The National Ballet of China announced its presence with ostentation at the Théâtre du Châtelet on Tuesday. All-red lighting and staff dressed as Red Guards welcomed the audience in the hall; the grand foyer, meanwhile, was graced with a mammoth statue of Mao Zedong as décor for an official dinner. The Chinese company was presenting The Red Detachment of Women, one of eight “model” stage productions allowed during the Cultural Revolution, a work in which politics and art are inextricably entangled.
Much like China, The Red Detachment, whose creation in 1964 was overseen by Madame Mao herself, is full of contradictions. On the one hand, rarely in recent history has ballet been used to deliver such a clear political statement: the plot is an ode to the Communist Man and the Red Army as it marches on a despotic “Tyrant of the South”. (Even Soviet ballet was slightly more subtle, hiding behind the French or the Romans in its most famous revolutionary ballets and throwing in a love story or two.) On the other hand, the result has a more feminist vibe than narrative ballet has ever managed in the rest of the world, with an army of pointe-wearing, Amazon-like soldiers led by the female alter ego of Grigorovitch’s Spartacus.
In choreographic terms, the ballet is also a fascinating example of a nation assimilating and repurposing a foreign art form. Ballet wasn’t introduced in China until the 1950s and the arrival of experts from the country’s “big brother”, the Soviet Union. By the early 1960s, however, the two countries had severed their ties. Chinese ballet was left to its own devices, so the overall quality and longevity of The Red Detachment are impressive achievements.
Credited to three choreographers (Li Shengxiang, Jiang Zuhui and Wang Xixian), The Red Detachment is a Chinese cross between Spartacus and The Flames of Paris, complete with a replica of the latter’s “Ca ira” march. The choreography grows repetitive but relies on solid motifs and features accomplished corps scenes; the integration of Chinese dance and culture, including a cinematic score, is seamless. The storytelling is so earnest and naive, however, that it flirts dangerously with kitsch, and will leave many wondering what to make of its rose-tinted vision of revolution.
Regardless of ideology, the Chinese company’s ensemble proved beautifully coherent, with Russian-flavoured technique and exceptionally smooth, quiet pointe work across the ranks. Zhang Jian, the star of this tour, was poised and wholly convincing as peasant turned Red Army leader Wu Qionghua, and the male soloists shone. As in the lovely Makarova production of Swan Lake that opened the tour, the demi-soloists and corps occasionally lacked presence or fire, but we need to see more of this company – including, one hopes, more adventurous repertoire.