(on behalf of Emily Hanson)
The Red Detachment of Women: Art in the Throes of Change
“One of the most powerful and moving ballets from the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Instead of weak, fragile women dressed in fluttery tutus, women were depicted in military uniforms with rifles. Instead of frail motions, women had strong arms and clenched fists. This play shook the entire foundation of bourgeois art.”
Ballet as a medium is restricting and unified, expressive and without limits. These seemingly opposite parallels in the world of dance are not only what makes the art form so beautifully of its own, but what so closely ties it to China, to the recently celebrated 60th anniversary of the Peoples Republic of China.
In an examination of cultural forms—in this circumstance, dance—there is a divine parallel between the nature of the form and the actual artistic piece presented. A desire for escape exists—of leaving the present time to be immersed with the life of the art. The potential catch-22 is the depth of the medium and the cultural/political undertones of these stories.
The story of The Red Detachment of Women, for example, takes place during China’s ten-year Civil War and is about one woman’s trials and tribulations to become the Commissar of the Red Detachment of Women. The end of the play is marked by a vow: “Forward, forward! Under the banner of Mao Zedong, forward to victory!”
Quite clearly there is cultural resonance in The Red Detachment of Women—whether a critique or celebration of history. The Red Detachment of Women was one of “eight” model works permitted during the Cultural Revolution. These stories, ranging from plays to films to operas to ballet performances, have striking political overtones of the time but remain popular today. The resonance a repertoire dance or operatic piece can have is really quite astounding. Consider works like Swan Lake and Don Quixote that have been performed numerous times but remain as cultural milestones in the genre. Red Detachment, in the midst of the Cultural Revolution of China, has morphed into a momentous work, renowned not only for the art of the ballet itself but for its component of history.
Within the collection of dance pieces the National Ballet of China performs, cultural milieus run rampant. The dancers embody not only a timeframe but history, ancestry—the life worked towards and away from—in their profession that in many cases moved the dancers from their families. The parallels between the regimented training of the dancers in contrast to, say, military training, do not go unnoticed. Coincidentally enough, the original dancers from The Red Detachment actually lived in military camps to learn swordplay to vividly portray the soldiers on stage.
In September of 1964, the National Ballet of China premiered The Red Detachment of Women, which would go on to become the first and most successful full-length Chinese ballet. Two versions of the story were filmed—a film in 1961 on which the ballet was based, and the other in 1972 of the production of the National Ballet of China. This Sunday at 3 pm, the Walker will be screening the 1972 filmed ballet as a part of the People’s Republic of Cinema: 60 Years of China on Film. The 1961 film will be screened Monday, November 9th at 6 pm at the University of Minnesota’s Bell Museum Auditorium.