Shanghai Ballet in The White-Haired Girl

Shenzhen Grand Theatre (深圳大劇院), China
October 20, 2016

Joy Wang X. Y.

Sometimes all that remains of an era is the art it leaves behind and sometimes it is dance that provides its enduring image, a symbolic memento both rooted in time and the transcendental. Watching the Shanghai Ballet (上海芭蕾舞團) in The White-Haired Girl (白毛女) it is hard to know what it points to, the past or the present? Some four decades after the Cultural Revolution, are the whooping crowds (with flashlight cameras in tow) a sign of delirious nostalgia or something else? The truth perhaps, as it often is, is somewhere in between.

The White-Haired Girl, a profile of Chinese ballet in its nascent form, is historically important. Made in the 1960s, it was the first in a long line of attempts at melding two ideologically dissonant traditions, the West and the East, in search of a unique artistic identity. Of those, The Red Detachment of Women (紅色娘子軍) and The White-Haired Girl have survived. Yet whether they have stood the test of time for artistic or for political reasons is a different question. That every society sees in its art a mirror of itself is a wonderful thing. That it tries, where possible, to shape an unfamiliar contour to its own image,extending possibilities in bi-directional ways, is also  wonderful. Unfortunate then that is often turned into a political project, a vehicle for mass rhetoric.

The White-Haired Girl, here with Li Chen Chen as peasant girl, Xi'erPhoto Shanghai Ballet
The White-Haired Girl, here with Li Chen Chen as peasant girl, Xi’er
Photo Shanghai Ballet

It is likely that an audience who grew up with the opera that preceded the ballet, and the songs and fables that frame it might find more value in the ballet than I did. They might see in it too something more than a political pamphlet. But the ballet is problematic not as much because of the unsettling historical legacy it glorifies but mainly because it is artistically flawed.

A curious mix of Chinese classical dance, Chinese opera and classical ballet, The White-Haired Girl attempts at localising a European language. It is more experimental than innovative and its surfeit of stylized gestures comes across as dated, hyperbolic. Fists clenched in front with arms bent at the elbow in a statement of defiance is an especial favourite. The choreography, a collection of arbitrary steps – bourée, arabesque, jeté, manège, repeat – say little about character and even less about dramatic intention. Danced to populist revolutionary songs  (blasted, on this occasion, at ear splitting pitch), its treatment of music is incidental at best. Coming out of the theatre I suggested to a friend that the ballet’s musical solution seemingly adhered to the equation of one movement to one beat of music. She added the caveat that it was one movement to one beat, and a posé on every third beat. That seemed about right.

The White-Haired GirlPhoto Shanghai Ballet
The White-Haired Girl
Photo Shanghai Ballet

To make the ballet speak on its own terms is a tall order and to make what limited dramatic potential it has palpable, an even taller one. In the rare moments where ritual gestures are relaxed and fists unclenched there are glimpses of what these dancers might look like in another repertoire. Both  Tie Jiaxin (帖佳欣, as Xi’er) small and pretty, Zhou Jiawen (周嘉雯, as The White-Haired Girl) long and tall share clean lines and neat footwork. Wu Husheng (吴虎生), who has the benefit of the danciest part – here, heroism equals to stunts – manages the dancing better than negotiating the tricky conundrum between wide eyed poster boy and communist leader who leads his comrades into executing the ballet’s two ineffectual, hapless villains offstage. That the ballet with its Manichean vision of good and evil or rather, oppressed and oppressor, clearly doesn’t see this as either tricky or paradoxical is the heart of the problem. It is for all intents and purposes a rather chilling vision of people’s justice.  So too, is the implication that violence is restorative, that all is well once and only if blood is spilled.

Shaped in the mould of a vengeful seemingly timeless creature, The White-Haired Girl could very well be a descendent of classical ballet’s ghostly incarnations, of angry Wilis and deathless sylphs. But while ballet’s moving phantoms embrace ambiguity in its liminality this, a retreat into a utopian world of moral polemics, creates caricatures. In this world, heroes emerge not from any sense of a common humanity but rather from their lack of, from the ability to deny all that feels true and is true, complexity chief among them.