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By Sarah Bennett
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Photo courtesy OCPACChinese film director Zhang Yimou's House of Flying Daggers opens with a drop of blood splattering against white rice paper, an image as crisp and cool as a knife's edge. The filmmaker's first take on classical ballet, on view at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, is just as cutting, and perhaps equally unsettling.
It dates to 1999, when the director—known for filling movies like Hero and House of Flying Daggerswith saturated color and balletic martial arts—had already commandeered the opera Turandot in the Forbidden City but had yet to enter the dance world. When he did, it was chance.
"The collaboration with Mr. Zhang was a pure coincidence," Madame Zhao Ruheng, artistic director of the National Ballet of China, explains via e-mail. "By the introduction of Mr. Zeng Li, we immediately achieved an agreement for collaboration, and we made a mutual agreement to pick out one of his movies to adapt into ballet." End communication.
Their choice, Zhang's 1991 Raise the Red Lantern, wasn't exactly a crowd pleaser at home. After the movie was released, the Chinese government wrung its hands over Su Tong's unflattering portrayal of concubine competition in the 1930s—think Mean Girls in raw silk. "It's awkward for a conservative audience to be reminded of a time when one man had many wives," Zhang told the London Times in 2003. "They don't want to see the feudal system represented. The Chinese don't want to lose face. But the audience abroad will really feel that this is a Chinese ballet."
For Orange County audiences used to straight-up polygamy, this retelling of a concubine's love for another man and three subjugated wives duking it out over a red lantern to hang in front of their house—signaling the master's favor—will come across as an amalgamation of classical ballet and Chinese influences. As it should; many of the instructors at the Beijing Dance Academy are from Russia.
Since its creation in 1959, the year Cuba turned red, the National Ballet of China has presented ballets that blend Eastern and Western expression—often adding a hallmark stamp of communist propaganda. Mao's favorite, The Red Detachment of Women, told the story of a farm worker (dancing in what looked like a Cub Scout uniform of shorts and knee socks) abandoning her landlord to join the revolution and, obviously, was infused with the proper proletarian feeling. My favorite part is when the liberated women dance en pointe with rifles—rife with symbolism. Raise the Red Lantern takes over as the company's new signature ballet and cultural export and, according to Zhao, is sans party line—which makes sense in modern China.
Zhang's cold brush stroke of passion, however, is omnipresent. Freed from 2-D, he and the National Ballet of China drape the dark side of feudalism in siren colors. The results are chilling. Zhang uses shadow puppets to re-enact a rape scene; elsewhere, soloists from the Peking Opera collaborate in a play-within-a-play section reminiscent of Hamlet. Another scene involves a mahjong game, with the orchestra rattling abacuses to imply the clinking of ivory tiles. Blood-red décor, folk dance, mime and acrobatics abound.
Considering it now, Zhang seems a natural choice for ballet. In House of Flying Daggers, the female protagonist plays a martial arts master who is blind; spurred by the sound of her attacker's footsteps and the rustling of the trees, she springs into motion and in graceful, choreographed steps annihilates her enemy. That propulsion from sound into pure motion is dance. Nothing more, nothing less. And it's precisely what we have here: absolute ballet.
RAISE THE RED LANTERN, NATIONAL BALLET OF CHINA, ORANGE COUNTY PERFORMING ARTS CENTER, SEGERSTROM HALL, 600 TOWN CENTER DR., COSTA MESA, (714) 556-2787 OR (714) 556-2746; WWW.OCPAC.ORG. TUES.-FRI., SEPT. 24, 8 P.M.; SAT., SEPT. 24, 2 & 8 P.M.; SUN., SEPT. 25, 2 P.M. $25-$80.