The truth of fiction

“Truth becomes fiction when the fiction is true; the real becomes not-real where the unreal is real.” — Cao Xueqin.

Published in Al Ahram Weekly

Last week, when the Beijing Friendship Dance Company performed Dream of the Red Chamber in Cairo and Alexandria, they offered us not only a wonderful dance drama but also a dream-like world of Chinese perfection. Dream of the Red Chamber or The Story of the Stone is one of the four classic pillars of Chinese literature, the other three being The Monkey King, Tales of Heroes in Song Dynasty and Legend of Three Empires. It took Cao Xueqin (Tsao Hsueh-Chin) ten years to write Dream of the Red Chamber ; and the English translation of the novel is 2,000 pages long. This monumental novel became a pinnacle of 18th-century Chinese literature, involving over 400 characters from five generations, and presenting a detailed portrayal of feudal reality, politics, customs, morals, philosophy, life and love; it is almost an encyclopedic depiction of a nation at the threshold of social change.

Due to its huge cast and complex plot, Dream of the Red Chamber is not an easy work to transport onto the stage. Based on the novel, the ballet looks into the main love theme, a triangle involving three protagonists: Jia Baoyu, Lin Daiyu and Xue Baochai. Baoyu is a special child: he was born with a rare jade in his mouth (the name means “precious jade”); he grew up surrounded by love and tenderness and now reciprocates those feelings with his cousin, the beautiful young Daiyu. Their love story is continuously interrupted by Baochai, however, another cousin of Baoyu’s. Baochai is a strong presence in the triangle; not only does she have the benefit of intellectual accomplishments and no less perfect manners, her family also orchestrate a ruse to make sure she becomes Baoyu’s wife. This is too much for the gifted but fragile Daiyu, who being an orphan is left alone to cope with her emotional turmoil. When Baoyu is tricked into marrying Baochai — discovering the mistake only when he unveils his bride — Daiyu dies of despair desperation. In the original story, Daiyu leaves Baochai and the family to become a monk.

The Beijing Friendship Dance Company went a step further in their interpretation of the Dream of the Red Chamber. The ending differs to that of the original novel. With nearly exploding timpani and other percussion instruments, Baoyu expresses his anger, rejecting the family that betrayed him. He leaves the castle and dances, to a touching theme on the flute: a solo scene in which he recalls the tenderness he shared with his beloved Daiyu. As if entering a dream, the family comes back upstage and forms a line of motionless and expressionless figures. Their attitude shows how distant they are, physically and emotionally, from the hero’s soul. Slowly they collapse on the stage, one by one, as he taps them on the shoulder. This magical and almost surreal atmosphere is like a dream and seems to be Baoyu’s way of reaching the afterlife, where he can rejoin his beloved Daiyu. Baoyu and Daiyu dance together tenderly. Thus the last scene not only communicates hope for lovers to find happiness together, but also forms a beautiful bridge back to the ballet’s opening prelude, in which Baoyu and Daiyu performed their pas de deux, effecting a circular closure.

Baoyu (Zhang Jin) and Daiyu (Wan Sheng) recall many lovers trapped in hostile social or family networks of relations. The love of Baoyu and Daiyu, just like that of Nikiya and Solor (La Bayadere) or Romeo and Juliet, is destined to end tragically; and even if, from the very beginning, we do not expect the two lovers to triumph over their fate, we repeatedly enjoy the process of dramaturgical buildup translated through the most artistic means. Sheng is one of the most sensitive — and technically flawless — dancers that the Cairo Opera House has hosted this season. The final death scene where Daiyu’s body is shaken by bad health and desperation turned into a moving cry of love; its amplified melodrama created a strong contrast with the simultaneously ongoing wedding of Baoyu and Baochai (Yuan Lin). Together with Baochai or Daiyu, Baoyu dances several pas de deux, while on other occasions all three protagonists perform pas de trois. In all such scenes, the music and choreography underline the contrasting characters of the two women: the one strong and sure of herself, the other weak and melancholy.

Theis love triangle drawn from the Chinese literary classic is a perfect opportunity for Chinese artists to demonstrate their astounding artistic skill. The ballet would not have been as spectacular without the music composed by Su Cong, the choreography by Zhao Ming, the breathtaking set. Unfortunately the set and costume designer’s name is not listed in the programme notes — too bad, since the scenography, from the outline of a palace or garden to the smallest details, is magnificent: colorful yet aesthetically. Nothing, not even in the tiniest details, accessories or embellishments, is accidental. Through the whole ballet, each plays an important and active role in the whole dramaturgy.

Su Cong is a well-known Chinese composer, a winner of the Best Original Music Score for his music to Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor. His work includes dozens of scores for mostly Asian film productions. In Dream of the Red Chamber, Cong uses a large orchestra, incorporating Chinese instruments and melody with Western harmony. The music transports the listener into a uniquely Chinese reality, but through its contemporary spin and references to Western tradition, it becomes a beautiful compromise for ears not attuned to traditional Chinese music. Cong walks the listener between rich and grandiose orchestration of beautiful melodies and simple themes played by either one or a set of very few instruments. In some scenes the Chinese musical heritage is strongly intercalated with jazz elements and even rock lines are apparent, especially in the second act.

Not only the music but also the choreography created a perfect balance between Chinese and Western traditions of this art. Zhao Ming, an accomplished Chinese choreographer, depended on classical ballet forms, colouring them with Chinese stylizations and elements borrowed from Chinese traditional court and folk dance, as well as light acrobatics. It is worth mentioning that classical ballet is not very popular in China. It was introduced to the country by Soviet artists in the early 1950s (especially with classical versions of Swan Lake and Giselle ), at the time of rising awareness of ethnicity and traditional Chinese dance forms. In dance drama the Chinese stage found the perfect compromise, hence its growing popularity, by reaching back to Chinese legends and traditional stories as thematic sources, and setting them in classical ballet forms. Dream of the Red Chamber proved to be fertile soil for Chinese artists to develop dance drama. It is a wonderful amalgam of dance and music genres and an aesthetic delight for audiences around the world.


Dream of the Red Chamber, Beijing Friendship Dance Company, Music: Su Cong, Choreographer & Director: Zhao Ming, Cairo Opera House Main Hall 5-9 July, Alexandria Opera House 10-11 July.

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