A giant antique lock rises above the stage at New York's Lincoln Center and the creaking sound of an opening door fills the room as the lock slides open, inviting the audience into the story of a patient maiden and her betrothed. As a cast of nearly 50 dancers take the stage, the Chinese National award-winning ballet The Red Dress begins with striking imagery of love, loss and tradition – a fairytale of days gone by.
The performance of The Red Dress, the third New York collaboration between the China Arts and Entertainment Group (CAEG) and Lincoln Center's David H. Koch Theater, debuted on March 6 in a series aimed to bring Chinese contemporary and classical performing arts to the United States.
The classic story of childhood sweethearts Yue'er (played by Cheng Lin) and A'yong (played by Zeng Ming) tells of their idyllic life in southern China set in the 1920s, falling in love and exchanging a promise to marry. A'yong leaves to make his fortune in the city, while Yue'er waits and dreams of the day she will wear a red dress and be carried in a sedan with a 10-mile dowry of red-colored treasures to begin her new life as a wife. It's a tale that would be cloying without the modern set design. An elevated back stage allows depth and deep crimson spotlights carry the red theme.
"The production team of The Red Dress consists of a few of best artists in Chinese modern stagecraft," said Song Guanlin, Vice President of CAEG, during a pre-performance press conference. "Director Wang Xiaoying is deputy director of the National Theater of China and has a unique understanding and method of presenting Chinese traditional culture on stage."
CAEG stages more than 5,000 shows, exhibitions and cultural activities each year across the globe. The Red Dress is aimed to show the wedding customs of China's southern Jiangnan region. Besides the red wedding dress, audiences also see the traditions of the bridal dowry, planting money trees for the couple, wedding procession, and the marriage bed when the husband is allowed to peek at his bride's face under an embroidered red veil.
"This dance performance is based on the wedding customs of Ningbo area, east China's Zhejiang Province," said director Wang. "Traditionally in this area, the wedding custom is: parents bury wine when their daughter is born and retrieve it to entertain guests at her wedding."
With no dialogue, the ballet relies on the choreography to get the message across. A touching dance between mother and bride signifies the bittersweet joy of the engagement and end of childhood, while a twisting, swirling piece shows Yue'er's frustrated longing as she chases the image of her lover around closed doors. Along with direction by Wang, Yin Mei led choreography and the composer is Lan Tian. The Stage Art designer is Dai Yannian and the Lighting Director is Xing Xin.
"The background music of violin and cello highlights the duet dance of Yue'er and her mother, representing the dialogue between mother and daughter vividly," Wang told Beijing Review.
China Ningbo Performance & Arts Group is an award-winning troupe from east China that includes traditional opera, song and dance. It has a staff of 312, including artists who have received the Plum Blossom Award for traditional Chinese operas, Special Allowances from the State Council, and acclaim and fame in the areas of the arts. The dance productions of the group mainly focus on the features of southern China and characteristics of Ningbo as a port city. They have produced many notable award-winning stage works. The Red Dress won the 11th National Spiritual Civilization Five Top Project Prize, and the Excellent Repertoire Award of the 7th China Dance Lotus Award.
Audience members told Beijing Review they were glad to glimpse the life of a young couple in southern China, a wholly different performance than CAEG's previous collaborations with Lincoln Center: Peony Pavilion and The Silk Road.