Reflecting on and remembering The Red Detachment of Women: Wen Hui’s Red

Purcell Room, Southbank Centre, London
October 4, 2018

David Mead

Premiered in Beijing in 1964 and staged over 3,800 times by the National Ballet of China (中央芭蕾舞團) since, The Red Detachment of Women (紅色娘子軍) remains an iconic ballet. In Red (紅), Wen Hui (文慧), founder of Beijing’s Living Dance Studio (生活舞蹈工作室) draws on documentary footage, interviews with original cast members and live dance in a fascinating consideration of the work. In many ways, the ballet is merely a starting point, however, as she also constructs a critical look at the Cultural Revolution as a whole.

Best viewed as ‘documentary-dance’, Red comes at the ballet from several perspectives. Projected behind the dancers is archive material collected over three years: film of the ballet, interviews with dancers and audience members, and pages from a book of staging instructions and stage patterns. In front, Wen Hui and three other dancers fill in with dance and text of their own. The viewer may be guided, but one senses never directed, always leaving space for personal conclusions to be drawn.

Red by wen Hui(dancers l-r: Li Yuyao, Wen Hui, Li Xinmin, Liu Zhuying)Photo Laurent Philippe
Red by wen Hui
(dancers l-r: Li Yuyao, Wen Hui, Li Xinmin, Liu Zhuying)
Photo Laurent Philippe

The interviewees tell stories, anecdotes and individual reflections on the ideology behind model theatre, the ballet itself, the Cultural Revolution and dance training. The ballet was one of just eight works permitted during the revolution, the others being the ballet, The White-Haired Girl, five Chinese operas and a symphony. With its story of good Communists versus bad landlords, it was designed to show the importance of discipline and of putting collective goals ahead of individual desires. Presentation was strict, we are told, even to the extent of making sure that the women lined up in order of height. If some grew, their position in the line changed. All very different to today when performers are encouraged to bring themselves to the stage.

In reality, it actually had very little to do with the revolution, though, says one man. It may have been unambiguously propagandist, but in fact it had quite the opposite effect to that intended as audiences took guilty pleasure in viewing the women on stage ideals of beauty rather than heroic figures. With its good-looking ballerina soldiers in shorts and leggings (all very different to demure Chinese dance), it’s hardly surprising the ballet became popular with young soldiers short on female companionship, he adds.

Li Xinmin in Red by Wen HuiPhoto Laurent Philippe
Li Xinmin in Red by Wen Hui
Photo Laurent Philippe

The film is generally the most grabbing part of the evening but there are things to be learned elsewhere too. The four dancers (Wen Hui herself plus Li Yuyao, 李禹瑶; Li Xinmin, 李新民; and Liu Zhuying, 劉祝英) sometimes explain movement from the ballet, including similarities between some classical Chinese dance positions and those in ballet. It’s fascinating to see how the very feminine ‘Orchid Fingers’ gesture turns into a defiant raised fist, the ballet’s most common motif, but apparently one that was originally much softer than that we know today.

Liu clearly felt proud to dance in the ballet and to experience the discipline of training. One interviewee on screen also looks back on her time performing it with fondness, smiling as she recounts memories. Yet there was pain and exhaustion too. We hear of the perils of dancing on pointe on mud, and how dancers could feel bound and trapped, feelings that are eloquently expressed in a very modern way by Wen Hui, a remarkable dancer with fabulous isolations.

Red demonstrates that readings of The Red Detachment of Women frequently miss its complexity. It also shows how bodies and history, not only dance history, are inseparable, a point made visibly when the dancers fold themselves into the curtain onto which the film is projected. As an anatomy of the ballet, and its time and place, it’s a work that certainly gives plenty of food for thought.