He is the Alexander the Great of Chinese show-biz. Zhang Yimou is doing it again, conquering a new stage in a new art-after he was among the first generation of film producers to clinch China's first international awards in the post-Mao reforms, to charm the world by the splendor of the Forbidden City performance of Turandot in which he was the art director and to excite the young patriotic sports fans for the film he made for Beijing's bid to host the 2008 Olympics-stunning domestic audiences by directing the ballet Raise the Red Lantern.
Now he is taking his troupe of devoted performers, the National Ballet of China (NBC), on a daring expedition-to conquer theatergoers in Western Europe, the cradle of classical ballet.
In preparation for this expedition, Zhang and his colleagues designed, produced, re-designed and re-produced their art at such a high speed that it almost looked like an IT company churning out new software editions.
Finally, the firepower is ready, so to speak. It's Raise the Red Lantern Release 2.0.- a drastically revised version of a show based on a Chinese story repeatedly used by Zhang in his earlier film masterpieces.
Reportedly the ballet has been 90 percent revised, and compared to the NBC's determination to take its first European captives, Zhang has a higher ambition. That is to make Chinese ballet financially self-supporting.
Ballet groups are the ugly ducklings among Chinese art companies in their financial status, demanding continuous, although reluctant and far from enough, funding from the government.
This time, by scheduling 20 performances in Europe, among which seven are slated for the Chinese Government during the Sino-French Cultural Week, and the rest are to be staged in Britain and Italy, NBC managers said they hope to at least break even, or somewhere close to it.
Zhang Yimou-filmmaker-turned ballet director (YUAN MAN)
But on the home front, Zhang Yimou's name is already helping the Red Lantern's new release to make a killing on its national tour before heading to Europe.
This is the first time that NBC ballet dancers, who were for years legendarily underpaid and driven only by their personal commitment, have seen so much money. Indeed, as some Chinese art critics say, the Red Lantern may be the first sign of the ugly ducklings' eventual growth as a viable business, to add some precious color to the often brutally competitive, gray market economy.
New art, new territory (and applause from new audience), and new profit, Zhang the Great is pursuing all these at once. And this time, he might just get them all.
Movement I: Change
As a Western art form, ballet was first transplanted in China 50 years ago. But except for a couple of highly politically-charged "revolutionary" ballets during the Mao era, Chinese companies haven't really earned much attention on the international ballet stage. But earning a bravo or two from Europe has been an unfailing dream of many Chinese artists.
The NBC, founded in 1959, was like any state-sponsored institutions in China and reform of its financing has been slow. Through most of the 1980s-90s, when state funding dwindled and artists left in despair, little progress was made.