Besides classical music, ballet is a traditionally Western art form being reinvigorated by Chinese talent and perspectives. China’s National Ballet is winding up its performance of Raise the Red Lantern at the National Center for the Performing Arts, after a triumphant European tour.
The many who pay scant attention to ballet will probably remain unmoved by the assertion that dance, like painting, remains as relevant as ever in its ability to communicate on a level far more primal than even the most lovingly-crafted CGI character. They might want to pay attention to the latter performance, however, not just for the powerful movie on which it is based, but also for the fact that both are directed by Zhang Yimou. The man is enjoying a Spielbergian climb in artistic cache, and both his ballet and movie are greater testament to his artistic range and vision than even, dare we say, the Olympic opening ceremony.
The movie proves that when it comes to intrigue, heartbreak and despair, the domestic arrangements of traditional China provide enough source material to fuel a million soap operas for a thousand years. While the story is fictional, it rings with the authenticity of real experience. Chinese cheesecake cum serious actress Gong Li portrays Songlian, a destitute daughter impressed into the harem of the wealthy Master Chen.
For a brief, shining idyll, Songlian enjoys the status of most adored lapdog. Whomever of his courtesans Master Chen fancies for the night enjoys a custom menu, foot massages, and a lucky red lantern (good fengshui – Yay!). As the latest plaything, Songlian rapidly gets used to the pampering, completely oblivious to the envious plotting powers of Master Chen’s two previous mistresses and wife.
Bait and switch, kiss and tell, every mind trick in the Jedi handbook is played with relish and skill by Songlian’s predecessors. Compromised by a love affair and a false pregnancy to retain Master Chen’s attention, Songlian soon wakes up to the daymare of being a painted slave, imprisoned behind musty if luxurious walls, and as spiritually stifled by hidebound tradition as she is by the capricious whims of her patriarch. If the no-spoiler rule applies to a movie released in 1991, we’ll just say the ending is crazy.
Of course, Zhang Yimou crafts a hypnotic mis-en-scene to convey the claustrophobia that defined feudal Chinese womanhood. Rapid-editing-bred ADD types, strung along by an early rape scene, will find their wafer-thin patience crumbling in the face of deliberately dragged out scenes, meant to capture the ennui of the myriad daily rituals that accounted for so many hours of the Chinese well-to-do.
Shot in the ancient city of Pingyao, in the restored Qing era Qiao Compound, Raise the Red Lantern benefits further from Zhang Yimou’s opulent eye and Scorsese-like attention to detail. The movie certainly caused a stir in its China release, due to both Gong Li’s comely charisma and the perception that the film was a post-Tiananmen protest against authoritarianism. In China, it’s not what you do or say so much as how you do or say it; awareness of sub-textual symbolism constitutes roughly eighty percent of the Sino cross-cultural game.*
Symbols must suffice where speech is not allowed. In his Raise the Red Lantern ballet, Zhang Yimou has acquitted himself admirably in the non-verbal components of narrative, creating a striking microcosm which the National Ballet of China sets into orbit. Mirroring the film’s most dramatic and integral scenes, the ballet integrates Peking Opera influence, traditional Chinese architecture and costume, plenty of gorgeous silk, and of course the eponymous red lanterns.
Besides a martial turn onstage, the great majority of the ballet is gynocentric, fittingly enough considering the story. The desperate haughtiness and cruelty of elder concubines, Songlian’s slow descent from resigned heroine to deranged cast-off, the elemental agony of human property striving to maintain personhood, all are swept up by graceful arms and legs and evinced with ethereal grace. Purists may label the end of the ballet somewhat histrionic, but any reasonably sensitive soul will appreciate its cathartic journey from the bittersweet to the tragic.
Here are some snippets of the National Ballet of China performing both Swan Lake and Raise the Red Lantern.
* The other twenty percent is realizing how many more samenesses there are than differences.