- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 9, 2005

The Kennedy Center’s Festival of China burst into high gear over the weekend with performances by the National Ballet of China and three other modern dance groups.

Together they suggest a dance scene enriched by many cultural resources both ancient and modern, from tai chi, calligraphy and Chinese opera to the fluidity of today’s moviemaking.

Most spectacular was the National Ballet’s full-length “Raise the Red Lantern,” conceived after a conversation between Zhao Ruheng, artistic director of the company, and Zhang Yimou, the popular movie director whose credits include a cinematic version of the “Red Lantern” story.

A large opera-house-style production cannot convey the byzantine ways in which a rich man’s concubine is heartlessly degraded, but the basic story is there, drawn in bolder, simpler strokes.

The ballet is cinematic, with scenery that includes a backdrop patterned like fine brocade, scores of glowing red lanterns moving across the stage, and a rape scene that is a masterpiece both of restraint and Grand Guignol details — the attacker and his victim projected in giant shadows on the backdrop, then crashing repeatedly through the room’s paper walls as he pursues her. At the climax, the stage fills with a giant red silk cloth that buries them. Out of that silken floor the heroine’s face emerges — a small, poignant sight as the curtain falls on the scene.

The tragic events culminate in three executions, portrayed symbolically by the brutal sound of uniformed men repeatedly hitting a wall with long poles, leaving ugly gashes of red on its gleaming whiteness. At the close, the victims’ bodies lie crumpled on the ground. White snow drifts down, covering them.

Such vivid visual effects sometimes overshadow movement in “Red Lantern.” But the dancing, while quite traditional and using a limited number of ballet steps — high lifts are the company’s forte — is fully equal to creating an opera-size spectacle. The two choreographers, Wang Xinpeng and Wang Yuanyuan, skillfully illustrate the drama through movement, from touching moments when the pained heroine looks out to the audience in complete stillness, to a tender love duet, unison formations for a phalanx of militaristic palace guards and lively court entertainment.

I caught snatches of the three ballerinas who played the central role — Zhu Yan, Zhang Jian and Wang Qimin — and they were all admirable. The one complete cast I saw featured the compelling Miss Zhang as the central figure.

Other strengths of “Red Lantern” were its striking set by Zeng Li, costume design by Jerome Kaplan, and Chen Qigang’s score — a skillful blend of Western-style music during the love duets, with the drumming, flute tones and crashing cymbals familiar in Chinese music. An onstage percussion group was a lively addition to a couple of scenes.

A free-ranging imagination filled the smaller Terrace Theater where three of China’s leading modern dance groups shared a program — an embarrassment of riches.

It was intriguing to see the way modern dance, an art form that originated in America, was punctuated with details that cropped up in earlier Chinese performances last week. The varied use of handkerchiefs in the Beijing Modern Dance Company’s “All River Red” reflected the use of the same prop in a handkerchief dance from northeastern China called “Splendid Circumvolving,” seen opening night. The work was an exhilarating take on a pastiche of music from Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.” In this work and throughout the evening the staging, costumes and lighting were excellent and the dancers were highly skilled.

Calligraphy, that beautiful form of writing with bold brush strokes, was the source for the most original work on the program, an excerpt from Guangdong Modern Dance Company’s “Upon Calligraphy,” choreographed by Liu Qi. The dance was a clever and imaginative way of taking the rich source of one art form and turning it into another through fascinating body movements.

Concluding the evening was a series of excerpts from work by the City Contemporary Dance Company of Hong Kong. Under the heading “Silver Rain,” it offered impressionistic glimpses of styles that included a man in a business suit doing brisk ballet exercises at a gleaming silver ballet barre, a woman in a red evening gown with two ridiculously long feathers swinging from her head, a woman gracefully playing with an oiled parasol as snow begins to fall and a zen-like assemblage of people in long white costumes coming together in a circle.

Willy Tsao assembled the sections and choreographed two of them. He turns out to be China’s secret weapon in the development of modern dance in that country. Mr. Tsao trained in this country with Murray Louis and Bertram Ross, studied Humphrey technique here, has at times directed all three groups on the weekend’s program, and trained a whole generation of modern dancers in China. Possibly no single person has ever loomed so large in the development of a country’s art form as Mr. Tsao.

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