If the National Ballet of China's stunningly beautiful "Raise the Red Lantern," which received its Washington premiere Friday night at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater, is any guide, perhaps all the ballet world needs to revive its sagging fortunes is a few great film directors.
Zhang Yimou himself adapted his 1991 movie of the same name for the ballet stage. Though the choreography, by Wang Xinpeng and Wang Yuanyuan, is rather thin and predictable, the rich special effects and handsome sets and costumes -- the ballet is an ode to the color red -- more than compensate.
Zhang deserves kudos not only for the imaginative way in which he blends Chinese theatrical forms, such as Chinese opera and shadow puppet theater, into the conventional ballet mix, but for realizing that subplots and deep psychological analysis might make impressive program notes but rarely work on the stage. He's reduced the story to its simplest parts and, with the help of a superb cast and Chen Qigang's atmospheric score, made it work.
"Raise the Red Lantern" is a tale of a young woman (Zhu Yan) forced to be the new concubine of a rich man, the disruption this causes in his household, and -- for this is a ballet, after all -- the tragedy of true love betrayed. The new girl has a lover from her past life, an artist from the Peking Opera (Sun Jie). The First Concubine (Meng Ningning), jealous of her new rival, discovers that they've been sneaking pas de deux in the courtyard and exposes them.
It's the custom of the house for red lanterns to be lit in front of the apartment where the Master (Huang Zhen, playing a powerful yet charming villain who takes all his wives to a mah-jongg party) intends to spend the night. Desperate for his attention, the First Concubine lights, then smashes, the lanterns, but rather than winning him back, her actions result in a death sentence.
It's the ending that really gets you. While awaiting execution, the two lovers dance a final pas de deux as the First Concubine watches; realizing what she has done, she asks for their forgiveness. After an initial revulsion, they accept her with a tenderness that raises a sentimental story to one of redemption.
The executions are brilliantly staged. As the three huddle together, the Master's men march across the back of the stage, each carrying a huge club. Each, in turn, strikes the white backcloth with his club, leaving a red stain. When the measured orgy of beatings subsides, the three are dead, the wall stained with their blood. It begins to snow, and the shape of the flakes makes the storm look like a gentle blizzard of butterflies. In Zhang's world, even in the face of cruelty and injustice, beauty will not be denied.