wang Qimin and Meng Ningning as the Third and Second Wives respectively. Both were elegant expressive dancers, able to engage the audience's sympathies. As the Third Wife's lover Li Jun was suitably handsome and romantic and Chen Zhiqing as the Master was a suitably unpleasant piece of work. The music by Chen Qigang was an intriguing fusion of east and west played partly on traditional Chinese instruments.

As the ballet was credited with both a producer (Zhang Yimou) and choreographer (Wang Xinpeng), it's impossible to know who was responsible for what, but the actual steps were very conventional and the pas de deux for the dying lovers in their tattered costumes looked rather uncomfortably like Manon and des Grieux in the swamps of Louisiana. Zhang Yimou actually directed the film of "Raise the Red Lantern" too, so presumably he approved the changes to the story line to make the piece more suitable for dance.

One of the most beautiful images in a film full of gorgeous imagery was the scene in which the young wife is taken to the secret pavilion on the roof of the house where she is incarcerated and left to freeze or starve to death. A place where you imagine many other women over the years have shared her fate. It should be a moment of horror, but shot against a winter landscape and through a soft fall of snow it becomes hauntingly lovely. Zhang Yimou is clearly not someone to let a good idea go to waste and the ballet ends with the dead bodies slowly covered by a gentle sprinkling of snow.

Edited by Jeff.

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