Red Detachment Redux

By Cathy Barbash

Nixon in China has come and gone from the Met, but its interpolated excerpt of The Red Detachment of Women brought back memories of a previous attempt to tour the entire work in the U.S., and made me wonder whether in fact Americans know it only in this mediated form.

First staged by the National Ballet of China (then known as the Central Ballet) in Beijing in 1964, The Red Detachment of Women was one of the eight “model operas” permitted performance during China’s Cultural Revolution. And while the company has toured America several times, Red Detachment sightings have been scarce. Arts Midwest and Mid-America Arts Alliance had booked them for an extended Midwest tour for the fall of 2001, with repertoire including a full-length Red Detachment, but the company cancelled because of post-9/11 jitters. Previous U.S. engagements included an 11-city tour in ’86 with a mixed program not including Red Detachment, and a ’95 gala performance at Cal Performances (Berkeley), which did include a truncated version of the ballet. Their 2005 tour including the Kennedy Center’s Festival of China and BAM included their new signature work, Raise the Red Lantern, inspired by Zhang Yimou’s 1991 movie of the same name.

Digging deeper uncovered a few amusing coincidences. When the Met’s artistic staff was assembling its program notes and organizing its ancillary activities for Nixon, perhaps it did not realize that the first place any of Red Detachment was seen in the U.S. was in fact on their very own stage and under their own auspices. A scene from the ballet was presented on July 17, 1978 as part of a gala program featuring the “Performing Arts Company of the PRC” in a variety of genres. Jointly produced by the National Committee on United States-China Relations and the Metropolitan Opera, the performance was the first stop of a multi-city tour that included Wolf Trap in Washington DC, Northrup Auditorium in Minneapolis, the Shrine Civic Auditorium in Los Angeles and the Berkeley Community Theater, and was likely the first time Chinese performances were presented in American A-list “legitimate” venues since Beijing Opera star Mei Lanfang’s tour in the 1930’s.

Furthermore, the excerpt presented, “Chang-ching Points the Way,” is the very one that Mark Morris refracted for use in Nixon in China. As the dramatic climax of the ballet, it was also well-suited for opera. The Met’s program book in 1978 read:

Late at night in the coconut grove on Hainan Island. After fleeing from the manor of a despotic landlord named Tyrant of the South, Wu Ching-hua is captured again by the tyrant, beaten by his lackies, and rescued by Hung Chang-ching, who shows her the way to the liberated area.

Fortunately for culture in China, the end of the Cultural Revolution (late ‘70s) and the beginning of the Reform and Opening Up (‘80s) also showed Chinese dance the way to a more liberated area.

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