Tuesday, November 23, 2010

21st Century Chinoiserie - "Raise the Red Lanter" and Other Stage Works by Zhang Yimou, Tan Dun and Amy Tan

A recent report on ballet performance of Raise the Red Lantern in San Paulo, danced by National Ballet of China, triggered my musing on the new influence of Chinese artists of all denominations, the topic I have commented on before.  Many Chinese artists have become driven forces in certain fields, such as conceptual artist AI Weiwei and filmmaker ZHANG Yimou. The ballet was the brainchild or Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou, who was credited as scenarist and director, basing the ballet on his movie of the same title, and the composer was CHEN Qigang and the choreography was credited to WANG Xinpeng and WANG Yuanyuan.

He started well, winning praises for his bold camera works, sincere acting and profound directorial efforts in movies such as Ju Dou, Raise Red Lantern, and The Story of Qiu Ju.

However, after string of successes dealing with human, particularly women struggles, he moved away from human conditions.  These works he since produced were usually smashing successful commercially but dismal artistically.  His blockbuster movie Hero, was a eulogy to tyranny and apology for the totalitarian Chinese regime.  His Curse of the Golden Flower was a remake of a remarkable play Thunderstorm by Cao Yu, first produced in 1935.  The play concentrated on human conflicts - masters and servants, the rich and the poor, the cynic and the innocent, men and women.  Zhang's film version kept none but the basic plot line.  He presented the audience a court intrigue which the triumphant feudal rigidity won the day and none of the characters had an iota of humanity.  A butchery of job to a masterpiece.

He has also produced spectacularly amazing and tacky spectacles which can stand comparison to those produced in North Korea.  Cases in study are the extravaganza of the 2008 Olympic Opening Ceremony and a series of spectacular travelogues in situ he stages in scenic resorts all over China.  These works universally engaged a vast army of anonymous performers dancing or marching in dwarfing sets.  Human beings are nothing but a trove of ants or working bees.  Below video is a snippet of these spectacles:

Zhang has been invited to direct operas in high profile productions.  One of them was Puccini's Turandot in Forbidden City which was  curiously both spectacular and flat.  He once again, used huge amount of  supernumeraries to dwarf the human drama, and scattered Peking Opera  motifs and martial artists about the stage whenever the singers were not  laboring their vocal cords.

His another high profile assignment was the world premiere production of TAN Dun's The First Emperor at the Metropolitan Opera, which though had an mildly interesting sound picture, was dramatically static and devoid of the humanity abundant in the film the opera was based on, The Emperor's Shadow.  It is hard to decide who was to be blamed but the insistent on putting a Peking Opera singer on the western operative stage was consistent with Zhang's extremely limited view of China and his rather narrow repertoire.

When he ventured into balletic field, he was only able to strike the same notes with the art format he literally knew nothing about.

The ballet Raise the Red Lantern was a potpourri of classical ballet, modern dance, acrobat, martial art, Peking opera, fashion show, and stage spectacle.  Since its inception, it had made rounds on international stage, including Cal Performances in Berkeley.  I decided to skip the show, after having viewed a DVD of the performance, courtesy of my local library.

It was quite obvious who was the driving force of the ballet and it did not bode well for a ballet when the scenarist and director overwhelmed the composer and choreographer.  It was a colorful show, cartloads of colors, dominated by inevitable red, like in some unimaginative Chinese restaurants.  The music was fashionable East-Meets-West fusion, dominated by the insistent beats of Peking opera.

It is a curious thing to identify Peking opera or martial art with China.  Perhaps, it is excusable for westerners to make such mistakes but for literary Chinese people, it is too skewed way of viewing China.  Chinese culture contains those elements for sure but are far broader.  One can understand many facets of Chinese culture without having any contacts with Peking opera or martial art.  It is like Chinese food.  Sure, most Chinese people use chopsticks to eat Chinese food.  But if one chooses to use folk or spoon instead, Chinese food tastes still Chinese food.  In the movie Raise the Red Lantern, Peking opera elements were brought in by one of the  concubines; in the ballet, the lover of one of the concubines was a  Peking opera singer.  This easy reliance on Peking opera and martial art for "enrichment" and "authenticity" has becoming increasingly tiring and annoying and it is pure mannerism and formulaic now.

The ballet was obviously created with love, and everything was created with meticulous care.  But it was the scenery took the top honor and the dancers were invariably overshadowed by the exterior splendor, as in almost all of Zhang's recent attempts.  The dance steps definitely took the backseat and were not inspired at all.  Sometimes the movements were downright ugly and uncouth, even ridiculous.  There was a time, four dances, en pointe, carried a large mahjong table around the stage.  Zhang and his creative team seemed have mistaken absurdity for originality.

With moments like that, the show was never boring however and it could be very satisfying if one thinks anything unfamiliar is refreshing and cherishable, or if acrobatic performance is more gratifying than a true ballet performance.  I've seen traditional Chinese stories told in pure classical ballet forms, set to wonderful symphonic music without any artificial inclusion of traditional Chinese instruments.

What made effective of Puccini's oriental tales - Madama Buttefly or Turandot - were the beautiful music speaking to all human kinds and effective human drama.  Those stories could be placed in any corner of the world.  Oriental local was rather incidental.

When  lamenting the death of traditional art forms such as ballet and opera,  looking to east for salvation has not proven successful.

Tan Dun's The First Emperor fell to the same trap.  It also faltered in the characterizations of the first emperor of China.  The original movie demonstrated his cruelty on all levels without denying him as a human being, however cruel one.  In the opera, he was just a misunderstood politician and a little unyielding father.  This trivialization of his character and action didn't make him more profound; rather, it made the opera small.  The opera also introduced anachronistic Peking opera elements and a strange shaman character who would convenient take some blame of the emperor's evil deeds.

It seemed that the creators of the opera, composer, librettist and director, all grew up in China, had censured themselves.  Espoused with the deficiency of humanism in Chinese tradition, they made a poor case for looking for salvation from the east.

Even for Amy Tan, an American born writer of Chinese descent, her effort to merge east and west on stage failed just miserably.  The opera based on her novel, The Bonesetter's Daughter, had some characters best described as caricatures and the music, set by Stewart Wallace, had a mediocre score which relied heavily on the novelty of a most crude and grating Chinese instrument, thus rendered the opera unlistenable.  The failure was largely the composers, but I suspect that Tan's relentless promoting of Chinoiserie played a role in amking her characters stereotypical and I also wonder if she had a hand in Wallace's "incorporating" aforementioned Chinese instrument, whose novelty could not rescue the score from its mediocrity.

It is the content matters.  The form is just a container.

These theatrical efforts I mentioned above failed mostly due to the supremacy of formats over substances.

If you are in doubt of my arguments, I invite you to view a sample of the "ballet", Raise the Red Lantern, and judge for yourself:

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