Wang Yuanyuan choreographed the 2008 Beijing Olympics opening ceremony, but she is also deservedly famous for creating China’s avant-garde productions of Raise the Red Lantern and Haze. Her resume can add Golden Lotus to its list of stunning achievements, though the Chinese government cannot be persuaded to agree. In fact, China, the source of the famous 16th century novel, Jin Ping Mei or The Golden Lotus, and the birthplace of Yuanyuan’s Beijing Dance Theater company, has been banned from that country because of its explicit portrayal of sex, adultery, and corruption in a decadent society. It is highly ironic and mordantly amusing to see an entire political party quaking and shuddering over images that can find their inspiration in centuries of Chinese pornography. And when will censors ever learn that the very act of censorship helps boost curiosity about the forbidden thing? China’s ban on the novel has led to massive downloads of the text on the Internet. Yuanyuan’s 90-minute dance piece dances past the dreary, pontifical censors—but its signal triumph is not as pornography. Far from it: Golden Lotus in its present dance form is a thing of rare beauty.
China’s majority needn’t worry. Yuanyuan’s adaptation is hardly a scrupulously faithful adaptation. How could it possibly be—as a dance piece that strips down most of the period and plot detail, simplifies the leading characters, and aims at aestheticizing what could be a schematic parable. The front curtain is a wide rendering in black and silver that remains down all through the Prologue in dim light where a tableau of half-naked dancers (in transparent gauze and flesh-coloured body suits) sets the tone for this piece that builds and subsides, builds and peaks over and over. When the curtain does lift, what we see is a jumble of almost nude bodies, limbs entangled, flesh unflinchingly exposed. It soon becomes evident that there is an anti-hero, Ximen Qing (Zhang Qlang), lean of body, supple in his sexual athleticism, who has an insatiable lust for women’s flesh. He catches the attention of Pan Jinlian (Feng Linshu), a married woman dissatisfied with her husband Wu Dalang (Qin Ziqian) and who, like Qing, is also infamous for her huge sexual appetite. The two principals perform a pas de deux that showcases his vigorous arms and sinewy body and her long, legged extensions that stamp her as an aggressive seductress of the first order. She sits on his back and pulls one of his legs, and subsequently aims her buttocks at his crotch. She is relentless in her lust, refusing to stop even when her husband appears at a window. When he does return to the house, the adulterers murder him, just so that Pan Jinlian can marry Ximen Qing. Alas, as his fifth wife, instead of inheriting uninhibited conjugal bliss, she inherits familial intrigue and corruption.
Wang Yuanyuan’s adaptation is but a skeleton version of the novel, opting to focus on destructive human appetite than an entire society’s social, political, and moral blights. But in its own tightly modest terms, it is an artistic triumph, with stunning décor and lighting by Han Jiang (inky black paintings, a cyclorama of burnished gold with impasto effects highlighted by top lighting, and a series of long tapestries whose flaps allow dancers to emerge from and disappear into the invisible). Oscar-winning costume designer Tim Yip suggests a social and moral landscape by his colours and fabrics, especially in the heavy black robes for what I took to be high-toned, haughty society censors offset by the filmy costumes for the principals and corps that permit an extraordinary amount of flexible freedom. Composer Du Wei has created one of the most fascinating soundtracks I have ever experienced for dance, mixing traditional Chinese instruments and tones with edgy, grainy, harsh contemporary effects.
But everything returns to the question of choreography and narrative, and even here, despite all the rigorous trimming, editing, and re-arranging, Golden Lotus is thrilling. Combining slow ritual with passionate eroticism, mystery with morality, the story limits its focus, gaining in dance power what it loses in fidelity to its huge literary source. To be candid, I did not get all the allusions made in the ill-written house program. Nor did I feel that the dance answered all my questions about its narrative. But what stage images created by a corps of twenty with absolute trust and faith in one another and in their choreographer! An octet of women, half naked to the waist, swaying in unison, their long, rippling skirts moving like water; an aggrieved husband performing his soul-destroying humiliation; two women engaged in a passionate contest (with sexual motive) on a gently rocking bed; the anti-hero’s physical collapse while surrounded by the tangle of hands advancing upon him; and his eventual backward disappearance into a huge shadow of what looks suspiciously like a woman’s vagina—emblem of the uncontrolled wild sex he has sought all his life.
But what of the title? There is no tangible lotus anywhere on stage, but there is a final Buddhist chant in Chinese, a sort of swan song, to remind us that the lotus (symbol of purity) floats above mud and on water: in other words, it symbolizes freedom from attachment and desire—the very things that bedevil Pan Jinlian and Ximen Qing. A pity that there is neither an explanatory program note nor Sur-titles in English. A pity, too, that this magnificent production is wasted on the Living Arts Center, a huge cavern (never with a full house) built in all likelihood to commemorate a former mayor’s ego rather than for any sensible, rational, artistic reason. A pity, too, that the Chinese audience seemed intent on chattering and taking covert film or photos while the dance was in progress.
Highly recommended to those who value dance in a very high reach as art.
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