The Hainan helliots in Red Leotards: Women Soldiers Master Russian ballet (1964-1970)

Late in 1963 the Beijing Propagandariat went out on a limb and decided to reset the 1960 filmstory “Red Detachment of Women” (see previous post) as a Russian-style romantic ballet. The production was probably the most elaborate and expensive such transform (compared to 白毛女, 沂蒙颂, and (later) 草原儿女 – the only other such actualization up to and early into the Cultural Revolution. Also a high-risk venture, since it borrowed so heavily from Soviet dance and staging traditions – not a very safe proposition on the eve of Jiang Qing’s furious attacks on “capitalist-road” art (including Soviet contributions). Yet it went on to become THE most feted and durable of the “8 yangbanxi” dance dramas, and is still a must-include when the National Ballet Company goes on world tour, or performs for high-tone foreign afficionados, puzzling as its choreography and mis-en-scenes were and still remain – as the prima donna of the Cuban National Ballet, Alicia Alonzo, quipped, “one scarcely expects to see ballerinas en pointe or leaping while holding high modern rifles”….

There were (at least in 1963-4) good reasons for the project: (1) the original (film) version of the narrative proved largely regional in appeal (Malaysia, Hong Kong), sponsored largely by overseas Chinese enthusiasm or nostalgia for Hainan (a Chinese titled version was never released); and (2) at the time, the Beijing kulturmeisters (esp. Zhou Enlai) were confronting the arrival (Oct 1, 1964) of the New Republic’s 15th Anniversary, the first great such national celebration meant to draw a world wide or at least Red Bloc audience. A non-language-confined grand narrative of/from the Revolution was thus in order, which meant that the mime and tumbling of (adapted) ballet were the optimal media.

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