The climax of the celebrations last weekend marking the 10th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China was a fireworks display on Victoria Harbour on Sunday evening. At the same time, in the nearby Hong Kong Cultural Centre, the National Ballet of China, touring the city, performed its signature ballet The Red Detachment of Women.
Formed in 1964 before the Cultural Revolution as a propaganda ballet in the mode later favoured by Madame Mao, Red Detachment now looks extremely dated, but is nevertheless fascinating as a period curiosity, just like Yury Grigorovich’s Spartacus created for the Bolshoi Ballet in 1968. This two-act ballet, set in southern China in the 1930s, is about a poor peasant girl named Qionghua who narrowly escapes being sold off as a slave by a wealthy landowner. She joins the Red Detachment of the ballet’s title after being rescued by Hong, a Red Army cadre.
The choreography, a team effort by three people, is rather formulaic, but the various scenes – with dancers waving flags, pointing machine guns and brandishing knives – have a charming folksy vivaciousness that recalls the ballets of the great 19th-century Danish choreographer August Bournonville. Particularly interesting is a lively dance in which the village girls handle their bamboo hats as if they were tambourines, as in Bournonville’s masterpiece Napoli. In the ballet’s battle scene, episodes of sword fighting, cannon fire and machine gun warfare have a surging, thrilling momentum. The sight of the Red Army soldiers doing endless grands jetés across the stage provides a triumphant climax, although the final victory scene is too melodramatic.
Sun Jie danced the Red Army cadre with commanding authority and noble humanity. Jin Jia captured well the initial vulnerability and growing maturity of the peasant girl turned Red Detachment member. Company supporting performances were strong too.
The National Ballet’s present style and strength (especially evident in its leading ballerinas) was far better reflected by its two performances last week of the 19th-century classic Le Corsaire, first mounted in 1959-60 for the company by the Russian ballet- master Pyotr Gusev. This latest production was staged in Beijing several years ago by the Bolshoi ballet-mistress Marina Kondratieva. The choreographic text and most of the designs for the lavish sets and costumes are a close reproduction of the Kirov Ballet’s current 1987 production by Gusev and Oleg Vinogradov.
The National Ballet’s dancing wasn’t as full-bodied and intoxicating as the Kirov’s but it still brought a good sense of fun and excitement to this classic. The tall Hao Bin, just promoted to principal dancer, gave a dashing, powerfully danced performance as the swashbuckling pirate Conrad. Zhu Yan, exquisite as the Greek maiden Medora, danced impeccably on the first night, while Meng Ningning in the second cast was more musical, and notable for her graceful upper body.
Wang Qimin shone on the opening night in the second ballerina role of Gulnara, with her smooth and creamy phrasing. Cao Shuci, the company’s new 18-year-old wunderkind, whose Juliet debut I admired in Beijing last autumn, danced the same role incisively but with less polish. Among the three odalisques, Lu Na was the most Kirovian in style. The glorious garland dances in the beautiful “jardin animé” scene were zestfully performed by the corps de ballet.
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