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National Ballet of China

National Ballet of China

‘Raise the Red Lantern’

By Rosella Simonari

November 2003 -- Sadler's Wells, London

What is flame red against petrol blue? Definitely a profound contrast, definitely a powerful contrast. These two colours meet at the beginning of "Raise the Red Lantern", the rich and innovative National Ballet of China's latest work. The traditional Chinese theatre meets with Western born ballet in this adaptation of Zhang Yimou's film. It is the story of a concubine condemned to death for having betrayed her master. It is a love story -- a story of jealousy between women, and of tradition suffocating the female sex.

And colours, strong symbolic colours emerge along with the dancers' quality of movement and their elegance. The two other master's wives are represented by two colours, lime green for one and orange for the other. The third wife (and protagonist) is dressed in red -- that same flame red that shines through the big red lanterns. In addition, the two protagonists' frequent pas de deux represent a kind of poetic legacy throughout this dramatic story. One movement recurs and that is the opening in second position of the third wife's legs while her partner, the theatre actor and her secret lover, holds her from her shoulders. She flies with her legs surfing the stage and occasionally touching her pointed shoes (beautiful red shoes) onto the floor. It is a very sweet image which reinforces her will to fly away in spite (or because of) her doomed destiny.

I was really overtaken by the stage design by Zeng Li, so full of successful ways of suggesting the development of the story rather than its literal translation. Again the opening catches the eyes, especially when an old wizardlike man enters to light the red lanterns, symbol of control and possession. The lanterns would be lit at the house of the chosen wife for the master to go and spend the night with her.

In the film as well as the ballet, the lanterns play a decisive symbolic role. In the ballet in particular they are torn and broken by the wife in orange, the one who reveals the third wife's affair to the master, thus condemning the happy couple and herself to death.

What I found maybe lacking was was a more articulate approach to the choreography of the corps de ballet. I did enjoy a section presenting the traditional element, a segment from a traditional Chinese Theatrical piece. That reminded me of another film, "Farewell, My Concubine"' (I am not sure whether that is the correct title but it was featuring the story of two actors playing exactly that theatrical piece). On the whole, I think "Raise the Red Lantern" was a great performance also with regards to the costumes and their effect, colourwise and texturewise. In particular there is a bit where the two lovers dance a beautiful pas de peux together with a dress. He wears half of it and offers the other half to her and they keep on exchanging it.

Last but not least -- the relation, or better, non-relation to the film, where there is no love story at all and where the rivalry between the four (not three) wives drives the protagonist to madness. Both film and ballet are enchanting in their own way: the film with its silences, the labyrinthic overview of the master's houses and Gong Li's extraordinary interpretation; the ballet with its chromatic drive, the excellent scenography and the dancers' featherly movement quality!

Edited by Jeff.

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