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National Ballet of China : Raise the Red Lantern

 

By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 22 December 2003 - Epouses et Concubines, or, to use its English title, Raise the Red Lantern, is a dazzling show of classical ballet, folk and acrobatic dance, interspersed with mimed numbers from the Opera of Peking. It is set to a remarkable score by Chen Qigang, the Chinese composer now resident in France, and given a sumptuous staging by Zhang Yimou, the film director who won the Silver Lion award in Venice for his 1991 film of the same name.

Yimou has intelligently adapted his film scenario around five central figures: the rich Master of a traditional Chinese household and his wife, a young student forced into being his second concubine while in love with an actor from the Opera of Peking and the first concubine whose jealousy brings about their downfall.

National Ballet of China
National Ballet of China: Raise the Red Lantern
© Photo: Icare

Unfortunately, Wang Qimin as the second concubine, a truly lovely dancer, was given no passionate pas de deux with her lover, Li Jun, whom we meet disguised as an actor with a painted face, and so from the beginning we are unconvinced of their great love. The dancers themselves were excellent, but there was no build-up of character and personality. The audience admires but remains unmoved. The choreography is more successful with Meng Ningning as the frustrated and humiliated first concubine. She is given a more contemporary sequence of movements, demonstrating both her steely technique and artistic gifts in the mad scene when she destroys the red lanterns, symbols of the Master's oppressive domination.

If flaw there was with this magnificent production, it lies in the banal choreography for the women on pointe, for artists though they were, the steps they were given were outshone both by the decor they danced in as well as by the brilliance of the staging.

National Ballet of China
National Ballet of China : Raise the Red Lantern
© Photo: Icare

The talented designer, Zeng Li, has set the ballet between four walls, which themselves form an integral part of the work, as they encircle and close in on the young heroine. In the final moments of the ballet, he has introduced a spectacular giant screen covering the back of the stage which is violently slashed with streaks of blood in a most impressive and quite frightening scene.


The costumes were no less resplendent. French designer, Jérome Kaplan, influenced by the city of Peking, chose high Chinese collars for the dresses which were close-fitting in soft, fluid silks, and slit up to the waist. He was, he also said, influenced by the dresses of the film, "In the mood for love", very fifties, and fashionable in Paris at the moment.

National Ballet of China
National Ballet of China Raise the Red Lantern
© Photo: Icare


The National Ballet of China is a fine, exciting young company. The dancers' classical, academic technique inherited from their Russian training in the late fifties has been embellished with not only contemporary steps, but also with traditional mime and acrobatics, particularly apparent in the male corps de ballet who were sensational. Cleverly mixing various styles, choreographers Wang Xinpeng and Wang Yuanyuan excelled in the groupings; the scene at the gaming tables accompanied by extraordinary lighting, was particularly effective as was the rape scene, with two figures shown silhouetted behind a large white screen. And the women, with their exquisite line and beautiful feet, were a revelation.


This was one of those rare occasions, where the score, an amalgam of Western and Oriental music, lighting, costumes, decor and choreography came together to make an almost perfect whole.

National Ballet of China
National Ballet of China :Raise the Red Lantern
© Photo: Icare

The Orchestra of the National Ballet of China was conducted by Liu Ju. As part of the cultural festivities of China's Year in France, the Symphony Orchestra of Guangzhou, (Canton), China gave a special concert of the works of Shostakovitch and Chen Qigang at the Theatre des Champs-Elysées at the end of November.


Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe. She contributes to The Observer and Dancing Times and was dance consultant to the BBC Omnibus documentary on Rudolf Nureyev. Ms. Boccadoro is the dance editor for Culturekiosque.com.

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