The Red Detachment of Women
March 12, 2008 7:41 AM   Subscribe

I'm not the world's biggest ballet fan, but there's just something about seeing Chinese ladies doing their plié and their relevé and their pirouettes while pointing rifles that speaks to something deep and primal within me. It's The Red Detachment of Women, of course. And comrades, you are urged to view it in its entirety. [note: see hoverovers for link descriptions]

The Red Detachment of Women at YouTube: Part One and Part Two.

And I don't know about you, but I'm totally ordering this poster. Maybe this record, too. And hooray, it's recently re-released on DVD!
posted by flapjax at midnite (34 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Oh, by the way, one word of warning: the music totally sucks.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:01 AM on March 12, 2008

I think it's a pretty enthralling ballet (speaking from the perspective of a ballet philistine) and have watched it a few times. In terms of artistic coherence it's much better than The East is Red which suffers from the common desire of countries that have or had actually existing socialism to devote a large section of a work to a peasant dance medley (yes, I know, all the forty-seven or whatever ethnic groups of China celebrate that China has stood up, but that's an anti-climactic ending to a show with some great moments). Still, The East is Red does have one of the most disturbingly impressive opening examples of the cult of personality I've ever seen. And the song itself is one of my favourite tunes.
posted by Gnatcho at 8:01 AM on March 12, 2008

And to flapjax at midnite:

I think the music can be pretty good. Especially the "Dance of the Swords" scene.
posted by Gnatcho at 8:03 AM on March 12, 2008

Also, of course, the opera Nixon in China has a famous take on Red Detachment of Women, along with one of my favourite arias, "I am the wife of Mao Tse-Tung." I disliked that opera's ending a lot though.

Sorry for hogging the thread
posted by Gnatcho at 8:10 AM on March 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

I think the music can be pretty good.

Well, if you like it, Gnatcho, that's cool. But how 'bout if the score hadn't been rehashed European classical played by a symphony, but traditional Chinese (splashy-boingy gongs, big red-lacquered tack-headed drums, pipas, bamboo flutes, those ear-splittingly loud double-reed horns...) instead? That would've rocked.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:12 AM on March 12, 2008

speaks to something deep and primal within me

Really? Hmmm. Not so much to me.

I guess what interests me is the unholy alliance here between art and propaganda. (This same thing would be true regardless of the ideology being represented). You don't get a sense of artistic freedom, but rather an artists (the choreographer/dancers) being used to accomplish the will of the state (whipping up patriotic fervor or inculcate nationalistic pride and ideology). It's sort of sad really. Sort of like the singing of the National Anthem before sporting events in America.
posted by spock at 8:12 AM on March 12, 2008


Well, since you asked, no, not really. But it's a lotta fun to watch. What really speaks to something deep and primal within me is Skip James or Roscoe Holcomb.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:16 AM on March 12, 2008

Comrade, if you don't put out you are such a fascist !
posted by elpapacito at 8:19 AM on March 12, 2008

I'd buy that poster too, flapjax, but those four floating ghost sheep surrounding the dancers kinda freaks me out..
posted by Dizzy at 8:24 AM on March 12, 2008

Oh that's cool. It could be a new battle technique:
"hey look at my awesome dancing!!!"
"oooooooo"*is stabbed by bayonette*

They are VERY good dancers, though.
posted by Planet F at 8:53 AM on March 12, 2008

Hee! I actually recognize some of the music! Oh childhood and your brainwashing.

But no, while the dancing is most excellent, the choreography and storytelling are mildly scary. I can see why this would be intriguing, but it's not light entertainment, heh.
posted by Phire at 9:01 AM on March 12, 2008

Any idea what the time frame is on this? There is something about the film stock or the color correction or something that really reminded me of the Wizard of Oz, and though I'm certain it's far more recent that that film, because the idea amuses me to no end, I'm going to now choose to believe that this is lost footage from it.
posted by quin at 9:05 AM on March 12, 2008

George Balanchine's Stars and Stripes doesn't appear to exist on YouTube, which is a shame--it would be an interesting point of comparison. (More ballerinas with rifles.) As would be his Union Jack.
posted by thomas j wise at 9:08 AM on March 12, 2008

Toer Van Schayk's Pyrrhic Dances has a dance for men, carrying muskets that actually fire (blanks, of course). Close formation work with a 75-lb., fully primed musket is, unsurprisingly, stressful and frightening. Then again, I wasn't the soloist who had them fired at him, so I guess I was lucky.
posted by sixswitch at 9:23 AM on March 12, 2008

It was written as a collaboration, with music by Du Mingxin, Wu Zuqiang, Wang Yanqiao, Shi Wanchun and Dai Hongcheng, and choreography by Li Chengxiang, Jiang Zuhui and Wang Xixian.

Why does wikipedia do that with Chinese names? Shouldn't it be Du Ming Xin, Wu Zu Qiang, and etc.? Then that NYU link uses "Hung Chang-ching" in the same article that it uses "Mao Tse Tung".

Sure, it was confusing to me the first time I ran into it: two separate words, both together are the first name. Surely the people putting this stuff together know better.. Am I missing something?
posted by Chuckles at 9:53 AM on March 12, 2008

I am married to a former ballet dancer who collects knives and guns, so I will pass this on to him. But I fully expect him to give it a shrug and a short critique. He only did it for "the jumping" and because he was good at it, after all.

However, *I* find it interesting, so thanks!
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 9:55 AM on March 12, 2008

No Chuckles, Wikipedia is right. That's how you should romanise names using hanyu pinyin. Not that many people in China use it very well either, so I wouldn't fret. Victor Mair who runs that site I've linked regularly despairs.
The model dramas are too politically tainted for me to enjoy on aesthetic grounds - I prefer stuff from earlier propaganda works like The Waters of Lake Hong from The Red Guards of Lake Hong (洪湖赤卫队).
posted by Abiezer at 10:31 AM on March 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Is that a Broomhandle Mauser? Wowie!
Despite the pistols' worldwide popularity and fame, the only nation to use the C96 as the primary service pistol of its military and police was China.
posted by Class Goat at 10:45 AM on March 12, 2008

And Han Solo.

I've always wanted to build a working Star Wars blaster. And by working, I mean, it has all the bits like the 'scope' and the flash hider, but it could still be taken to a range and shot.
posted by quin at 10:59 AM on March 12, 2008

That would've rocked.

Since you seem to be describing the music used in Beijing Opera, no - it would not have rocked.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 11:02 AM on March 12, 2008

That's how you should romanise names using hanyu pinyin.

Okay, I'll buy that.. On the other hand, why is it Chow Yun-Fat then? If you went by the Wade-Giles romanization it would be Chow Yun-fat, and if you used the method adopted by 99% of all Hong Kong people it would be Chow Yun Fat. So confusing :P
posted by Chuckles at 11:45 AM on March 12, 2008

Yes, there's various systems (Cantonese names like Chow Yun-Fat of course don't use a Mandarin romanisation) and politics comes in to it, with the Taiwanese going their own way, but really hanyu pinyin is by far and away the best system imo and was thought up by some very clever scholars indeed. Wade-Giles is really dated now and only silly old sods in some US universities insist on still using it (the lot at the Warring States Project also have some idiosyncratic insistence of their own and you'll find others. But despite the arguments at that last link, I say ditch the rest, stick with the best. As well as being used by pretty much all serious scholars, it has the official backing of the PRC and will eventually be the standard.
posted by Abiezer at 12:23 PM on March 12, 2008

I didn't make clear that Chow Yun-Fat isn't even Wade-Giles, which is a sytem for romanising Mandarin. I don't know so much about Cantonese, but it'll have been done using a system for that.
posted by Abiezer at 12:25 PM on March 12, 2008

Two things.

1. My first exposure to this stuff was from Leonard Pinth-Garnell's Bad Red Chinese Ballet on SNL in the 1970s.

2. The Cultural Revolution was a strange, horrible thing. You had a third rate actress (Jiang Qing) in a position of power over all of the arts and using her power to totally remake art forms in, well, I won't say her own image, but an image of her creation.

I know several artists who were intimately involved in the creation of the Model Revolutionary Beijing Operas - which were closely tied to the ballets, at least in terms of political theory. The stories they've told me about their experiences in this time period lead me to believe that it was both an awful time and an exhilarating time to be an artist. On the one hand, you could be subject to self-examination for hours - even days - for minor mistakes. On the other hand, you were being encouraged to push and stretch the boundaries of your art in ways that nobody had ever attempted in China.

None of them wish for a return to that period, but they miss (ironically enough) certain aspects of artistic freedom that they had during that time. Not freedom of subject matter - but freedom to create stuff outside the demands of the commercial market. They basically had the entire weight of the government behind them when they were creating new music and movement. They could get anything they needed any time they needed it.

This was maybe the last major moment where a world government dedicated a truly significant part of their resources towards the official creation of state art. I would compare it to the royal patronage certain great artists (like, perhaps, Mozart, Bach or Shakespeare) received during their lifetimes. Yes, your subject matter was limited, but man were you able to create like mad without having to worry about waiting table while composing your latest Fugue.

Indeed, in some ways, I would compare it to a portrait of a despotic monarch of the past by one of the great painters. Yes, the subject matter of the painting was overtly political, but that doesn't necessarily diminish the greatness of the work.

Lest I come across as romanticizing this period, the Cultural Revolution ultimately claimed the lives of three of the four great "Dan" actors of the previous period. Had the remarkable Mei Lanfang not died before, it would likely have claimed his life as well. Thousands of priceless costumes and props were put to the torch. Actors of certain role types were ipso facto out of work (and worse) because the very roles they were playing were considered counter-revolutionary. It was a dreadful time, but some great art came out of it if you can look beyond the heavy handed political content.

Anyhow, thank you for posting the links!
posted by Joey Michaels at 1:14 PM on March 12, 2008 [5 favorites]

Thanks a lot! I've wanted to see this for a while, and look forward to watching it.
posted by goo at 1:32 PM on March 12, 2008

I love this ballet. I am now infused with class feeling.
posted by nax at 2:07 PM on March 12, 2008

"Close formation work with a 75-lb., fully primed musket"

75 pound musket? Are you joking?

A 75 pound musket is commonly called 'light artillery' and I doubt that people dance with such heavy ordinance.
posted by Sukiari at 2:38 PM on March 12, 2008

Since you seem to be describing the music used in Beijing Opera, no - it would not have rocked.

I happen to like Peking Opera, thank you very much! But in fact, I didn't describe any music, I simply listed instruments, and those are in use in other types of Chinese music as well, Mr. Gerson.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 3:21 PM on March 12, 2008

That would've rocked.

Since you seem to be describing the music used in Beijing Opera, no - it would not have rocked.

Have you guys never heard the Twelve Girl Band? They use all these traditional classical instruments for some pretty awesome modern instrumental music. Maybe not rock, but it definitely rocks.
posted by whatzit at 3:26 PM on March 12, 2008

Hey, check it out: A Chinese Peking Opera ! That's entertainment!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:10 PM on March 12, 2008

psst, whatzit, missed you at the meetup! Next time, maybe?
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:11 PM on March 12, 2008

I have to admit, that's much better than those Brazilian Peking operas.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:40 PM on March 12, 2008

Yeah, well, those Brazilians, you know... they always drag out those cuicas and surdos and muck up the works, plus it's hard to deliver that languorous, mellow bossanova vocal while doing triple backflips.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:24 PM on March 12, 2008

yeah, as i followed up on metatalk, i totally botched my calendar and was supposed to be several places at once. it was a less-than-hoped-for weekend! definitely next time, i won't mess up again. .
posted by whatzit at 6:52 AM on March 13, 2008

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