The Kennedy Center’s week of Lunar New Year celebrations ends on a high note indeed with the National Ballet of China’s exquisite performance of “Raise the Red Lantern,” an epic ballet that is beautifully danced and exquisitely produced.
Based on Su Tong’s novel, Wives and Concubines, the ballet is adapted from the classic 1991 film, “Raise the Red Lantern” which told the story of a young woman who becomes the concubine to a rich Lord in feudal China. The curtain opens on silence, as an older man lights the titular red lanterns. The iconic red lights illuminate the opening ensemble performance of female dancers holding lighted lanterns, a sequence which may suggest female solidarity and power.
After this opening sequence, our main character enters, suitcase in hand, already on her way to become the second concubine in a feudal household. A dance with her former lover, if only in her imagination, comforts her as she anxiously awaits her fate, and is literally walled into the palanquin (carriage) that will take her to her future master.
… an epic ballet that is beautifully danced and exquisitely produced.
Onstage action is accompanied by the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, as well as the National Orchestra of China, creating a wonderful fusion of sound that highlights traditional Chinese cymbals and reed instruments. Unlike some traditional Western ballets like “Sleeping Beauty” or “Swan Lake” which both feature iconic musical scores, here the music is expressive rather than strictly melodic, at times feeling almost extemporaneous. It creates an exciting atmosphere for the dancing onstage, with clashing cymbals building a sense of urgency during dramatic moments.
Wang Quimin, who dances the role of the second concubine (who is otherwise unnamed) is an expressive and expert dancer. She sensitively communicates the young woman’s fear during her first, forced night with the Master (Sun Ruichen). It’s a brutal scene, made even more sinister by the use of shadows, performed behind a screen, that make him appear monstrously large and threatening.
This dark beginning turns briefly to hopefulness during a brilliant interlude in which the Master’s household enjoys a Peking opera, a delightful performance that features performers from the China National Peking Opera Company. It is here that the second concubine unexpectedly reunites with her lover, who is an actor in the company. Their increasingly joyful pas de deux has the technique of classic ballet with a modern, expressive feel. Ma Xiaodong embodies the young actor as a playful, passionate lover.
The couple’s brief reunion is soon upset by the Master’s jealous first concubine, wonderfully embodied by Lu Na. A tragic figure, she longs for his love, only to be repeatedly rejected. An early scene between herself, the Master and his wife (Li Jie) shows her desperation as she tries to insinuate herself into his good graces.
The production is supported by an excellent design team. Gorgeous, colorful silk cheongsams (traditional Chinese dresses), designed by Jérome Kaplan create beautiful silhouettes for dancing. Zeng Li’s stage design, full of patterned panels and delicate latticework, serves as a grand staging area for the sweeping story. Transparent panels and see-through latticework also create a sense of depth and mystery, as the lovers slink around, unaware that they are seen.
After the illicit couple is betrayed by the first concubine, and sentenced to death by the Master, the informer is crushed to find that she still does not have favor. Anguished and angered at this rejection, the first concubine seeks revenge, which leads her to light, and then destroy, the Master’s lanterns, which symbolize his power. The music accompanying this stunning sequence also seems divided, as though mirroring her fractured state of mind.
After the startling, tragic end, the audience is given a few moments of silence to absorb the tableau onstage, as women with lighted lanterns walk across, which may signal a shift in power. It’s a poignant, fitting end to an impressively mounted, wonderfully crafted performance.
Advisory: Some disturbing themes. Parental guidance suggested.
Running Time: About two hours with one intermission.
“Raise the Red Lantern” runs through Feb. 16 at the Kennedy Center. Dancers vary for each performance. For tickets, or more information, click here.