writers on dancing


Diligent Beauty

"Raise the Red Lantern"
National Ballet of China
Brooklyn Academy of Music
Brooklyn, NY
October 11, 2005

by Lisa Rinehart
copyright ©2005 by Lisa Rinehart   

Ballet purists can rest easy, the modern story ballet isn't moving its factory to China—yet. But if the National Ballet of China's slogan, "Struggle arduously, keep united and down to earth " is interpreted as a call to balletic arms, it will simply be a matter of time. "Raise the Red Lantern," the newest offering from this 80 member strong company, is a tale of doomed love with all the right ingredients: young lovers, a jealous rival, elaborate sets, sumptuous costumes and an extra twist—bits of Peking Opera and a smattering of the martial arts. What's missing is emotional complexity. The heroine (the exquisite Zhu Yan) begins sad (she's sold as a concubine), stays sad (she must visit her lover on the sly) and dies sad (she's betrayed by a fellow concubine). This emotional flat-lining of the heroine weakens the clout of a balletic melodrama. Believe it or not, scrape the surface of a good story ballet and what's revealed is a broad spectrum of conflicted feeling. There's satisfying emotional release when those sylphs, swans, and wilis begin their sagas as one thing and evolve into something else. Aristotle called it catharsis, I call it a valid reason for watching stylized spectacle about imaginary creatures doing unlikely things.

Thin story aside, however, this is a beautiful ballet to look at. Directed by the highly regarded film director, Zhang Yimou (House of Flying Daggers, Hero), the ballet is rich with gorgeous imagery—some created by an unorthodox melding of classical ballet conventions with those of the Peking Opera. A darkened stage is quickly warmed with twinkling lanterns held aloft by waif-like women as they bourrèe from one wavering formation to the next. The shimmering effect continues when the women come off pointe and move into the trademark gliding quick-step of the Peking Opera. Two different kinds of smoothness—one unified delicate dance.

But the most powerful images are of the cinematic variety. After the Master of the house brutishly enjoys his rights of ownership with the heroine, crimson silk billows over the couple like a giant bloodstained sheet hiding the dismal act. As the heroine, her lover and the first concubine who betrayed them are executed, long shafts are beaten against a wall to leave a gruesome design resembling glistening open gashes. And the final image could be from a Chinese painting; snow falls with soft grace on the disheveled heap of bodies as a line of lantern bearing maidens walk solemnly past. It's a visual feast to be sure.

Unfortunately, the ballet's generic choreography doesn't add much to Zhang's vision. The choreographers (Wang Xinpeng and Wang Yuanyuan) rely heavily on a "Worker's Unite!" style of group dance that fills the stage with a lot of people doing the same thing at the same time. Even executed with the company's consistent precision and energy, these group dances quickly become tiresome. (Balanchine knew this technique is best left for the big finish.) The leads are given even less interesting material. Zhu Yan is a lovely dancer with a strong technique, but she's required to do little more than extend her amazingly arched feet into a variety of poses. The dramatic role of First Concubine (Meng Ningning) is a scenery chewer—she literally rips her way through a stageful of paper lanterns—but somehow, amongst all the histrionics, we never see her dance. And the poor lover (Sun Jie) is either saddled with a cumbersome costume, or kept in the background. There is one notable scene, however: a mah-jongg party in the palace, when the principals and chorus are used with refreshing inventiveness as they dance atop tables to the rhythmic clattering of mah-jongg tiles.

Having absorbed the teachings of its Soviet mentors, the National Ballet of China appears focused on ensuring a future for itself in the global balletic market. If "Raise the Red Lantern" is any indication of the resources available to the company's administrators, the future looks bright. Now the choreographers just have to catch up on what's happened between Petipa and Balanchine.

Volume 3, No. 38
October 17, 2005
copyright ©2005 Lisa Rinehart



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last updated on October 10, 2005