Proclaimed a “fascist ballet” by the anti-Communist protesters outside the Arts Centre, Proclaimed a “fascist ballet” by the anti-Communist protesters outside the Arts Centre, The Red Detachment of Women is China’s most well-known ballet. Famously performed for Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger on their historic visit to Beijing in 1972, and declared by Mao one of the Eight Model Operas to dominate the stage during the Cultural Revolution, The Red Detachment of Women holds an important place in China’s cultural heritage. So it makes sense that it is on a Melbourne stage as part of Asia-TOPA, a festival dedicated to the illumination and celebration of Asian art.
The Red Detachment of Women tells the story of slave girl Qinghua, who escapes her captive Nanbatian and finds safety in the Red Detachment of Women, an all-female unit of the Chinese Communist Party. Seeking revenge on her former master, Qinghua must learn to subjugate her desires for personal revenge and instead follow the discipline of the army. When she does kill Nanbatian, it is as a member of the military and not as a private citizen.
It is impossible to separate out the politics from this ballet. It is a bizarre mix of elegant, unmistakably European ballet and militaristic Chinese sentiment. The sets and lighting are beautiful, the dancers are remarkable, and the story is essentially a fairytale of good triumphing over evil. It does serve, however, as an uncomfortable reminder of the political autocracy that killed 45 million people. Sitting in the lush State Theatre, it is difficult to surrender to the sheer beauty of the ballet with the Communist flag waving proudly on the stage.
The Red Detachment of Women presents a fascinating question that it never intended to ask: is art that represents a political ideology that has caused so much harm, still valid? This ballet has been the cornerstone of the National Ballet of China for more than 50 years, faithfully preserved and replicated as it would have been when it first appeared. While there is little risk of turning anyone into a fascist, as the protesters would have you fear, it is a piece of art that can never be viewed without the storm clouds of Communism hovering threateningly over it, disrupting its never-ending blue skies and triumph of good over evil.
Still, it is a stunning piece of work. Orchestra Victoria’s performance of the score is lush and beautiful. Prima ballerina Wang Qimin is a gorgeous dancer, if a little emotionally flat. The sets are brilliant in colour, design and scale. And while there is little sign of the romanticism and whimsy which defines European and Australian ballet, The Red Detachment of Women presents us with a great story filled with resilient, strong-minded and socially-conscious heroines, striking visual and a delightful score. Which, really, is all you can ask of a ballet.