Raise the Red Lantern
nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
October 11, 2005
The very existence of the ballet Raise the Red Lantern, in a touring production that credits both a director and two choreographers with its creation, is a fascinating statement about the paradoxes of current Chinese cultural politics. Its director, Zhang Yimou, is currently best known for the recent martial arts spectaculars Hero and House of Flying Daggers. But he first came to Western attention in the 1980s and 1990s, as the auteur of art house movies with political themes, many of them about the oppression of women in pre-Communist and Communist China, and most of them banned in China at the time of their release. The film of Raise the Red Lantern, nominated for a foreign-language Oscar in 1991, was never officially approved for release in China—but now the ballet is being mounted by the National Ballet of China, a company founded by the Communist government in 1959.
I find myself with mixed feelings as to whether this unusual fusion of talents really works, as more than an audience-enticing gimmick. The piece is engaging, and full of beautiful visuals, but the disparate elements never fuse into a meaningful whole—certainly not one that has anything like the political or emotional complexity of the film that inspired it. The combination of auteurist film director and traditionalist ballet company has created an evening that is less a ballet than a spectacle that encompasses Peking Opera excerpts, pas de deuxs, stunning visual effects, and a mixture of Westernized classical and traditional Chinese music. It’s a successful statement and stunt, but not a terribly successful ballet; the dancing and the story are often the least interesting parts.
The story is simple (far simpler than in the film version): in 1930s China, a young woman is taken against her will as the second concubine of a far older man. There is already considerable tension in the household between the wife and the first concubine, and the resistance and despair of the second concubine do nothing to help the mix. When the second concubine re-encounters the Peking Opera actor who was her first love, tragedy predictably ensues. They rekindle their passion and are caught by the first concubine, who betrays them to the master in an attempt to gain his favor over both wife and second concubine. In the end, though, the master rebuffs the first concubine, and she defies him, getting herself imprisoned and executed along with the second concubine and her lover.
The piece’s strength is in its overall visual sense—striking tableaux, gorgeous costumes (by Jerome Kaplan) and sets (by Zeng Li), bold use of color. Moment after moment makes an immediate and vivid impression: In the prologue, the second concubine, dressed like a schoolgirl, is forced into an elaborate palanquin, where she remains for much of the first act, emerging in sophisticated red robes only for her wedding. The majority of the wedding night is played behind screens, so that the second concubine and her master appear as silhouettes, his shadow towering over hers; as she attempts to evade his sexual advance, she continually rips through panels of the screen. The execution at the end is symbolized by a stylized procession of soldiers, each smacking a white screen with a club and leaving a blood-red streak—over and over, until all three bodies are motionless in a heap at center stage, and then are covered by a shimmering snowfall as the curtain falls.
The elements of traditional ballet, the choreography and the dancing, are far less interesting. The choreography is simple, and often repetitive, especially in the pas de deuxs and the corps de ballet sequences. The dancers are physically strong, but don’t have the lightness or the precision that would make them marvelous to watch; far too often, I found myself paying more attention to the clacking of their pointe shoes than their footwork itself.
The most interesting dances are those featuring combinations of the three principal women, because of the complex relationships between and among the second concubine (danced on the night I saw it by Zhu Yan), the wife (Jin Jia), and the first concubine (Meng Ningning, who is marvelously expressive). They need, fear, trust, and despise one another, and the constant shifting of the power relationships—especially between the wife and the first concubine—is well played by all three. The Peking Opera excerpts form a striking contrast to the more Westernized dance and music of the rest of the ballet, though the entire subplot featuring the Peking Opera and the second concubine’s lover does sometimes feel like the afterthought that it is (it was added for the ballet).
One particular divergence between movie and ballet serves to symbolize my ambivalence about the overall success of the ballet. In the film, the red lanterns of the title are the mark of the master’s favor; he has a red lantern placed in front of the door of whichever of his women he intends to spend the night with. In the ballet, the stage periodically fills with red lanterns, but their only significance to the plot comes at the end of the ballet, when the first concubine goes on a rampage, lighting and destroying lanterns after she has been rebuffed by the master. But when the lanterns are not a powerful symbol of the master’s capricious power over the lives of these women, their destruction becomes just another pretty visual effect. The ballet is full of these, but I don’t know if it’s enough.