Bring on the dancing concubines

The ballet of the classic film Raise the Red Lantern is full of Eastern and Western promise

"I tried not to watch the film again, so as not to be influenced by the film's music as I composed music for the ballet," says Qigang Chen, the composer of the score for the National Ballet of China's Raise the Red Lantern, an adaptation of Zhang Yimou's 1992 Academy Award-nominated film. It's the Twenties-set tale of a beautiful girl in rural China who is sold by her mother to a wealthy man, and who then must compete with her rival concubines for the raised red lantern which nightly signals her master's favour. Now Yimou has brought his cinematic vision to the ballet stage, along with the National Ballet of China's director, Zhao Ruheng.

The ballet, which premiered in 2001, has a 70-piece orchestra of Western and traditional Chinese instruments led by conductor Liu Ju. "When the National Ballet of China presented me with the script, they waited nearly a year for me to compose the music," Chen says. "That gave them just two months for the initial choreography. It was not long enough. But two years later we have had time to absorb and understand the music. We have made several changes to sections of dance on this European tour which make it much better."

The ballet's script makes strong use of colour, and that influenced the music. "Colour is an important notion in my music," says Chen. In the Eighties, he studied in Paris with the composer and organist Olivier Messiaen, who had the rare neurological gift of synesthesia, and saw colours that corresponded to his music.

As a youth, Chen's studies at the Middle School of the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing were interrupted when the Cultural Revolution broke out. He was judged to be an anti-revolutionary, and sent to a military camp. Between the ages of 19 and 22, he underwent ideological brainwashing, but his passion for composition and scoring continued: "We had no piano, no books, but I had a clarinet."

For both Yimou and Chen, Raise the Red Lantern is new territory. "This is the first time either of us has worked for ballet. It is very exciting, but difficult," says Chen. "For me, it was an excellent exchange because it was a collective work. As a composer, I usually write music alone.But this time, I have had to discuss it with others. So this music is not just mine. Not like the symphonic music I wrote before, for which I was totally responsible."

In China, Raise the Red Lantern would not be regarded as a typical ballet according to traditional criteria, says the composer. "Because they do not use points, sometimes they sing on stage and sometimes they play like actors.

"We did not want classical Chinese dance, or classical Western dance, or Western contemporary dance. We can never define it ourselves and be objective about it, but we think it is somehow our own original dance."

'Raise the Red Lantern', National Ballet of China, Sadler's Wells Theatre, London EC1, (020-7863 8000; www.sadlerswells.com) 11-15 November at 7.30pm and Saturday matinée at 2.30pm. Tickets £10-£40

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