"Raise the Red Lantern"
National Ballet of China
Eisenhower Theater, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Washington, DC, USA
October 8, 2005
by George Jackson
copyright ©2005 by George Jackson
Trying to merge the compelling Western dance forms, ballet and modern, with Far Eastern traditions was a major concern of the choreographers represented during Week 1 of this month's Festival of China at the Kennedy Center. Among the dance makers' several experiments,"Raise the Red Lantern" with its large cast, operatic production values and length of three acts plus prologue and epilogue, proved to be the blockbuster. If performed on the Opera House stage, it might have seemed even more grandiose, but that's where Washington Opera is ensconced in fall. The Eisenhower's more modest proportions didn't, though, crowd unduly this ballet from the year 2001. What was peculiar in "Red Lantern" was its unevenness. It took the audience back and forth, from refinement to excess, from very stylized and the formal to realism and minute detail, from the inventive to the repetitive, and from East to West, justifying such a shuttle train ride theatrically sometimes but often for no apparent reason other than its own sake. Perhaps the cause of the disparities was the ballet's authorship by not one but two choreographers Wang Xipeng and Wang Yuanyuan. Take the story, set in a still feudal Chinese milieu of the 1920s: how skillfully the scenario establishes the absolutism of the social strata, their cruelty, the childish egoism of codes of behavior and the sophistication of taste. There is no question about the feel of the place. The characters are a different matter. They don't even have individual names. The ballerina heroine, the Master's second concubine (performed by Wang Qimin), suffers right away. Unlike say Giselle, she does nothing to win our affections first. Her true love, a young man who is a Peking Opera performer (Li Jun), is even less of a person. In fact, he was so colorless that he wasn't even a stereotype. That the Master (Huang Zhen), his wife (Jin Jia) and his first concubine (Zhu Yan, in the second ballerina role) had any individual traits was due to acting abilities, not to the way the roles had been built.
The ballet begins with curtain and lighting shifts that are lovely. As illumination intensifies, the patterned front drop becomes visible as arrays of red lanterns. They rise up. The set designs are mostly back and side drops that leave the stage unencumbered for action and dance. They are, though, far from neutral or merely decorative props. At the start and throughout, the stage is dressed in wonderful walls of cloth, subtlely and atmospherically patterned and perceptibly textured (Zeng Li's designs, Zhang Yimou's lighting). The costuming (Jerome Kaplan's) doesn't achieve moods with quite such austere elegance. Promising is the ballerina's introductory dance. It displays her body and breaks its lines expressively and dynamically. There's even a hint of developing the movement. Subsequently, though, there is nothing further in the choreography that's equally interesting. Modest numbers of steps and gestures convey the action, but do so clearly. The depiction of relationships follows latter day Western fashion with duets that stretch anatomic line and entangle the partners in complex lifts; expressive solos crumple the body's contours, roil the hands and upset the features predictably. Ensembles are more varied in formation than in step content, which tends to be monotonous. A dramatically effective passage is the ballet's rape scene. It starts as a shadow dance for the Master and the ballerina, then climaxes with her breaking through the paper screen that shielded our eyes from seeing the actual dancers. Brilliant at first is the ballet's unhappy ending, an execution scene. The ballerina, the young male performer who is her true love and the Master's first concubine who blabbed about them are beaten to death by soldiers wielding long red paddles. This is not shown literally. Behind the three victims, the soldiers march along the backdrop and hit its white surface with their paddles, leaving blood red marks (almost calligraphy) on the canvas as the victims slowly sink to the ground. At that point, the final curtain should have come down. There was more though, snowflakes falling onto the corpses, a veritable snowstorm, and a line of concubines carrying red lanterns skimming past the bodies. Too much! The Act 2 divertissement by the Peking Opera made an apt contrast with the balletic main portion of "Red Lantern". It had a double function, giving the ballerina and her true love the chance to meet, but this could have been handled less melodramatically. More clever was the scene at the gaming tables which showed everyone's obsessions and gave the lovers somewhat plausible encounters.
Western attempts to fuse ballet with Far Eastern movement have often been dismissed as effete, as chinoiserie. Earlier fusions in China, such as "The Red Detachment of Women", were labeled as militaristic. In both categories, though, there was the aim to combine with consistency aspects of actual movement. "Red Lantern" is more a collage. Given its music (by Chen Qigang) which also seems composed of different, separate numbers, the two choreographers may not have had much choice. In modern dance, the meeting of East and West may be easier to achieve even if no final formula has been found. Chances are that the search will continue.
The Festival of China has already displayed a few gems. One of them was Act 2 of "Giselle" (after Anton Dolin's staging) on Wednesday,October 5. The dancers of the National Ballet of China had modern bodies, exciting technique and a way with pantomime that was ever so careful yet totally committed. Zhu Yan was Giselle, Li Jun the Albrecht (he had material with which to be poignantly expressive, unlike in "Red Lantern"), Jin Jia the Myrtha. The first day of the festival, October 1, coincided with the 56th anniversary of Communist rule on China's mainland and that night's fireworks over the Potomac began decoratively. The arcs, swirls and loops were like a ribbon dance done with sparklers. The coda, though, was frightening: three blasts like galaxies exploding that shook the river's banks and could be heard as far away as Maryland. Smoke resulting from this volley looked like atom bomb clouds that blew in the direction of Kennedy Center and Watergate.
Volume 3, No. 37
October 10, 2005
©2005 George Jacksonl
Alan M. Kriegsman
Sali Ann Kriegsman
Alexandra Tomalonis (Editor)
Kathrine Sorley Walker