It wasn't until a couple of years ago when NBC finally awoke to the fact that the good old days were gone forever when the company could live comfortably on government subsidies and stage a few classic-works every once a while. That's why they came to Zhang Yimou-for his name, fame, his deft hand at filmmaking, and his seemingly unlimited potential in art direction.
Ballet in Chinese costumes (CNSPHOTO)
Movement II: Controversy
The story of Raise the Red Lantern, which was previously a feature film by Zhang, was thought to be a good material for expressing some Chinese art concepts and the contrast between Chinese women's inner worlds and the real world.
The plot is set in the 1920s. Situated in a large courtyard of an old-fashioned male-dominated family, the story is intertwined with love and hatred between the clan master and his three wives (or concubines), with a love affair between the third wife and a Peking opera actor as the main thread of the show - amid as many Chinese things as you can name: Peking opera, terracotta soldiers (as seen in the Qinshihuang Mausoleum in Xi'an), lanterns, mahjong games, carved wooden window frames, and silk cheongsams (traditional dresses).
By putting such a story on stage, one that depicts the seamy side of China in its pre-revolutionary time, and incorporating all the techniques he used so skillfully from different art forms, Zhang found himself surrounded by a whole Hood of controversies from the first day his production was staged.
But fortunately, art in China no longer has to be carefully analyzed for its alleged political significance. And for NBC, its choice of Zhang, desperate as it was, turned out to be a superb investment. In two years time, the ballet, in Zhang's original form that is, was staged 57 times, earning NBC nearly 10 million yuan ($1.09 million).
Movement III: More Change
Now this summer, young crowds are mobbing theaters, waiting in line to sec this season's hot performance. But it's not any Taiwan or Hong Kong's Canton pop singer landing on stage amid purple laser beams and green fireworks.
The big ticket is ballet now. At least it is in Shenzhen and Wuhan - and in Beijing, where the ballet company is based. The Beijing Tianqiao Theater, where the NBC started its seasonal show tour (all the way to Europe), the scalping price for VIP tickets hit 800 yuan (about $100).
Even the most affordable tickets cost 100 yuan each, more than one day's take-home income for a Beijing cab driver.
Yet it's all worthwhile, said Zhao Ruheng, President of NBC.
"With more expressive dancing, more mature details and plots and fully enriched character images, the new version is to meet the audience's aesthetic demands in a better way," she said in NBC's pre-show promotion.
It obviously did catch a lot of attention. After the first performance, Beijing's show biz press reported that the applause ran on nearly 10 minutes. 'Throughout the show," according to a commentary in Beijing Youth Daily, "every now and then you notice Zhang Yimou is trying to conjure some magic. By that you notice the chain of his thinking and you do appreciate the shining linkages in it."
Having noted that the new version of the ballet was more refined, Chinese Merchants News even called the Red Lantern "a very Chinese ballet."
According to Ou Jianping, a nationally-renowned choreographer and ballet commentator. Raise the Red Lantern may not be a masterpiece. "But it's all right. It has had enough significance by having aroused so much public attention to Chinese ballet."
Ou noted that never, over at least the last two decades, had a ballet performance integrated so many Chinese images and concepts, and attracted so large a crowd.
Movement IV: More Controversy
The NBC managers and artists were actually surprised by their own achievements. From the initial three performances in Beijing they reaped 600,000 yuan ($72,000) in box office income, three times more than the income that the Tianqiao Theater earns for average shows. In addition, there was another half million yuan ($60,000) from a corporate sponsor.
But money is the only aspect where everybody agrees the Red Lantern is a success. In fact, Zhang Yimou never has a shortage of people who don't like his work. Even though he has great talent in art production, he is, after all, an outsider to the ballet world.
All he has done on the stage, according to Liu Jing, a commentator for Guangming Daily, is to use the only thing he is good at, visual effects, to cover up the banality in his expressions of the characters and their inner worlds - despite the fact that the plot actually allows much room for such expressions.
The music is commonplace, Liu wrote. The whole show is wrapped in discontinued, fragmentary music pieces except for its story-laden theme.
According to Shen Minhua, editor of a national journal of dance performance art, Raise the Red Lantern still needs to work on its choreography. Although it has had some improvement from its first release, there still aren't any dances that are powerful enough to be unforgettable to an audience.
Some press reports also quoted audience as rating the show "best in stage art," "best in music," but only "above average" in choreography.
Will Zhang Yimou, who two years ago called himself just "a student" in choreography, be capable of coming up with a solution? He already has a new version of the ballet in the works, hoping to give more life and appeal to the Red Lantern's stage performance.
Will the European audience give his production a warm reception?
Will the artists in the NBC finally learn to live without Zhang's direction, and bring their performance to the point of perfection?
Like many reforms in China, this one may lead only to more questions.
Behind the Scenes
Raise the Red Lantern isn't just Zhang Yimou's project, a whole team of choreographers, composers and artists worked on the ballet's second version.
Choreography: Wang Xinpeng and Wang Yuanyuan are the two top choreographers who interpreted Zhang's ideas in the language of stage performance.
Himself a ballet dancer, Wang Xinpeng has been studying choreography since the 1970s. In the late 1980s he moved to Germany, where he furthered his study and worked in various ballet companies. Some of his more recent works earned him international awards. Since 2000, Wang Xinpeng has been directing choreography for NBC and was director of stage art for the Red Lantern in both its releases.
Wang Yuanyuan graduated from Beijing Academy of Choreography in 1995 before she went to study in the United States. She was not in the Red Lantern's first version, and proved to have played a "highly valuable role" in its second version, according to the NBC performance manager Wang Quanxing. She was the director of the revision of the mahjong dance, which she made more interpretive of the characters. The Chinese press calls her a "good storyteller in abstract language."
Music: Chen Qigang, a Chinese musician but long-time resident of France, divided his compositions into 40 percent modern Western style, 50 percent in distinctive Chinese style-based on either traditional operas or folk music - and the remaining 10 percent a combination of the two. "The ideal music" for the Red Lantern, said Chen, the son of a Chinese calligrapher, should be "a balance between the East and the West."
Costumes: Designed by French stylist Jerome Kaplan, the clothing of the three main ballerinas are in red, yellow and green. Kaplan made the costumes for other dancers in a bluish tone to serve as the background. The special design Kaplan adopted for the silk cheongsams (traditional formal dresses) retains the beauty of this tradition style but also enables dancers to move without any difficulty.
Promotion: The domestic side of Red Lantern's promotion is under leadership of Ye Biye, CEO of the Beijing-based Field-Sun Culture and Art Co. Ltd. Ye joined efforts with partner Li Han, chairman of the company, after he worked in a local TV station and a state-owned art management company. Now the two executives own Field-Sun, and in the last few years, it has grown from promoting fashion shows and watermelon festivals to become a specialized manager of art event. Field-Sun claims to have helped NBC fully book its shows from now to the end of December 2004, with total potential profit between 8-10 million yuan ($0.96-1.2 million).