A large Chinese hair ornament is displayed on a screen, greeting the audience at the Cairo Opera House’s performance of one the classics of Chinese fiction, “Dream of the Red Chamber.”
An Arabic voiceover reveals the ensuing tale is a tragic love story, and a pair of dancers projected onscreen introduces the fusion of Chinese dance and ballet.
Yet one is little prepared for the world into which we’re catapulted as the screen lifts. Tens of dancers in bright and flowing costumes parade to a lavish backdrop and at the court of the feudal household of Jia. At that moment, the audience experiences a metamorphosis into the noble elite of 18th century China.
The ballet score is composed by Su Cong, winner of the Academy Award for “The Last Emperor.” Award-winning Zhou Ming has directed this production of “Red Chamber,” produced by the Beijing Friendship Dance Company.
The musical adaptation, not unlike Cao Xueqing’s novel, is teeming with people. Featuring over 400 characters — including noblemen, wives, servants and concubines — the novel precisely depicts the lives and mores of the aristocracy and is considered an important document of social reality.
The main plotline of “Red Chamber,” though, revolves around a love triangle. Baoyu of the Jia family loves his cousin Daiyu. He is ordained, however, to marry Baochai, another cousin deemed to be a better social match.
Rich with allusions, subplots, and themes, “Red Chamber” is considered among the four foremost works of Chinese literature. (The other three are “The Monkey King,” “Tales of Heroes in Song Dynasty” and “Legend of the Three Empires.”)
Baoyu’s family name “Jia” translates into “fictitious,” suggesting the male protagonist’s life is a “dream” of the author’s own. Xeuqing’s semi-autobiographical novel is intended as a memorial to the women in his life, and the title “Red Chamber” refers to the sheltered chambers of the daughters of nobility.
Women occupy a privileged position in this tale and are portrayed with tenderness. Baoyu sees women as being of an essence as pure as water. From the matriarch Grandmother Jia dotes on Baoyu to a feisty young child who arrives at the court of the Jia family, women around Baoyu display a distinctive personality.
The dancer playing Daiyu steals the stage, and the scenes that are most powerful are those when even the background is stripped to respectfully witness her performance. Daiyu suffers from a respiratory ailment that causes her to cough. Her already fragile constitution lends poignancy to her devoted love for Baoyu. Much like water, the dancer’s slender frame registers every ripple and tremor of her character’s emotions.
Two scenes showcasing the love triangle of Baoyu, Daiyu, and Baochai crown this ballet. In a fan dance, the love between Baoyu and Daiyu is crowned, yet while others use the fan as a prop, Daiyu’s dance is more involved. She dips to the floor and opens to the air.
Hearing of Baoyu’s marriage to Baochai, Daiyu is stricken with grief, and dies of it. At the marriage, where Baochai is veiled to trick Baoyu, the ghostly frame of Daiyu tugs at their hands. Again she strives to strike at this union with her all, the little that is left of her.
The performer playing Baoyu — although evidently a skilled dancer — fails in conveying his grief with equal subtlety. Like some of the production and its backdrop, he errs on the side of exaggeration and ostentation.
His transformation to a monk, while mentioned in the program, is not as well remarked in the production. Instead, he renounces his family and enters into a dream of rain of white paper.
The music that scores Baoyu’s love for Daiyu has beats of Indian drums in its Chinese instruments, while his run-ins with Baochai and his father carry a few Western beats. Yet these subtleties need further enforcement, and the music does not retain a signature of its Oscar-winning composer.
Save for the simplicity of the love story, “Dream of the Red Chamber” is one of many distractions. Add to that the trip to China offered by the backdrops of banners, dragons, and insignia, and you have a dream that you know you’ve dreamt, but seems too long and too overwhelming to remember.
Originally published online at Daily News Egypt on July 7, 2010.