Dream of the Red Chamber


China’s literary classic Dream of the Red Chamber is being dramatically adapted for the stage by the Hong Kong Ballet. Ysabelle Cheung speaks to the three leads about the tragic love story

If you see a delicate girl swaying on the MTR one day with her eyes closed, don’t panic: she’s probably just got the serious case of the rhythms. “I can’t help myself! Ballet is always in my thoughts,” ballerina Liu Miaomiao says with a laugh, recalling instances where she’s suddenly found herself tapping her toes and shimmying on public transport. 

Sitting in the rehearsal room at the Cultural Centre, Liu speaks with a halting softness, joined intermittently by her two co-stars, Shen Jie and Dong Ruixue. The trio are on a break from rehearsals for the upcoming production of Dream of the Red Chamber, a stage adaption of Cao Xueqin’s novel from the Qing Dynasty. The Hong Kong Ballet has taken an unusual route in selecting its third cast from younger members of its coterie for the lead roles; Shen is a soloist and the two girls are coryphées, with Dong having only joined in 2011. 

Though young, the three are taking on emotionally taxing roles. In Dream, Pao Yu has found his soulmate in Lin Daiyu, but his plans to be with her are thwarted by his family’s insistence in his marrying his cousin, Pao Chai. The two are torn apart. The tale, arguably one of the most famous in China’s literary history, then descends into tragedy with Lin Daiyu dying of a broken heart and a distraught Pao Yu devoting his life to humble monkhood. 

It’s a story brought to life by Ballett Dortmund’s esteemed director, Wang Xinpeng. “He really taught me how to express my character,” says Dong, who plays Lin Daiyu. “You’ll see from the show that this is not the original version of Daiyu. Xinpeng taught me how to add some of my experiences and thoughts into the character, too. There’s a lot of themes in Dream that I can relate to personally – heartbreak and family issues.” Shen adds: “My character doesn’t hate Pao Chai; he simply hates the symbols she represents. This conflict is quite difficult to express in language… I prefer to express it through dance.”

As well as delving into the emotional essence of their characters, the three were also set the task of transforming their usual Western repertoire of dance for this show. “Chinese ballet is different,” Liu says. “It’s a bit like tai chi – you must retain a strong core but also be softer, with more bending. There are many more varying degrees.” 

The production also includes music by British composer Michael Nyman, performed live by the Hong Kong Sinfonietta, and opens this year’s Hong Kong Dance Festival.

With the interview concluded, the three dancers swan across the room to begin their sequence, with Nyman’s sweeping orchestral score filling the room. At once, their limbs command attention with simultaneously fierce and soft movements. They move with an intensity not readily apparent during the interview, recalling what Shen mentioned earlier – some things are better expressed through the medium of dance. 

Dream of the Red Chamber Cultural Centre, Oct 25-27, Nov 1-3. Tickets: $1,500-$140; urbtix.hk.


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