This is the ballet of the movie. By the end of the evening, we've seen a lot of self-consciously beautiful stage pictures, but nothing to explain why Zhang Yimou wanted to turn his 1991 film, also entitled Raise the Red Lantern, into a dance.
Zhang, one of China's most celebrated directors, has recently moved into stage direction on a grand scale. The National Ballet of China's production involves 70 musicians, 100 dancers, a stageful of costume changes, silk and paper screens, and lots of lacquer and gold.
Is there anything going on besides the frocks? The story is a melodrama. The heroine, who is in love with a Peking Opera actor, becomes the third wife of a rich man. (The red lantern of the title is lit for the wife he means to sleep with that night.) His other wives are jealous, and wife number two discovers the heroine's affair with the actor. She tells the husband, who has the lover killed, then turns on her, too.
The choreography, by Wang Xinpeng and Wang Yuanyuan, doesn't give the dancers much to do. Maidens waft about; warriors stomp and kick. The principals have long scenes of vague mime on pointes. Dance actually seems to hold up the action: once we've worked out that the lovers are going to die, we have to wait a very long time for the executioners to get round to it.
One set piece represents a mah-jong game. The orchestra rattle abacuses for the sound of pattering tiles, but the dancers just prowl around tables. Chen Qigang's music mixes traditional Chinese and Western orchestral styles. As the husband, Huang Zhen has a few whirling kicks at the start. He spends the rest of the ballet glowering like a silent-movie villain. Zhu Yan, the heroine, looks sorrowful while extending her legs. Meng Ningning, as the jealous second wife, has slightly more footwork, and makes the most of it.
The heart of this production isn't in its story, and it certainly isn't in the dancing. It's in the designs. Zhang's most striking inventions are his divisions of the stage through action behind screens and gauzes.
The wedding-night rape of the heroine takes place in silhouette, the husband's shadow towering over her. A duet with her lover takes place in front of a gauze, as the family plays mah-jong in the background. That naturalistic action is much more interesting than the dancing in front of it, and the silhouette is more inventive than the steps.
Zhang begins and ends his ballet with parades of lantern bearers, lamps bobbing across the stage. They would look better if they weren't on pointes.
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