National Ballet of China’s Red Detachment

January 11, 2024 10:22

The National Ballet of China has not toured Hong Kong since 2017, and its performances have been eagerly awaited by local audiences. This week it showed its signature ballet “The Red Detachment of Women” at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre.

Premiered exactly 60 years ago in 1964, this is one of the Eight Model Operas created during the Cultural Revolution. (Shanghai Ballet’s “The White-Haired Girl” is another one.) Though it looks slightly dated, it is still fascinating as a historical curiosity.

It tells the story of a poor peasant girl Qinghua who narrowly escapes being sold as a slave by an evil landowner, Nan Batian, thanks to the help of Hong Changqing, the Commissar of the Red Detachment of Women. She then joins this Red Detachment and helps it to defeat the landowner.

The two-act ballet lasting over two hours consists of a prologue and six scenes. Scene 2, celebrating the founding of the Red Detachment of Women, includes a lot of joyful dancing. The various sections with dancers waving flags, pointing machine guns, and brandishing knives, have a folksy vivaciousness and charm that is delightful.

Scene 4 set in the Red Detachment’s camp has a lively dance with village girls waving their bamboo hats. In the ensuing battle scene, episodes of sword fighting, cannon shots, and machine gun warfare have a surging momentum that is theatrically exciting. And later, the sight of the Red Detachment members leaping across the stage provides a triumphant climax to the panache of the choreography.

Most impressive of all was the sheer commitment of the whole cast. Despite the formulaic choreography (a team effort by three choreographers – Li Chengxiang, Jiang Zuhui, and Wang Xixian), the dancers’ faith in the drama made the characters they portrayed look larger than life. Wu Siming, as Hong Changqing, was impressive as an actor. His signature pose – upraised arms with clenched fists – emphasised his heroic stance. As Qinghua, Ning Long danced with strength.
The performances were danced to a taped recording by the National Ballet Symphony Orchestra. This weekend the National Ballet of China will also perform “Swan Lake’, the most famous ballet classic.

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veteran dance critic