Raise the Red Lantern, National Ballet of China, Sadler's Wells

Chinese ballet is big on design but too short on theatrical power
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The Independent Culture

Raise the Red Lantern 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 1994 film 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 69 musicians, 100 dancers, a stageful of costume changes, silk and paper screens and lots of laquer 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 no. 2 discovers the heroine's affair with the actor. She tells the husband, who has the lovers killed, then turns on his second wife too.

The choreography, by Wang Xinpeng and Wang Yuanyuan, gets the story across. It doesn't turn it into dance. The dancers spend most of their time in long scenes of vague mime on pointe. The dancing 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.

It does very little to show off the company as dancers. One setpiece represents a mah jong game. The orchestra rattle abacuses for the sound of pattering tiles, but the dancers just prowl round tables. Qigang Chen's music mixes traditional Chinese and western orchestral styles

The leading roles are even more limited. 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 - action behind screens, behind 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, while the family talk and play mah jong in the background. That naturalistic action looks much more interesting than the dancing.

The designs are certainly handsome, but they aren't really theatrically powerful.