This Scottish debut, fusing documentary with performance, is at once a celebration of feminine power, and deconstruction of the “model” ballets performed around the time of China’s Cultural Revolution. Beijing-based choreographer Wen Hui, formed Living Dance Studio with filmmaker Wu Wenguang in 1994, becoming China’s first independent dance theatre company. And this witty and inventive study of both the implications of the Communist regime, and what is expected of female dancers, is also incredibly powerful in its own subtle and understated way—never didactic for its own sake.
From parted scarlet curtains, Wenguang’s film unfolds emulating Mao Tse-tung’s “Little Red Book,” with pages featuring images of the ballet being turned. All of the dancers are responding to the film clips, sometimes singing the soundtrack, as though in rehearsal, and the performance is split into three chapters: “Marching Forward,” “Getting Intertwined” and “Looking Back.”
Wen Hui initially takes on the main narrative, stating that Living Dance Studio is a reaction to the rigidity of movement: in “The Red Detachment of Women,” which focused on Wu Qionghua, a peasant girl who escaped from slavery and joined the women’s movement, the emphasis was on “heroic, big, bright” figures. Hui and her other cast members (dancers Li Xinmin, Li Yuyao and Liu Zhuying) juxtapose the original, back-breaking sequences such as “head kick jeté” and crouching animal movements with the looser, sensual fluidity of contemporary Western dance. It’s fascinating to witness the small, “feminine” gestures such as spread “Orchid Fingers” becoming a balled fist, raised in defiance. This combative pose is called “The Seed.” What is really refreshing though, is that several of the dancers who performed in the 70’s staging of the ballet question how much of a revolutionary act the ballet really was, remarking on the attractive way female heroes were presented (in spite of the guns and conflict) as well as denouncing the more kitsch, dated aspects of the ballets.
Hui says that their onus as a modern company is squarely on the individual, on each artist getting equal time to shine within their own roles and to let their own personalities come through. To that end, each dancer provides autobiographical context, and performs a tough, physically challenging solo, appearing at various points to disappear into the film’s backdrop, to melt into the shiny silken curtain material on which the film is projected, as though melting into history. Each pose—whether pugilistic, athletic, or classical—is framed within the tumult of resistance to Mao’s restrictions on freedom. Wen Luyman’s soundtrack is superb, a fusion of traditional harmonica and scratchy violin, as well as sharp shards of punky guitar. It’s past and present in a head-on collision.
Now no longer merely “soldiers, peasants or warriors” with swords raised, or presenting relentless limited choreographic forms, these women speak of how dancers were expected to adhere to the “three prominences” (san tuchu) where heroes were front and centre, highly lit, and “the bad guys” lurked in the shadows. The contrast of a more nuanced depiction, with all of the flaws and humane qualities, speaks to a real revolution: not just identity politics, but something more profound and complex. At the film’s close, small children of around four or five are put through their paces in a dance studio—what future challenges they face are unclear, as with us all.
Above all, “RED” draws a clear line between the evolution of choreographic steps, as with the progress in representation of women, both on stage and in Chinese society in general. It’s a powerful and poignant piece, reminding us how far we have come, and how much further we still have to go, on the road to equality. A timely and moving production.