BWW Review: NATIONAL BALLET OF CHINA at The Kennedy Center
For the 40th anniversary of the opening of relations between the United States and the People's Republic of China, the Kennedy Center and the Ministry of Culture decided to put on a special performance for the closing of the celebration of the Lunar New Year. Rather than end with the musical performance that has become the norm, this year's celebration ends with the National Ballet of China's award-winning ballet, Raise the Red Lantern.
The opening night performance was preceded with speeches from Kennedy Center President Deborah F. Rutter and Chinese Ambassador Cui Tiankai, who celebrated the long-standing relationship between the two countries, and the partnership the Ministry has built with the Kennedy Center in particular over the years. The two noted that Raise the Red Lantern had its US premiere at the Kennedy Center in 2005, and it was fitting to bring it back for this anniversary.
The ballet is set in China in the 1920s, blending Chinese culture and music with the Western-based dance style. It opens with a young girl, who is forced to become the second concubine of the Master of the House. The girl mourns the loss of her freedom, and her childhood love, who is an actor from the Peking Opera group. She does put up resistance when the Master claims her, but she is forced to submit. Not long after, the Master takes his wife and concubines to see the Peking Opera, where she is reunited with her love. The two begin an affair in secret, but are caught by the first concubine, who reveals them in hopes of winning back the Master's favor. Instead, she is still brushed aside, much to the wife's satisfaction; in a desperate move, she grabs the lighting stick (which symbolizes the Master's power over his household) and lights the red lanterns. The Master sentences her to death alongside the lovers, who, despite her betrayal, reconcile with her as their sentence is carried out.
Considering the dark, depressing subject matter, it's all the more impressive that the National Ballet puts on such a moving, lovely performance. The dancers are each exquisitely talented, and move beautifully together as well as in their solo performances. The ensemble is much larger than seen in most ballets, yet uses its size to express the power of the characters they support - the Master's power is portrayed by a strong, forceful troop, and the struggle between the wife and first concubine is shown through competing dances; our poor second concubine's helplessness is likewise conveyed by her lack of a supporting ensemble. The trio performed by the Master, the wife, and the first concubine is a wonderful way to establish the group's dynamics as well as each character's personalities. The first concubine is also wonderful in her own right, and her journey is heart wrenching.
And yet, all of this pales to the duets danced by the second concubine and her lover. Their dances are so gorgeous, it's difficult to tear your gaze from them; I almost missed the first concubine sneaking around to spy on them because they consumed my attention. When they dance together, you not only feel their love, but you understand their feeling that no one else in the world matters. It makes it all the more heart-breaking when they are caught, and yet leaves the audience with a small glimmer of relief that they will be together through the end.
Amidst this, it is also important to note how stunningly the more violent elements are handled. The violence of the second concubine's rape and the lovers' execution is portrayed artfully and tastefully, but without losing an ounce of emotional impact. The former scene is shown through shadow and light tricks, allowing the Master to loom largely over his prey, then is punctuated by the dancers ripping through the scenery. The execution scene has the lovers and the first concubine in the foreground, with the Master's dancers marching across the stage in the background with paddles dipped in red paint - as they pass a white paper stretched along the background, they mark the paper with the red, creating a gunshot or whip-like sound that the dancers respond to. In the end, the cracks are echoing as the trio lay lifeless on the stage, with red marks stark on the set behind them.
The set pieces, created by stage designer Zeng Li, deserve particular note - the transitions made using the bridal palanquin and the screen for the opera were smart and took advantage of the beautiful pieces, and the lanterns and mahjong tables cleverly set the mood as well as served as plot points. The costumes, designed by Jérôme Kaplan, were nothing short of stunning - the colors were vibrant, the designs were gorgeous, and costumes themselves were useful to the audience while still maintaining their aesthetic beauty. The costumes also portrayed the mood and transitions wonderfully, conveying the characters' journeys, particularly when the lovers and the first concubine fell from favor; their costumes changed from bright character portrayals to soft pastels, showing their contrast as well as their fading toward their end. It's a herculean task for garments to express so much of the story, yet was handled flawlessly.
Indeed, my only real critique is that I feel cheated that this beautiful show is only in town for a short period of time - performances only run through this Saturday evening. So make sure you plan to see it immediately.
The National Ballet of China is performing Raise the Red Lantern at the Kennedy Center through February 16th. The performance runs approximately two and a half hours with one intermission. Please note that this ballet contains heavy/adult content.
Photos are courtesy of the Company unless otherwise noted.