As part of this year’s Lunar New Year Celebration at The Kennedy Center, National Ballet of China performs Raise the Red Lantern, a ballet last on stage at the Center’s 2005 Festival of China; it incorporates classical ballet with traditional Chinese theatre, opera, music, and dress. Curiously, information about the dancers is slim; all the principal casting is listed in the program with no reference to who is performing in which show, there are no dancer bios, nor is there mention of the corps dancers. It also would have been nice to know more about the music.
The sets and light design are indeed quite stunning, especially the lighting and dimming of the red lanterns that appear throughout and the use of shadows to create drama and intensity. Of which there is much – the overriding themes in this ballet are love, jealousy, and imprisonment (both figuratively and literally), all of which lead to death. This is not intended to be a spoiler, as it seems imminent from the beginning; the music is ominous with the prevalent rhythm of percussion pierced by a singular wailing soprano. In contrast to the solemnity, there are more lively moments in which the vibrant colors of the costumes and the (intentionally?) humorous scene with mahjong tables provide some welcome levity.
There is definitely some good ballet dancing to be seen, most notably by the principal ballerina whose bright red pointe shoes clad beautifully supple feet and the corps of men. For the most part, the choreography feels a bit unsophisticated. There is also a seeming lack of leitmotif (except for that which links the principal’s first solo and final scene) as well as a brusqueness in how the classical music and traditional Chinese melodies connect.