Dance, Reviews, Stage

The Red Detachment Of Women (Arts Centre, Melbourne)

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In legendary funny-man Mel Brooks’s film The Producers, a pair of hapless con artists looking to put on a flop, stage a new musical – Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp With Eva and Adolf at Berchtesgaden. It’s a show they believe so tasteless, offensive and ideologically repulsive, that audiences will be sent running. Much to their astonishment, it actually ends up being a box office smash hit. Watching National Ballet of China’s production of The Red Detachment of Women, the headline event of the Arts Centre Melbourne’s Asia-Topa Festival, I couldn’t help but feel the same striking sense of disbelief as the audience warmly applauded.

This ballet was one of eight endorsed “model dramas”, engineered by Jiang Qing, the wife of China’s Chairman Mao Zedong. These propaganda spectacles projected a glorious fantasy of unity, prosperity and technicolour Communist ideology, extolling the virtues of China’s Cultural Revolution while reinforcing the message that duteous citizens of the Proletariat state should defend those ideals with both their mind and body.

This ballet is a chilling reminder of the power and purpose of disinformation.

Famously, this ballet was performed for Richard Nixon on his landmark visit to China in 1972, as a boastful display of Chinese strength and tenacity, but for eight years before that historic performance, The Red Detachment Of Women had been used as a political platform to celebrate Mao’s socialist idyll. Drawing on aspects of historical truth (the story of the 2nd Independent Division of the Chinese Red Army, who fought Nationalist dissenters in the 1930s) wrapped up in a sanitised, party-approved aesthetic, it’s a bizarre mix of elegant, thoroughly Western classical ballet and bombastic military bluster. Superficially, it’s a reasonably handsome production, well danced and slickly executed, but it is impossible to separate its artistic kudos from its political mandate — the explicit purpose of championing an autocracy estimated to be responsible for the deaths of at least 45 million people.

It has been a flagship production of the National Ballet of China for more than 50 years, faithfully preserved decade after decade. Its lurid blue skies, heavily armed characters and rousing, pomp-stuffed score feel almost comically dated; a glazed-eyed, indestructibly chipper brand of ardent, unquestioning civics. But it also feels familiar, for all the wrong reasons. The 20th century saw the rise of many monstrous dictatorships, most notably Hitler and Stalin, and they too hijacked art in the service of their horrifying agendas. The atrocities of the Soviet Union and the Third Reich are unanimously decried by those of us blessed to live in democratic societies, but the brutality commonly used in Mao’s Communist Revolution doesn’t inspire the same outrage in the West. Violence and starvation was used on an industrial scale to coerce hundreds of millions of Chinese men and women to fall in line, and yet a keystone production of that same regime appears on Melbourne’s most hallowed stage without the faintest hint of cognisance.

How the Arts Centre have failed to register what staging this production conveys about its politics is, quite frankly, flabbergasting.

The voices of questioning artists are still stifled in China today, Ai Wei Wei being the most prominent of those firebrand creatives, whose work featured in a lengthy retrospective last year at the NGV. The fact that there appears to be an almost wanton lack of historical awareness, of China’s track record on both Human Rights and freedom of expression, makes Asia Topa’s decision to present The Red Detachment Of Women bad enough. But given the paradigm shift we’re seeing in the current geopolitical landscape, as some of the world’s greatest powers toe the line between popularism and fascism, this ballet is a chilling reminder of the power and purpose of disinformation. The rise of the Right has made every creative act a political one; how the Arts Centre Melbourne have failed to register what staging this production conveys about its politics is, quite frankly, flabbergasting.

Does this incredulity make me a liberal snowflake? Quite possibly, but it is surely the duty of thinking, feeling people in our post-truth age, confronted daily by creeping discrimination and “alternative facts”, to challenge the normalisation and reverence of State sanctioned propaganda, even when it takes the guise of a pleasant night out at the theatre.

[box]The Red Detachment of Women has its final performance at Arts Centre, Melbourne at 7pm February 18[/box]

20 responses to “The Red Detachment Of Women (Arts Centre, Melbourne)

  1. and you will be as vicious and petty when Shen Yun appears at the Regent . after all it is just part of the Falan Data propaganda machine with their distorted truths, and if you don’t believe that then look at their web page for Shen Yun and what about the Russian ballets that come out hmm Putin’s sponsorship is never mentioned. HOW ABOUT BEING AN ARTS CRITIC , the dancing while not fabulous was exacting and precise, if you want to be a political reporter then change jobs but lets hear about the dancers.

  2. A very good review, Maxim. I was horrified that this piece was performed here, and the reactions from the presenters at the Arts Centre left me incredulous.

  3. That was a rant but what exactly are you mad about Colin?. Russian Ballets are not, as you say, Putin endorsed since ballets with like La Bayadere or Fountain of Bakhchisarai can hardly be considered state-sponsored propaganda; which The Red Detachment of Women clearly is. So – no we can’t talk about the dancers. The Australian reported last year (Oct 27, 16) that “Australia – Chinese-Australian members of the Australian Values Alliance have already successfully opposed concerts celebrating Mao Zedong planned for Sydney and Melbourne town halls last month, causing their cancellation. Now they are drawing up a petition against four Australian performances of The Red Detachment of Women by the National Ballet of China in February at the Melbourne Arts Centre.” I for another will be staying away.

  4. Here’s an interesting excerpt while I consider why I oppose this ballet being staged here. “Since the end of the Cultural Revolution and the start of the relative liberalism of the post-Mao era, critics in the People’s Republic of China (hereafter PRC) had attacked model theater out of a shared sense of righteous opposition to what they saw as the evil products of a political and cultural disaster. The sole reason for the existence of model theater was to serve and satisfy Jiang Qing’s evil personal ambition, according to these critics. Model theater is hereviewed solely in terms of its political context, or as a part of that political context itself. In other words, it is not only regarded as the product of the political turmoil, but also as being partially responsible for that turmoil” end-quote.
    Source: Bai, Di (n.d) “Feminism in Revolutionary Model Ballets The White-Haired Girl and The Red Detachment of Women”. Retrieved Feb 19, 2017 from

  5. As Colin says the Shen Yun performances make my skin creep, both for the propaganda and for the lack of artistic merit.
    The original movie performance of the Red Detachment had a majestic ballerina, Xue Jinghua. It is a piece of history indeed, does nothing to praise the legacy of Mao, but is worth viewing as history. The merit of the performances is what you should be commenting on. Did you?


  6. Well thank you for the history lesson but to all your best efforts it remains a significant piece of cultural history of the country from which it came. Now I’m not going to suggest that Wagner flicked the switch to release the sarin gas so I thnk i’m adult enough to separate contemporary politics from what is in front of me. Clearly, I saw a different show to the mass murderers you saw. It is an artistic triumph, full of high drama and designed to be seen by as wide audience as possible. The overt message of the beauty of the collective and the striking imagery that it produces that are so reminiscent of the artwork of the cultural revolution is iconic and no wonder that is stil performed.

  7. This review is not a dance review: ‘I was Chairman Mao’s Dog’

    Good to see all of the valiant attempts at keeping politics out of dance. These efforts are sickly reminiscent of the critiques of the anti-apartheid movement back in the early 70s. Then it was all about keeping politics out of sport. I’m not sure however about the attribution of Jiang Qing’s artistic efforts being completely aligned with her husband, the Chairman.

    If we consider that the Gang of Four, which included Jiang Qing, were publicly denounced and derided in in the early 70s, we might conclude that Mao no longer supported his wife in any way.

    If we also heed the report that Mao introduced Jiang Qing to politics in 1962, shortly after he began an intense sexual affair with a beautiful 18-year-old (The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962-1976, Frank Dikotter), we might conclude that Jiang was neither in league with, or in complete agreement with, Mao’s political agenda.

    Indeed, the first work commissioned by Jiang Qing in 1963 concerned the story of a young concubine who betrays her ageing master for a younger lover. Apparently, Mao took umbrage at what he thought was a veiled comment on his own philandering. What was known definitely about Jiang Qing was that she used her influence to settle old personal scores. By 1966 the writing was on the wall for the Gang of Four. Mao was publicly critical of their ‘arrogance’ and opportunism’.

    After Mao died in 1976 it was the end of the Gang Of Four. They were arrested shortly after Mao’s death and blamed for all of the misfortunes and suffering of the previous ten years. While serving a life sentence, Jiang Qing hanged herself with a noose fashioned from her own socks.

  8. A lack of historical knowledge is dangerous. To talk of the Chinese Revolution as a ‘brutality’ and not to mention the occupation by the Japanese Imperial Forces, and the mass popular support and leadership of the Revolution by Chinese people is dishonest.
    The 1933 Women’s Red Battalion was part of the Long March which began in 1922, with has mass agrarian and city support and its core aim was to oust the Imperial Japanese Armies and their own pro Japanese Government. The Japanese Imperial Armies and the war against them resulted in 20 m Chinese deaths fighting the Japanese. The Japanese Imperial Forces conducted mass atrocities against the Chinese people to rival what the Nazis did to Jews, Roma, Slavs and so on. The Japanese Imperial Forces, raped 250,000 women in Nanking. Mao was one of those great military leaders, far less a civic one, who amassed huge pop support against the Japanese and their allies in China. The support he had and the CCP dwarfed any support the Nationals had. As a leader in civil times, one can comfortable say Mao failed, he a very poor economist, a narcissist, and enamoured with power. Alas, the CCP was about to curtail it dramatically until he instigated the Cultural Revolution.
    The Cultural Revolution 1966 – 1976 was a much later, three years after the piece was written. The Cultural Revolution was populist and chaotic, and many old cadres from the 1922 – 1949 period suffered.
    It was a dangerous movement, devoid of any leadership, instigated by an ageing Mao and mainly the Gang of Four to undermine the CCP curtailing Mao’s power.
    Zhou En Lai who was by 1960s a ‘non person’, was one of the founders of the 1933 battalion, and the battalions were led and managed by women, which fed, clothed, protected, administered education and health services to masses of starving peasants.
    And fought against the Imperial Japanese and Nationalist Chinese.
    The dance, the piece, as a propagandist piece and not unlike Beethoven’s Ninth, which was part of the Romantic cult of reason, and a response to Napoleon, someone Beethoven admired until he saw what Napoleon did.
    So, when one reviews such a piece, there should be knowledge, of the political and philosophical underpinnings of liberalism, fascism and communism, and history, particularly theimportant of the 20th C, the Chinese Revolution.

    1. Well that was a well – taught piece of commentary barely mentioning the 80 million or so deaths in Mao ‘ s time. The CCP like all oppressive regimes will crumble eventually. So sad for those hapless individuals in China – and its neighbours -who will be tortured and die waiting for more netizens to develop ethics, conscience, courage and compassion.

  9. At one time I lived in Qionghai on Hainan Island where the Red Detachment of Women actually existed. Although I never met any of them, some of the women were still alive at the time I was there. (Hainanese women are very long-lived; many live well into their 90s.) Hainan was always an insular, sleepy sort of place but that changed when it became a Special Economic Zone, which led to an influx of (sometimes seedy) people and money from the Mainland. There is a statue of the Detachment of Red Women in Qionghai. Somewhat ironically, at the time I was there the street in front of the statue was lined by a massage parlours (brothels).

    I mention the above because in all the political brouhaha it’s easy to forget that these were real people. If you know Qionghai you inevitably have more nuanced feelings for this opera than people with ideological persuasions.

  10. If we’re going to ban all artistic endeavour from times and places with less than squeaky clean political systems, we’re in for a barren time.

  11. So, what was the quality of the dancing like? Is the “one star” for the fact it was staged here or was it for the quality of the actual performance of the dancers?

  12. The red detachment of women is a ballet about a political system and thes rest of this is just plain noise. Those of you who want to curry favour in the path of the rising hegemony of china might need to be reminded of the difference between art and what this is. You might want to get used to watching this for many many more years.

  13. @colin Since when has art and art criticism ever been just about the work?
    Look at the criticism of films, decried as showing a US-centric view of the world, the actors in a play about the US revolutionary period stopping in the middle to berate a future Vice-President, Banksey’s art is a political act decrying the direction of Government in the UK.
    The use of art in political manner has a very long and disgusting history, this ballet is simply another expression of that.
    Criticism of the arts context and history is complete justified, after all art is politics, just in a different forum.

  14. Only one sentence about the production in a long piece masquerading as a review (“a reasonably handsome production, well danced and slickly executed”) and one star suggests that the reviewer is more concerned to make political points (some very poorly informed) than assess this production which is an important historical and cultural artefact long since removed from its original didactic purpose. Interestingly it is foreign presenters and audiences that seek out this work – it is very seldom seen these days in China. After Melbourne, the next showing of this work will be a return season at the National Opera House in Paris. The National Ballet Company of China is today considered one of the top classical dance companies on earth. “The Red Detachment of Women” is their third production to be seen in Melbourne and all have been of the very highest calibre. Thank you Arts Centre Melbourne.

  15. Bang on Maxim.
    Mao and his mates were all vicious thugs; no different to Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Kim Jong etc’s, Castro, Che, Ho Chi Min, Gadaffi, Guzman and all the rest.
    I would be interested to view this performance in the context of an historical window shedding light on the machinations of a sub-human regime.

    Clear framing of such a performance is vital as new generations engage in our recent global history.

    A highy intelligent 23 year old woman I know visited Auschwitz and felt deeply intimdated by the horror of it’s history. She also expressed to me how strange it is that the communist regimes who committed atrocities on similar and larger scales aren’t talked about and presented to us through the media within the same framework of obvious evil as it is with Hitler’s nazis.

    I told her my view that many in the media and the arts were sucked in by the flawed theory of communism in their university years and have struggled ever since to reconcile this with what Solzhenitzin told everyone about the horrific realities of a totalitarian regime.

    By all means let us see performances such as The Red Detachment of Women, but we should also bear witness in the context of what they were meant to achieve.

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