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Flash Flashback, 9-16: Killing the Concubines
National Ballet of China's 'Red Lantern' Raises the Ante

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2003, 2005 The Dance Insider

Editor's Note: To celebrate its fifth anniversary of being online, the Dance Insider is revisiting its Flash Review Archives. This Flash Review originally appeared on November 25, 2003. The National Ballet of China's production of "Raise the Red Lantern" receives its American premiere tonight at Cal Performances's Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley, California, where it continues through Sunday.

PARIS -- With "Raise the Red Lantern," the ballet, seen Sunday at the Theatre du Chatelet and directed and lit by the director of the film of the same name, Zhang Yimou, with choreography by Wang Xinpeng and Wang Yuanyuan, the National Ballet of China exorcises the Orientalism mite that has infested the story ballet for more than 100 years, projecting a new vision of ballet spectacle that authentically merges 'Western' classical ballet approaches with a modicum of traditional Asian flavor.

Founded in 1959, China's oldest company has, as Judith Mackrell pointed out in the Guardian earlier this month, "historically been split between two traditions: the classics imported from Soviet Russia and the ideological fairy-tales enforced by Madame Mao. Between 'Swan Lake' and 'The Red Detachment of Women' there's been little middle ground."

In France, which is celebrating the Year of China through next July, we've got "The Red Detachment of Women," too, in film clips shown earlier this year as part of the "Alors, La Chine?" exhibition at the Pompidou Center, and, on tour throughout the country, from the National Ballet of China. For the company's Paris engagement, we lucked out with "Raise the Red Lantern," called here "Epouses & Concubines," after the title of the Su Tong novel on which the film was based.

If the ballet is not overtly didactic, its ultimate raison d'etre might be perceived to be so, in a Communist China context. The story here concerns a young woman, identified just as the "Second Concubine" in the program (Zhang Jian in the cast I saw) who becomes the reluctant if not out-and-out unwilling second concubine to "The Master" of the house, joining a household already rife with tension between "The Wife" (Hou Honglan) and "The First Concubine" (Jin Yao). After a wrenching wedding night, consummated under a stage-covering sheet of red silk, a Peking Opera troupe comes to town and, low-and-behold, the lead actor (Hou Qingfeng) is the Second Concubine's childhood sweetheart. There's a backstage liaison, in which the lovers are discovered by the First Concubine; a particularly loaded (and I'm not talking about the dice) pas de quatre for the two concubines and the two men over, on, and around the mah-jong tables; another liaison; a couple of betrayals; three unfair death sentences, and (I think) resurrection through redemption.

The choreography and Chen Qigang's score are essentially on the Western model -- this is a ballet company, so that's the palette. But the vocabulary for a story ballet can be inflected by the story's milieu, and that's what happens here -- selectively. Instructively, instead of being triggered every time a Chinese dancer is on stage -- as was the fate of the Asian dancer in Josef Nadj's recent "Il n'y a plus de firmament,"" here the Peking Opera cymbals, and high-pitched Peking Opera singing, are used sparingly and when the situation calls for it -- for example, the performance within the performance of the Peking Opera troupe. As for the gestures, there's some use of the angled wrists and pointing fingers from Peking Opera, but otherwise, in not just the dance but also the mime sequences, the dancers pretty much express themselves in classical ballet vocabulary, albeit sometimes contemporized. (The original choreographer, Wang Xingpeng, studied modern dance choreography with the Folkwanghochschule d'Essen in Germany after growing up in the Peking Dance Academy, and performed with Essen's Aalto Ballet Theater for five years. Wang Yuanyuan, who undertook the 2003 version, teaches modern dance at the Peking academy.)

The choreography is fine, standing out more for its use of space -- the mah-jong sequence, for example, whose staging may owe as much to director Zhang -- but what really delivers this story ballet is the extraordinarily clean and articulated dancing. Zhang Jian, the Second Concubine, moves with velvety ease, whether sidling along the floor in a tryst with Hou Quingfeng or executing a penche or a complete flip. The corps men, comprising a sort of house army whose principal purpose seems to be to capture, repress, and, when called on by the Master, eliminate the concubines, transcend Jerome Kaplan's unimaginative black costumes with genuinely fierce and fleet dancing, particularly when storming across the stage as a sort of Furies. (Here again, the usual jetes are spiced by the occasional smooth flip.) The corps women mark the significance of the red lanterns with a sort of prelude in which 18 of them rise on pointe with the right leg extended, holding above their heads sticks with lanterns dangling from them.

Jin Yao's treacherous First Concubine initially comes off as stereotypically scheming, but the dancer-actress captures and ultimately breaks our hearts with her fate and how she meets it: Expecting that the Master will finally embrace her after she exposes the lovers, she is shocked when he instead tosses her aside and dismisses her, supported by the Wife. Clutching an orange scarf which he must have given her in better days -- the Wife has an aqua one, and they've waved them at each other throughout the ballet to symbolize who's out in front for the Master's affections -- she staggers about the courtyard. The house soldiers come after her, but retreat, cowering, when she has the sudden impulse to light the red lanterns. Then she staggers about blindly tearing them.

Unlike the film, in which (as I understand it from reviews) it's explained that the lanterns are placed outside the house of whichever concubine the master will sleep with that night, for his ballet Zhang Yimou never explains the significance of the red lanterns. But the story is still powerful. After she's struck out at the lanterns, the First Concubine joins the lovers on the execution dock. Here the story takes a refreshing turn, for this epilogue is less a final embrace for the two lovers than the First Concubine's struggle for their forgiveness, and their struggle to offer it. At first they are repelled (more than angered) at the thought, retreating from her as she grasps after them, crawls after them, reaches out for their hands. But then finally they extend their hands to hers, and the three, marching forward, entwined, and finally crumpled together, meet their fates together. When the tinselly snow begins to fall on them, we know that the Master may have won the day, but those days are numbered.

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