The Red Dress | Choreographed by Yin Mei and performed by China Ningbo Performance & Arts Group

Presented by China Arts & Entertainment Group | State Theatre, Sydney | Review based on 4 March performance

China Ningbo Performance & Arts Group is a recent cultural initiative founded in 2011. Since then the group has toured Europe, the US and parts of Asia, showcasing the culture and customs of Ningbo.

To our shores they bring The Red Dress,  a love story set in southern China, back, back in the day. No, skyscrapers here. This is not modern China, where the pace and scale of economic transformation has no historical precedent. Instead, this is an ancient time of folk customs such as Daughter’s Wine, Descendants Bucket and Rolling Silkworms, which for the wealthier villagers provide an opportunity to socialise.

This well researched production generously shares with us these ceremonies and customs using Chinese folk dance as its narrative mode. The tale focuses on two young people, both from affluent families — a young boy, A’yongis  (Zeng Ming), and a young girl, Yue’er  (Cheng Lin), who have been friends since childhood.

Gradually, as they grow, they fall in love and plant two pomelo trees for their engagement. However, before they marry, A’yongis feels he must make his way in the world, and so leaves the village, with the promise to Yue’er, that he will return when he has achieved success through hard work.  Furthermore, he tells her, “I will marry you and you will have a thousand red dresses.” Yue’er, believing marriage is fixed in the heavens, vows to wait.

Dai Yannian’s design work effectively visually transports us to this ancient land through exquisite costumes and skilfully crafted red dowry items, which fill Daughter’s Tower.  Red is regarded as a lucky colour and plays a vital role in the wedding festivities of Chinese people, signifying love, prosperity and happiness. Therefore, everything is red!

Yin Mei’s precisely crafted choreography creates a continuous collage of customs and ceremonies implemented with agility, strength and grace by The Ningbo Music and Dance Troupe. Cheng Lin and Zeng Min, the principal dancers, are excellent and easily steal the show, executing accentuated graceful limb extensions whilst at other times gliding and across the stage.

This is authentic and traditional Chinese dance at its best. Obviously it lacks the impact and wow factor of modern dance. Instead it provides a more sedate and wistful look at the elegance of China’s folk culture.