National Ballet of China, Sadler's Wells, London

Where the red light stands for... go!

When Zhang Yimou's film Raise the Red Lantern was released in 1991, it was banned in his homeland and much discussed elsewhere. The tale of deadly competition between a rich man's concubines was seen as a parable for corruption in modern China. Some read it as a comment on feudal attitudes and the continuing subjugation of women. Others saw it as an attack on a system that rewards those who play by the rules and destroys those who don't. The spirit of Tiananmen Square raised its head.

Now that same director has turned the story into a full-length vehicle for the National Ballet of China. It's the country's most high-profile cultural export in years. But where Zhang's film presented a story brimming with complex themes and emotions, the ballet presents merely an outline story. In narrative terms the production is so one-dimensional that it struggles to bear its visual magnificence.

The stage pictures are certainly as luscious as any in the film. Designer Zeng Li's vast embossed screens bathe the space in scarlet and gold. Jerome Kaplan's colour-drenched costumes glorify the elegant silk cheongsam. And the raising of lanterns (the signal to whichever of the master's wives he means to sleep with that night) is magnified into a glimmering vision of dozens of paper globes, at once comforting in their ruby glow and chilling in their despotic message.

The plot is pared down to almost nothing. A young woman reluctantly becomes the third wife of a wealthy lord. Still in love with a Peking Opera actor, she resumes her affair with him until the jealous second wife betrays her secret. The master takes his revenge - not just in putting to death both cuckolding wife and lover, but also, inexplicably, the wife who spilled the beans. We feel no particular sympathy for any of them.

The most interesting aspect of the production is the way it meshes East and West. The 80-strong orchestra includes both symphonic and Chinese instruments, and Qigang Chen's score is a lush patchwork of influences from Chinese Opera through Prokofiev and Stravinsky to Hollywood heart-on-sleeve. It would have helped the narrative momentum if the music had been through-composed. Uneasy silences chop the evening into uneven chunks and much of the tension goes.

Perhaps because this director is new to ballet, perhaps because ballet is relatively new to China, the choreography (by Xinpeng Wang and Wang Yuanyuan) is unremarkable, though it's sharply executed by the company's long-limbed dancers. It tells the story clearly enough, but makes no attempt to develop characterisation. Thus Zhu Yan's Third Wife is stuck with a generalised, sorrowful yearning, and Meng Ningning's Second Wife sets her face and schemes till she drops, while both are clearly capable of more.

The chorus numbers fare better, with their regimented hints of the so-called "revolutionary" ballets of the 1960s and Seventies favoured by Madam Mao, only here the women comrades are replaced by ranks of concubines waving handkerchiefs, or carrying lighted spills that glimmer prettily in the dark. But even the big set pieces squander opportunities. One scene involves a mah-jong game, the orchestra rattling abacuses to suggest the pattering ivory tiles. But instead of creating board-game patterns, the dancers simply prowl round tables.

Traditionalists in China have objected to the way Zhang Yimou takes liberties with Peking Opera, but for me this is the production's most intriguing feature. Not only does he present an exciting fragment of the genuine article - an ominous play-within-a-play, rather as in Hamlet - but he also meshes elements of the revered Chinese art form with ballet pointwork, to surprisingly good effect. The two art forms, both highly stylised, both with Imperial pasts, have much in common. Their vibrant hybridising says more about modern China than any story can.

jenny.gilbert@independent.co.uk

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