Posted on February 4, 2020
The Red Detachment of Women is the signature work of the National Ballet of China, having been performed over 4,000 times since it was first choreographed in 1964, including as entertaining propaganda for President Nixon during his historic 1972 meeting with Chairman Mao. The ballet was adapted from a popular Chinese feature film of the same name, made in 1961, which was in turn based on a novel by Liang Xin.
This feminist fable conjures the imagination of Amazonian heroism, driven along by the virtuous ideal of oppressed people rising up against avaricious and vicious landlords. The narrative structure is loosely based upon Vasily Vainonen’s The Flames of Paris, made for the Kirov Ballet in 1932, just a year after the formation of the all-female Special Company of the Second Independent Division of the Red Army, which inspired the novel that became the film that translated into the ballet (and later also became a work of the Beijing Opera and a stage play).
When the nationalists overran the communist base at Hainan, during the first ten-year phase of the Chinese Civil War (1927 to 1937), the female detachment was routed. Many survived simply because – as women – they could hide in plain sight amongst the local population more easily. However, in this reimagined version of events, it is the women that emerge victorious from that battle. Co-choreography seems to be a norm in China, and The Red Detachment of Women was created jointly by Li Chengxiang, Jiang Zuhui and Wang Xixian. It’s ballet on an epic scale, visually spectacular, particularly during the battle scenes and, on the two occasions that the large stage is completely framed by an opera chorus of 80 singers in military uniform, it presents an impressive and uplifting experience.
Folk songs from Hainan Island – a place reminiscent of the tropical winds and coconut groves of South Pacific – merge with the symphonic grandeur of a score credited to five composers, performed at Beijing’s Tianqiao Theatre on December 10 last year, with great panache by the National Ballet’s Symphony Orchestra under the ebullient direction of Huang Yi. The rousing main theme – “The Song of the Detachment” – delivered by that huge military chorus, inspired an affectionate response from an audience that clearly cherishes it as something akin to a national anthem.
The story revolves around Qionghua, a slave whom we first encounter in a prologue, bound to a pillar in a dungeon on the plantation of the villainous Nan Batian (Li Ke). A weaselly lackey (Liu Kai) arrives with instructions to sell her, but Qionghua kicks him to the ground and escapes, only to be recaptured and beaten by Nan Batian’s militia. Left for dead during a tropical storm, she is revived by a scouting mission and taken to join the Red Detachment. Thereafter, the ballet is essentially a series of skirmishes culminating in a final battle in which Nan Batian (a name that means “tyrant of the South”) gets his deserved come-uppance, but only after having burnt to death his prisoner, Hong Changquing – the Red Detachment’s commissar – who bravely refuses to surrender his forces.
Although mainly concerned with romantic idealism, there is no place in the work for any actual romance to interfere with the progress of good defeating evil. The second act is dominated by combative choreography and a genuine case of bullets at the ballet, with “gunfire” dominating the action. The women’s grey/green uniforms with shorts and long socks seem incongruous battle wear and contrast with the colourful, tropical scenery and idealised snow-capped mountains on the distant horizon.
Hou Shuang, a soloist in the company, danced with expressive determination as Qionghua, unwavering in her long pointe solo, reminiscent of the terre à terre footwork of Frederick Ashton’s Sylvia; and Ma Xiaodong was heroic as the martyred Hong Changqing, particularly in his defiant final confrontation with Nan Batian. This is, however, a ballet for a big ensemble and it is the exceptional coordination of the corps de ballet that left by far the most impressive memory. The precision of the group choreography was as flawless as a military parade, and the concluding battle scene brought wave upon wave of soldiers crossing the stage in an ongoing torrent of coordinated grand jetés. Flanked by the mighty chorus there were up to 150 people on stage, with the dancers marching in unity to the powerful imperative of the theme song, accelerating to a rousing finale that had the corps massed across the breadth of the stage, moving inexorably towards the audience as the curtain fell.
Pictured: National Ballet of China in The Red Detachment of Women. Photographs courtesy of National Ballet of China.