Enthusiastic applause reverberated again and again when the modern ballet The Red Detachment of Women was restaged in Beijing in May.
This first truly Chinese ballet is about Wu Qionghua, a maid to a landlord family on Hainan Island. Determined not to be kept subservient, she joined the Red Army, becoming an able combat commander. The story is based on fact. A revolutionary contingent composed of women did exist on China's Hainan Island during the 1920s and 1930s.
Interest sprang up in the ballet after it was made into a film, the script of which was written by Liang Xin. In 1963, after attending a performance of Notre-Dame de Paris by the Central Ballet Ensemble, the late Premier Zhou Enlai suggested to Jiang Zuhui, choreographer of the Chinese troupe, that the group experiment with creating new and revolutionary themes. In January 1964, following Premier Zhou's advice, the Ministry of Culture asked theatrical professionals to choose a theme for a ballet. Discussion resulted in the unanimous choice of The Red Detachment of Women.
In February 1964, the artistic head and choreographer Li Chengxiang took a group consisting of the composer Wu Zuqiang, choreographers Jiang Zuhui and Wang Xixian, and top ballet dancers Bai Shuxiang, Zhong Runliang and Liu Qingtang on a visit to Hainan Island to experience life there at first hand. Not long after, Li Chengxiang and Wu Zuqiang completed the writing of the ballet.
In September 1964, The Red Detachment of Women was formally staged in Beijing's Tianqiao Theatre. In October, the late Chairman Mao Zedong gave it his personal approval after attending a performance. It succeeded in not only becoming the first truly Chinese ballet but also in creating splendid ballet stars for China.
The choreographer-directors of The Red Detachment of Women were Li Chengxiang, Jiang Zuhui and Wang Xixian. Li and Jiang were about 30 at that time. They are now famous top professionals in China. Wang Xixian is residing in Canada where he is said to run a dancing school.
Li Chengxiang, now over 60, was 32 when the ballet was staged. He began to specialize in dance from 1949. His Tibetan style Dance of Friendship choreographed in 1954 won international awards. Last year, he and Jiang wrote and directed a ballet Wild Geese Flying South about the lives of soldiers in northeast China during the War of Resistance Against Japan (1937-1945).
The name of Jiang Zuhui, now an accomplished female choreographer-director, is closely linked with the highly nationalistic ballets New Year's Sacrifice, Imperial Concubine Yang and Wild Geese Flying South. She was just 28 when The Red Detachment of Women made its debut.
The 53-year-old Bai Shuxiang comes from the first generation of ballet dancers nurtured by New China. She once played leading roles in classical ballets such as Swan Lake and Giselle. As a 25-year-old, she was the first to dance the role of Wu Qionghua in The Red Detachment of Women. At the 6th congress of the China Dancers' Association held last December, she was elected head of the association.
Zhong Runliang was the understudy for the part of Wu Qionghua. She has already retired. The dancer of the role most familiar to audiences is Xue Jinghua who is still active on the stage.
Liu Qingtang had successfully been the hero Hong Changqing both on the boards and in celluloid. As he followed the "gang of four" to persecute members of literary and art circles during the "cultural revolution" (1966-1976), he was sentenced to imprisonment in 1977. He is receiving medical treatment in Dalian, Liaoning Province.
The ballets Swan Lake and Notre-Dame de Paris staged before 1964 by the Central Ballet Ensemble, which was set up in 1959, were all from foreign countries.
The successful 1964 debut of The Red Detachment of Women created a hit. Artistic critics and the press gave it high praise.
On October 31 of that year, a special performance was held in Shenzhen for an audience of more than 7,000 that came specially from Hong Kong to see it. On July 17, 1966, it was performed in Tirana, the capital of Albania, to receptive audiences.
Jiang Qing's eyes alighted on the ballet when The Red Detachment of Women was staged for the second time. During the 1970s, it was selected as one of a few "revolutionary stage works" and performed repeatedly. After the fall of the "gang of four" the ballet gradually slipped from public notice.
Several years ago, the Central Ballet Ensemble restaged the first act, taking it to appreciative houses in Japan, Britain, the United States and the now defunct Soviet Union. The ballet is listed in the American encyclopedia of ballet as a Chinese creation.
Composer Wu Zuqiang, who headed the writing of the score, told a newspaper reporter that the Red Detachment of Women was highly influential both before and after the "cultural revolution" (1966-1976). It could not have attained popularity in China without artistic quality and a unique plot. Artistic works should neither be profusely praised or put on ice for political reasons. Their real social impact can be judged from their reception by the public.
The ballet was restaged in its entirety last autumn. Jiang Zuhui said the performance was based on the 1964 script with over 70 people in the troupe throwing their efforts into it. Jiang worked with Bai Shuxiang, Zhong Runliang, Xue Jinghua and Li Chengxiang. "Of course, we need to assume an original face," said Jiang.
The young ballet dancers Feng Ying, Zhang Dandan and Wang Shan shared the role of Qionghua, while Wang Caijun was Hong Changqing. All are veteran performers of famous foreign classical works and have won awards both at home and abroad. "They are not lacking in skill," said Jiang Zuhui, "I believe they can stage a new The Red Detachment of Women.