Can’t afford your own time machine? A ticket to the National Ballet of China’s Red Detachment of Women is the next best thing.
This ballet, first performed in 1964, is one of the ‘Eight Model Operas’ of the Chinese Cultural Revolution; a pet project of Madame Mao – Jiang Qing, Mao’s last wife and the leader of the Gang of Four – a tiny handful of artworks that Chinese citizens were able to enjoy without fear of arrest. These operas and ballets dominated the lives of mainland Chinese, blaring from speakers on streets, their stars staring down from posters. Famously performed for Nixon and Kissinger on their historic visit in 1972, it remains one of the few truly Chinese ballets.
The Red Detachment of Women has been performed almost continuously as a headline act of the National Ballet of China since its debut, frequently travelling the world, but yesterday marked its Australian debut.
Opening night at Arts Centre Melbourne saw heated protests out front – only a hundred or so protesters from the Australian Values Alliance – but their leaflet game was strong and their banner game was stronger. The well-dressed opening night crowd filed in, past protesters shouting “Fascist ballet!” and “Go back to China!”. The ballet has become the last remaining focal point for a political divide in the Chinese community; concerts in Sydney and Melbourne celebrating Chairman Mao were cancelled due to security concerns last year. Last night, protesters successfully brought a banner into the auditorium, but were quickly escorted out. Tickets were checked at interval.
The protesters claimed this work celebrates violence, which is absolutely true. If you’ve ever thought the problem with ballet was that it didn’t have enough mimed hand-grenade lobbings and pitched gun battles, then is this ever the ballet for you.
This production of Red Detachment is a scene-for-scene, costume-for-costume, step-for-step recreation of the 1970 film. Right down to the oversaturated colours of the backdrops, plywood sets and the contents of the prop fruit baskets, the recreation is slavish. In fact, it’s easy to believe the props and costumes are the same ones from over 50 years ago. Nothing has been changed at all – a perhaps conscious admission that this work is a historic artefact in a museum case and not a living artwork.
Ultimately, The Red Detachment of Women is propaganda in its purest form: this ballet is absolutely wall-to-wall with Communist cheese. Beyond the iconic en-pointe rifle-drilling ballerinas in military shorts, there are dewy-eyed political lessons and comradely arm-grips; revolutionary fists and steely eyes; and grateful peasants and villainous property owners. (Anything remotely approaching classic Chinese culture is carefully limited to the villains and a Cultural Revolution out-with-the-old segregation.) In one scene, there’s a rock placed stage left, for no real reason other than a convenient footing for a socialist-realist diorama: a wedge of soldiers, looking heroically at a 45-degree angle into the middle distance while a flag billows behind them. It’s a two-hour long propaganda poster with pointe shoes. All it’s missing is Mao’s face and a Little Red Book.
Performance-wise, the work is unimpeachable. This is a complex, lavish production, blending ballet with acrobatic feats and slapstick clowning, with up to 40 dancers on stage at a time. From prima ballerina Zhang Jian being flipped in the air in a ‘fight’ scene, to the Red Army soldiers grand-jete-ing their way to rescue the Commissar, it’s pretty much nailed from start to finish. Accompanied live by Orchestra Victoria and the Australian Choral Federation, it’s polished and perfect and would do the wax replica of Mao in Tiananmen Square proud.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews called securing the ballet a “coup” and Martin Foley says that “Freedom of expression is a foundation stone of a robust democratic society and a strong and vital arts community”, but it’s very possible to see this programming decision as a political one, especially if the work was offered rather than requested, which unsurprisingly, no-one is willing to clarify. Previous exports by the National Ballet of China have been less loaded; productions of Raise the Red Lantern and The Peony Pavilion. With the Chinese government increasing its nationalist nostalgia, it’s hard to see this work as existing in a vacuum.
Maybe, in the same way that it’s possible to admire the work of Leni Riefenstahl, it’s possible to admire The Red Detachment of Women. If anything, Red Detachment’s corkingly overblown propaganda – laid on like red buttercream icing on a plywood cake – undercuts any political message it once carried. To a knowing and jaded audience, it comes across as much as comedy as tragedy. The film’s climax comes as a main character, starry-eyed and smiling heroically, is burned alive to the tune of “The Internationale”, the Soviet-born anthem of communism.
One interesting little point of note: when the performers came out for their curtain calls, all the dancers playing the Red Army saluted, while the performers playing the villains gave the Bao Quan Li – the classic palm-against-fist salute of Chinese martial arts. It’s possible this was an incidental decision, but it was a jarring little reminder of just who the ‘villains’ represent – the entire history and culture of pre-Communist China, and much Chinese culture outside the mainland.
The Red Detachment of Women is about as important to the average citizen of modern-day China as Nixon is to Americans now, but it’s impossible to separate the promotional artwork from the thing it’s promoting: in this case, a regime that was responsible for deaths, torture, and destruction of history and culture. That said, if the only artistic trophy China gets to carry out of that dark time is this strange, spectacular, anachronistic ballet, then maybe that’s better than nothing.