Review: Dream of Red Chamber

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Hong Kong Ballet has never attracted so much public attention as it did for the premiere of The Dream of the Red Chamber, which is based on Cao Xueqin’s classic Chinese novel. The ballet was choreographed by Wang Xinpeng, who originally created it last year for the Ballet Dortmund, of which he is the artistic director. After the premiere on October 25, the company made some controversial cuts to Act 3 without Wang’s permission for the remaining four performances of that first weekend. The cuts were widely reported and condemned by the local media as an act of self-censorship.  

Cuts included a projected video in Act 3 comprising old news broadcasting material from the Cultural Revolution, and a short scene with extras dressed as Red Guards waving red Mao books. But, fortunately, those cuts were restored in the second round of performances last weekend, as I can verify after attending the performance on November 1.

This original and thought-provoking ballet lasting two-and-a-half hours was divided into three acts and framed by a prologue and epilogue. The musical score composed by Michael Nyman wasn’t particularly conducive to dancing, and lacked memorable music for duets, but was reasonably effective. Wang has pared down the novel to its essence: the love story between Lin Daiyu and her cousin Pao Yu, who is forced by the Jia matriarch to marry his other cousin Pao Chai.  

The prologue depicted Pao Yu’s birth after a stone comes into this world in human form. However, the solo by a grey-clad male dancer, representing the stone, dragged on for too long. Act 1 was more dramatically cogent, concentrating on the love triangle between the three leading characters up to the wedding celebrations. The shorter Act 2 was about Daiyu’s grief after Pao Yu’s wedding to Pao Chai and ended with Daiyu’s death after she burned the poems that she’s written for Pao Yu. It was theatrically depicted with huge scrolls of calligraphy in the background crashing down on to the stage after some red lighting effects.

Act 3 meandered slightly in the beginning and lost its focus at times. Nevertheless, there was a beautiful dream scene with the female corps de ballet dressed as green nymphs and a moving duet for Pao Yu and Daiyu, who appeared in his dream. The choreographer Wang then transported the audience through time. As Pao Yu danced a long intense solo in front of a huge red wall in the background (which also could represent Tiananmen Square), cracks appeared on the wall which symbolised the decline of the wealthy Jia family.

Then, inexplicably, there followed a long procession of courtiers dressed in Qing dynasty costumes in an almost catwalk-like fashion show with absolutely no dancing at all. And simultaneously on the red wall, there was a 12-minute-long video projection of newsreel films charting China’s turbulent history from Empress Cixi through the Sino-Japanese war and up to the Cultural Revolution.  

This video and the seemingly pointless fashion parade then gave way to a more exciting ensemble dance. Dancers, attired in green unitards with red scarves attached, represented the Red Guards. And in the middle of this, there was a short scene of more extras attired in unmistakable Red Guard costumes and waving the red Mao books. Undeniably this was one of the most engrossing parts of this production, which could have provided the ballet with a rousing ending. Instead, the subsequent epilogue set in our present time was feeble and muddled.  

This ballet overall was stronger in theatrical power than in choreography. Wang’s choreography is workmanlike and included some fine duets and solos for the three lead characters. The ballet could certainly do with some fine-tuning and tightening – especially in Act 3 which was slightly disjointed.  

 Li Jiabo was excellent as Pao Yu, giving the best performance of his career so far. Liu Yuyao was lovely in her long ethereal line and sailed through her several demanding solos with ease. She was tender in the duets, and perfectly conveyed Daiyu’s beauty and fragility. Zhang Si Yuan was delightful as Pao Chai. The whole company was impressive. Praise must be also made to the sumptuous sets and costumes designed respectively by Frank Fellmann and Han Chunqi. Kevin Ng

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