Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Byron Schumaker

Amy Rodgers
Deputy Culture Editor – Art

Wen Hui and the Living Dance Studio collaborate to create a stunning and engaging performance documentary

Beijing-based artist Wen Hui and the Living Dance Studio have collaborated to create a stunning and engaging performance documentary. Together, they have produced a beautiful show that combines archival visuals from the 1964 ballet, The Red Detachment of Women with interviews from the original cast members. This combination forms the backdrop for the contemporary dancers to engage with on stage.

In China, the 1960s and 70s saw the Cultural Revolution where art was hijacked in the service of Mao Zedong’s political agenda. Art was used to exert its power and control over people. The Red Detachment of Women, one of eight model performances permitted by Mao Zedong at the time, was on one level a propaganda spectacle; it projected a fantasy of prosperity, unity and technicolour Communist ideology. It is symbolic of the power and danger of false information.

Yet, in Red, the dancers onstage and the people on the screen spoke of the model ballet warmly and affectionately. Whilst recounting their time involved in the ballet, the interviewees cannot help but smile and gush with pride. Given the political content and the political climate that The Red Detachment of Women emerged from, I found this somewhat surprising.

The dancing itself is powerful. The four dancers onstage are unique to each other in generation and social class and twist and move beautifully in their own way during solo performances. But it is when they come together to dance in perfect unison that the performance came into its own. At times, each dancer would engage with the backdrop. Literally and physically engage: the dancers often tugged, groped and wrapped themselves in the sheet behind them, distorting the images projected onto it. The effect was stunning.

Liu Zhuying, Wen Hui, Li Xinmin and Jiang Fan not only danced but spoke to the audience. These four dancers, who have different perspectives on life, respond to the generational memories and personal stories in The Red Detachment of Women. All spoke in their native tongue with English subtitles projected on screen behind. Following their story proved to be difficult at times, with my attention being fought for by both the dynamic movements onstage and the rolling subtitles on screen. I couldn’t focus on both and, perhaps inevitably, it was the onstage activity that won in the end.

This, unfortunately, meant that I got lost at times. What went on during the Cultural Revolution is notoriously difficult to get to grips with, with historians that lived through it admitting that they still struggle to make sense of it all. It was perhaps foolish of me to expect to leave Red with a comprehensive understanding of the complexities of this period in China’s history. What I did leave with, however, was a clear sense of how much The Red Detachment of Women means to the people of China, despite the harrowing connotations of that time.

It seems that even though Mae Zedong’s aspirations for the play were to control and exert his power over his people, many don’t view the ballet like that today. Instead, Red remembers the original production of The Red Detachment of Women as an important historical and cultural artefact long since removed from its original didactic purpose.