The ten-year period of Chinese history known as the Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to 1976, holds a horrifying fascination. Amid the grand-scale destruction of everything traditional (and therefore bourgeois), the stage was politicised and only eight “model dramas” – introduced by Madame Mao – were approved for performance.
The Red Detachment of Women was one of the two “model ballets” among them, and it forms the pivot for Wen Hui’s delve into the fraught subject of the Cultural Revolution’s legacy. Four dancers, including one who took part in the productions at the time, interact with projected video – a mixture of archive clips and talking heads.
This is fascinating. One former star dancer remembers how perilous it was for the performers having to dance on point on the soft mud of threshing floors when the troupe toured the countryside – in preparation, they stomped on their points until their feet were numb to the pain. Another, recalled to perform less than a month after giving birth, was ordered to have an injection to stop her lactating; the harsh rigours of training meant her breast milk stopped by itself after three days.
The unspoken truth is that a person would do anything to keep their place in a dance company; it provided some insulation from the rampaging Red Guards and the ravages of the revolution. There’s a particularly poignant sadness in how so many of the performers remember their time dancing The Red Detachment of Women as a wonderful period in their lives – when such madness and horror was consuming their country.
There are more light-hearted recollections too – one man admits how the sight of these beautiful powerful women dancers in skimpy soldier costumes had something other than the effect desired by the Communist Party – he coyly says he may well have gone home and masturbated to the memory. It was a shame that at times the video was projected on to ruched red curtain, making the subtitles indecipherable.
The dancers on the Purcell Room stage intersperse these reminiscences and perceptive insights with movement and their own memories. They adopt some of the poses, show how they were trained using eight points in the room to angle themselves by, and demonstrate how Peking Opera movement was melded with classical ballet, and how the women’s parts were made stronger and bolder by choreographing them with clenched fists instead of “orchid fingers”. In keeping with Mao’s assertion that women held up half of the sky, there was a striking feminist element to this ballet – another complication of its legacy.
This live element isn’t always tightly focused, and sometimes drags on the momentum of the piece. However, it reminds you powerfully that the Cultural Revolution has a living legacy that China is a long way from working through.