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Ballet Review: Raise the Red Lantern

By Cary Wong

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Raise the Red Lantern ***


National Ballet of China at the Brooklyn Academy of Music

October 12, 2005

There are certain images in Zhang Yimou's ballet adaptation of his 1991 masterpiece film Raise the Red Lantern that should remind fans of his cinematic achievements. There's the striking visual of the color-coordinated costumes to delineate groups like in Hero, as well as a beautiful finale with a stage filled with snow that should delight the fans of his House of Flying Daggers. Unfortunately, the movie this stage adaptation most doesn't remind one of is Raise the Red Lantern.

Both the movie and the ballet are based on the novella by Su Tong, and since I haven't read the source material, I am not sure which version is more faithful. Psychologically speaking, the two could not be more different. Both feature an unwilling woman who becomes a concubine for a rich landowner. She finds her spot in the pecking order to be both favored (newest member) and powerless (newest member). The husband makes his choice of wife each night by raising the red lanterns of that house up in a wildly theatrical (and in the case of the unchosen wives, demoralizing) way. In both cases, there are betrayals of one wife towards another, resulting in a death. But even with these similar plot points, the ballet and the movie could not be more different.

The movie was subtle, blazing with envy among the desperate Chinese housewives. It more or less focused on Gong Li as the fourth wife and her manipulation of the other women. There was also a back story involving Gong Li's servant girl and much more focus on the red lanterns (along with foot massages) as a symbol of status. All of this is missing in the ballet presented by the National Ballet of China, which finished a successful U.S. tour at BAM in October. The story hasn't been simplified, but also radically changed. The main character is now the third wife (or second concubine -- depending which way you're keeping score) and she was taken as a wife for this master against her will, mainly because she's in love with a young opera singer. Once at the master's estate, she is rudely welcomed by the other wives and on her first night is basically raped by the Master (who strokes his beard like a silent movie villain). She accidentally runs into the Opera singer during an evening out, and they re-declare their love to each other. Unbeknownst to them, the second wife witnesses this and reports the infidelity to the master. The lovers are sentenced to death along with the second wife (no good deed, I suppose, goes unpunished), but not before the three bond over their fate and the power of love.

There is nothing wrong with the simplified plot of the ballet's version of the story. It's just that the stories are so dissimilar that it is almost false advertising to call it Raise the Red Lantern. The new story works better as a ballet, but by oversimplifying the story to such bare plot points, the uninspired dancing by choreographers Wang Xinpeng and Wang Yuanyun take center stage too often. While beautiful in parts, the dancing is almost perfunctory to director Zhang's visions, and that shouldn't happen in a ballet. Opera or theater may be the domain of visionary directors, but the dancing is always the main point of ballet. When the focus goes horribly askew as it does here, a long stretch of dancing seems like an eternity.

However, still present are the director's images, and they are spectacular. As mentioned, the finale with the snow is plain breathtaking, and should wow an audience and leave them clamoring for more as the curtain falls. There are also vivid images involving shadows and silk screens, a beautiful lantern dance that opens the piece, a wonderful set piece that represents a mah-jongg den, and the powerful, theatrical imagery of torture that will not leave anyone unmoved. These images were so overwhelming that it would probably overshadow the delicacy of the movie story, but it certainly livens the ballet. And since Zhang has moved into a more expressionistic period of filmmaking, it's only natural that his foray into ballet directing (which premiered in China in 2001) would reflect this sensibility.

The cast I saw was more or less the C cast, and no one except for an occasional burst of energy from Jin Jia as the second wife made any lasting character impression. The pre-recorded music by Chen Qigang is more accessible than the haunting, dissonant Chinese opera stylings of film composer Jiping Zhao. A couple of themes were discernible, but not memorable. The physical production was flawless, with brilliant colors punctuating the stage at opportune moments. And the draining of color in the last scene sets up the wonderful climax.

There has been talk of the company having a second tour around the country. Considering its large company and overal inventiveness, it would be a shame to miss. Just don't expect the haunting and crushing blows of the film. The ballet is exciting in many ways, but the film still remains the apex of the Chinese cinema renaissance.

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