Saturday, September 06, 2014


This ballet was quite ahead of its time and has become a Chinese classic

Wangchun Shi – Hongwei Dai – THE RED DETACHMENT OF WOMEN – 1970


This ballet was premiered in 1964 two years before the beginning of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution led by Mao Zedong’s wife Jiang Qing and it became one of the eight revolutionary forms that could be used during this Cultural Revolution. Without discussing the principles of this revolution, I would just like to make some remarks on this ballet which is quite interesting.


First it is an old story that was brought to the cinema in 1960 by Xie Jin. It refers to an episode of the Communist struggle in China in the 1930. It clearly identifies landowners as the class enemy and the Kuomintang as their political and military allies. On the other hand it is the alliance of the proletarian farm workers and industrial workers that is led to victory by the Chinese Communist Party. The second element here is that two composers are attached to this ballet, Wangchun Shi and Hongwei Dai, though it is not asserted by everyone and some sources closer to the Maoist tradition seem to consider there was no composer per se.


Then we have to speak of the music. The instruments are all European instruments and not traditional Chinese instruments. This ballet moves ballet music from traditional Chinese music to more European or western canons: harmony, melody, the scale and most other composing elements are just in that European style. We can even here and there hear some discreet echoes of some western tunes, and of course the International that is played twice. This is the main trait of this music: it could very easily be played in the West because the really Chinese elements are rare, except the chorus around the 65th minute which really sounds Chinese. I must admit though the music is often slightly overbearing and pompous. Even the very sentimental scenes of the films have been cut off and the more sentimental music along with them, for instance the birth of the baby or the wedding.


The ballet is itself very original, and this time including for the west. The costumes of the women and men are no longer revolutionary because the tutus are today very obsolete in modern compositions and they are even getting obsolete for modern productions of traditional western ballets. More and more dancers are wearing costumes that represent their parts and hence are becoming meaningful about the story itself. It is maybe true that in 1964 the loss of the tutu was far from being won, and it is true it is still overused in ballet classes, for girls. We could also speak of ballet slippers, and there this ballet does not innovate that much, especially for women.


It innovates a lot on the style, on the choreography. There is plenty of traditional classical dancing, even if men are not carrying women and if women are strong enough to carry light-weight wooden guns. But this classical dancing is associated quite often with some more modern or contemporary dancing that avoids the classical steps and is more “improvised” or natural as for the steps and the allures. But there is another aspect that is very important. The body and facial language is extremely widely and constantly used and it is very expressive. In fact it is inspired from the conventions and expressive styles developed by the greatest silent cinema directors and actors. They speak with their hands, arms, legs and a lot more than just a raised fist, and their faces are constantly expressing sentiments and emotions, crying even, and it is not only the way the head is set, postured, erected but also the eyes and the mouth are speaking to us. This body and facial language is part of the ballet and that is of course extremely new in 1964. Rare were the dancers who did it and rare were the choreographers who would have insisted on such elements as being central in the show.


My last remark is about special effects, particularly to have full-blown battles on a stage. Instead of having a full mess and melee the mass of dancers is limited to a very decent number on each side and the choreography remains extremely neat and very fast these confrontations are reduced to groups of six, five or less keeping thus the confrontation to a very well organized construction. The special effects then are necessary with all kinds of shooting and explosions, often not happening on stage but watched from the stage down in the countryside or the valley. The execution of Hong Changqing, the Communist Party Branch secretary, climbing himself on the pyre while the International is being played and then the fire that burns him to death are simple and a lot more impressive than any other treatment of such an event because it remains dignified, and it is transformed into some kind of sanctification at the end, after the victory, with a red light on the tree where Hong Changqing was burnt to death and while once again the International is being played all the soldiers, male and female, are assembled in proper order standing at attention facing the tree and turning their backs on the audience. It has some kind of mystic or mythic dimension.


This high level of dramatic action realistically brought up by all visual means available was very modernistic for its time, though today it has aged a little. Angelin Preljokaj produces a great lot of such ballet choreography, and he is not the only one.



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