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.