Archives de Tag: Red Detachment of women

Ballet in Red, White, and Black. The National Ballet of China visits the Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris.

Photo IPHONESwan Lake, September 26
The Red Detachment of Women, October 1

Remember that the most beautiful things in the world are the most useless; peacocks and lilies, for instance.  [John Ruskin, “The Stones of Venice”]

Many would add ballet to Ruskin’s example. As an artifact of “aristocratic times,” while beautiful, has this art form outlived its usefulness?

Yet “aristos” means not only “most excellent” but also most…”useful.”  The ancient god Aristaeus watched over the shepherds, bee-keepers, cheese-makers, olive-growers, herb-gatherers, and sent the soft Elysian winds to waft over them and us as well.

With its double bill, this dual purpose is exactly what the National Ballet of China set out to prove during its two-week stay.  Urgent, honest, disarming, these dancers tried to convince the audience that even the modern chestnut that is The Red Detachment deserved viewing.

I fear that with all the brouhaha over the season opener of a series of La Dame aux camellias at the Palais Garnier…some of us may have forgotten that a lovely company with utterly appealing dancers was appearing only a few metro stops away.

Fine art is that in which the hand, the head, and heart of man go together [Ruskin, “The Two Paths”]

Cao Shuci (Odette/Odile) and Ma Xiaodong (Siegfried), two of the youngest principals in the company, certainly go together perfectly. Cao Shuci frightened me at first.  So thin and fragile (the young man sitting on my right muttered, “she’s thin as a stick!”), so broken, she projected the aura of a kitten that had been abused. Ma Xiaodong is not only blessed with the kind of lush plié that results in plush jumps, his partnering is warm, attentive, and nuanced:  at first his Siegfried seemed to fear to break his drooping lily of an Odette but soon realized to his delight that she was a most supple flower.

Odile brought out the peacock in both their souls.  Cao has marvelous eyes (downcast, sidelong, bold stare, as she wills) and a marvelous command of effect:  even if it’s choreographically the same step, she gives each pose a different energy, each time turning each arabesque into a different-looking one.  By the end of the evening, my neighbor [“that was her, too?”] sighed, “Oh, no, she’s perfect. I’m in love.”

Be sure that you go to the author to get at his meaning, not to find yours [“Sesame and Lilies”]

When I espied Ma Xiaodong among the vaguely folkloric quintet of boys during The Red Detachment, I felt grateful for an anchor. He reminded me of a lost world.

What on earth can an American in Paris (or the pampered gala group in the orchestra seats) today make of the “brighten the presence” stares directed at the audience, the constant beat and repeat of clenched and raised fists and brisk nods of the head, the flag-waving, and – worst of all — the stereotyped characters?  Just in case you didn’t get it, one of the Evil Landlord’s minions actually picks his nose. [No supertitle translation of the words on banners waved, of blackboard texts pointed to, or of song lyrics was probably a blessing. The recorded music, after conductor Zhang Yi’s tempestuous reading of the Swan Lake score, was not].

I just cannot embrace this ballet.  I get its meaning and historical import (bring ballet to the people, save ballet from attacks by party philistines by any means, any means, possible), but for all the masterfully danced enchainements and acrobatics (including an audience-pleasing citation of the serial grand-jétés from Harald Lander’s 1948 Etudes) I kept wondering: bring what ballet to which “people?” Had I been forced to dance this thing for an entire career, where almost every combination seems to be danced to the right, I would have shot myself and not the evil landlord.

Weirdly, swans and princes and fairies or even firebirds prove easier to identify with.  Yet Zhang Jian brought utter conviction to her role as the rebel-in-training, Wu Qionghua, as if she could flatten the enemy simply by arching her back, arching her eyebrows, and dancing beyond full out all the time (even so, she gave off hints of her inner Swan, incapable of gracelessness).  But her role – and that of her comrades, including Zhou Zhaohui’s emphatically brave and emphatically handsome Commander – pointedly leaves little room for much nuance or individual interpretation.

An evening of danced archetypes turns out to be most exhausting. I left the theater sagging under the weight of history. I had so wanted to get into the (collective) authors’ meaning, not mine. But – as with Spartacus or Les Miz – as hard as the performers try, I just cannot suspend belief the way I always can when confronted by a couple of swans wearing make-up.  As the victorious unit advanced en masse towards us, weapons in hand, I felt…nothing.

When we build, let us think that we build for ever [“The Seven Lamps of Architecture”]

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China’s glorious red detachment of women (Plot Summary)

RDoWYou’ve seen the poster umpteen times in the Paris metro by now:  the Swan Queen and a uniformed Passionaria facing off, their respective hindlegs raised up and delicately curved (a pose inspired by Giambologna’s Renaissance bronze of Hermes…the figure’s attitude was then adopted by Louis XIV’s dancing court at Versailles as the epitome of an elegantly poised position).

But the young woman on the right-hand side of the poster, the one wearing the rebel cap, stares at the world of ballet with steely eyes.  From her, and Madame Mao’s, point of view swans and ballerinas – from Leda to Odette/Odile – have always been silly geese, an easy metaphor for eligible/available/pliable young women. Why are artists perpetually fixated upon our bourgeois obsession with love? Why can’t we reshape dance to serve the revolution? Why can’t dance – even in toe shoes — be about brotherhood instead?

This ballet IS a face-off.  Collectively constructed and composed in Mao’s China of 1964, the Red Detachment of Women is supposed to provide answers to these questions.  It challenges the conventional way we have structured and told stories again and again and again in epics, cinema, poems, novels, opera, ballet – all media, indeed — since the beginning of time.  This ballet means to enlighten us to the fact that class issues, not personal romantic distractions, are what really matter in life.  How long has it been since you read a book or watched a movie that didn’t talk about love?

Unfortunately, this particular ballet is now about as “mod” as the Beatles. But we should take a look before we lade it onto the trash-heap of totalitarian-era kitsch. This period-piece documents an attempt by brilliant dancers trained in the classical tradition to keep the “decadent” art they loved alive during an era when the powers that be had deemed ballet pointless and worthy of extinction.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, Swan Lake and the rest disappeared from the national repertoire in China, and only a handful of radical ballets, including this one, got to be performed unto exhaustion.  But this ballet (and it certainly is one) has evolved into a nostalgic totem for an older generation for a rather poignant reason.  The uniform of the Red Detachment – hot pants, bare legs, bobby-socks thrust into pointe shoes – while certainly intended as macha, provided a rare moment of regime-sanctioned cheesecake in most serious times.  Sous les pavés, la plage!


The action takes place during the Chinese Civil War.  Everyone in the audience knows that the People’s Republic of China is about to prevail. Beware, evil landlords everywhere, especially on the first of the month…


PROLOGUE, night:

Our reluctant heroine/Wu Qionghua, tied to a pillar, struggles furiously to free herself.  A poor peasant girl, she has been singled out by the Evil Landlord/Nan Batian as one juicy and strong enough to be sold into slavery at a good price.

When the Evil Landlord’s Henchman/Lao Si tries to ready her for market…she escapes.

SCENE ONE, later that night:

She doesn’t get that far into the forest and the Evil Landlord Nan’s henchmen knock her out.  When the skies open and a violent storm erupts, the Evil Landlord and his minions flee, convinced the girl is dead.

Two innocent-looking men cross the stage.  But they are RED ARMY WARRIORS in disguise.  Hong Changqing/the Officer and Xiao Pang/the Messenger stumble upon the shattered Wu Qionghua.  She mimes/tells them about her miserable life.  They can only offer one solution:  to join in their crusade.

SCENE TWO, morning, a few days later:

The people and the rebel soldiers rejoice: a women’s revolutionary cell – the Red Detachment – has been created.  Their stylized training exercises remind us that ballet requires as much rigorous discipline as any “masculine” endeavor.  [The original cast actually underwent weeks of military training in order to lose their “SwanLake-y” softness).

Wu Qionghua arrives and denounces the crimes of her evil landlord.  Hong verifies her account.  As newly appointed commissar of her unit, Hong welcomes our fervent heroine to the “Detachment” and gives her a gun.

SCENE THREE, nightfall, at the Evil Landlord’s estate:

Hong, disguised as a rich merchant, has crashed Nan Batian’s birthday festivities.  Nothing could possibly go wrong.  At the sound of a gunshot at midnight, the women’s brigade will strike and annihilate the landlord and all his kind.

But Wu, unfortunately, totally messes up.  When she stumbles upon her former tormentor she cannot resist this chance to try out her new gun.  Not only does she miss her mark and thus allow the evil landlord to flee, but by letting her gun go off she has prematurely given the signal to attack.

While evil has not been wiped off of the face of the earth tonight, at least the rebels manage to seize the landlord’s hoard of grain. They redistribute it immediately to the poor.

Hong critiques Wu Qionghua for her ridiculously emotional behavior, unworthy of the warrior she must strive to become.

SCENE FOUR, dawn at the rebel camp:

Hong lectures the female division about the importance of discipline, of self-control, a lesson our ever less reluctant heroine takes to heart.  She now understands that she must fight not against HER landlord, but against ALL landlords.  She must leave her ego, her past, and her pains aside. Only then can she become an effective instrument of “the people.”

She has transformed herself into Hong’s best comrade-in-arms. This, then, is what true love is about: community. 

As one big happy family, the peasants and the Red Army Soldiers, share their joy.

When the Evil Landlord’s minions attack a recently liberated zone, the entire village heeds the call to arms and heads off to fight for everyone’s freedom.

SCENE FIVE, in the mountains:

The Red Army tries to squeeze the enemy and cut off its supply lines.  Hong, trying to protect his unit, is wounded and captured.

SCENE SIX, dawn, at the landlord’s estate:

Hong dies, heroically.

But so does the Evil Landlord (much less heroically).

Blue skies chase the clouds away.

Qionghua takes over for Hong and humbly agrees to become Party Commissar.

Peasants and soldiers and audience now must join in singing “The March to Victory.”

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