Posts Tagged ‘Nixon in China’

Red Detachment Redux and the Cowboy Spirit

Friday, August 5th, 2011

by Cathy Barbash

For those of you who did not get enough of the Red Detachment of Women during this winter’s run of Nixon in China at the Met, the National Ballet of China will be performing excerpts of the ballet (possibly the same excerpt reinterpreted and interpolated into the opera by Mark Morris) in its mixed program as part of the Kennedy Center’s latest China festival, “CHINA: The Art of a Nation.” (The Ministry of Culture considered their 2005 Festival of China so successful, they wanted another.) Alas, the remainder of the program features the equally unavoidable Yellow River Concerto and Swan Lake excerpts. After visual arts, China’s dance companies lead the way in innovation and international marketability of their arts. Why such conservative repertoire? Why not show the latest the company has to offer?

Interesting related updates: the Inner Mongolian Chorus also performed as part of the Kennedy Center’s 2005 Festival of China. Since then however, consistent with the continuing Reform and Opening Up of cultural industries, a small ensemble originating from this chorus has gone off on their own, with great success so far. An Da Union has toured twice through our heartland through Arts Midwest’s Worldfest program (as has Beauty and Melody). They play the Edinburgh Festival later this month, and are the subject of an upcoming documentary. Mostly younger performers, they have had the courage, savvy and entrepreneurial spirit to break away from the old fashioned “large official group” mentality that limits much international touring of large official Chinese ensembles to large-scale sit-down festivals.

Red Detachment Redux

Thursday, March 17th, 2011

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.

Valentine Dances

Monday, February 14th, 2011

By Rachel Straus

When the pressure is on to be romantic, delivering the goods is a challenge. The week before Valentine’s Day, four dance events intentionally (and unintentionally) dabbled in matters of the heart.  Merce Cunningham’s 1998 Pond Way—as filmed by Charles Atlas—was surprisingly the most romantic. (It was screened at the Baryshnikov Arts Center on February 7 as part of “BAC Flicks: Mondays with Merce.”)

Dressed in Scheherazade-meets-minimalist costumes (by Suzanne Gallo), the dancers circumnavigated each other with the aplomb and gentleness of amphibious courtiers. Roy Lichtenstein’s pointillist Landscape with a Boat served as the backdrop and Brian Eno’s New Ikebukkuro (For 3 CD Players) proved subtle and serene. As Banu Ogan traversed the length of the downstage space, a male dancer gently stopped her. Cunningham’s reference to The Rose Adagio in Sleeping Beauty is unmistakable. But instead of being given a flower and striking a virtuoso balance on pointe (as is the case in Beauty), Ogan was neither held nor presented. One by one, a male dancer appeared, placed his palm on a different part of her body, and then evaporated into the wings. Each touch was delicate, almost unobtrusive, like a soft breeze that comes out of nowhere and gives one pause.


Mark Morris is not known for his high-flown treatment of heterosexual love. His 2007 Romeo and Juliet (to Prokofiev’s original score with a happy ending) lacked romantic fire. In his choreography for John Adams’ Nixon in China (1987), which is making its Metropolitan Opera House debut (and which I saw on February 12), Morris reinterpreted the propagandist Chinese ballet The Red Detachment of Women (1964). Under Peter Sellers’ direction, Morris choreographed a ballet within a ballet in which President Nixon (James Maddalena) and Mrs. Nixon (Janis Kelly) leave their opera house seats and become involved in the ballet’s action: A peasant girl (Haruno Yamazaki) is whipped to a pulp, then given the Little Red Book. She becomes a rifle-wielding revolutionary comrade. In Act III, she dances with a soldier (Kanji Segawa), once a “decadent” in a European white suit.

Their final pas de deux occurs behind the Nixons (Pat and Richard) and the Tse-Tungs (Mr. and Mrs. Mao), as performed by Robert Brubaker and Kathleen Kim. The singers describe their early years in which sex and love played a greater part in their lives. The fact that Peter Sellers obstructs Morris’ choreography—placing the formidable dancers behind six beds and five singers—says a lot about Sellers’ opinion of Morris’s duet, which does little to support the lyrics about love and loss.


Martha Graham wasn’t exactly a romantic, but she sure knew how to choreograph sex. In preparation for the Martha Graham Dance Company’s 85th season at New York’s Rose Theater (March 15-20), the troupe presented their second informal showing on February 9 at DANY Studios. Graham dancers excel in staring each other down with an intensity of gaze only a bull could countenance. When Tadej Brdnik and Xiaochuan Xie locked eyes during an excerpt from Robert Wilson’s Snow on the Mesa (1995), it became clear that their relationship was not the PG variety. That said neither Mesa nor these dancers’ interpretations were overwrought. Brdnik and Xie’s physical beauty and technical command will make this Wilson ballet worth seeing. The other excerpts presented included Graham’s Appalachian Spring (1944), Cave of the Heart (1947), and Deaths and Entrances (1943)—as well as Bulareyang Pagarlava’s work in progress, based on Deaths. It is neither sexy nor romantic. It seems to poke fun at Graham’s seriousness.


Seriousness and silliness shared equal billing at Joe’s Pub on February 11, with the kickoff of Dancemopolitan’s 2011 season. Called  “Kyle Abraham and Friends: Heartbreaks and Homies,” the cabaret-style event  (produced by DanceNOW [NYC]) featured seven works by Kyle Abraham and one by three guest choreographers: David Dorfman, Faye Driscoll, and Alex Escalante. On the Pub’s kitchen-size stage, the costuming placed the dances squarely in the retro past. Hot pants prevailed. Afros and beards were in the house. However, when Abraham began short-circuiting his body to the music of Love Me by Sam Cooke—a pioneer of soul music who was shot dead at the height of his career—the evening lost its playful tone.

Like an electric switch, Abraham altered his mood. This fast-firing, dancer-actor expressed heartbreak, rage, innocence, bawdiness in moment-to-moment slices of bodily action. Abraham also shape shifted into a lover because “Heartbreak and Homies” was made with Valentine’s Day in mind. Abraham intermittently mingled among the audience (and in his last solo he curled up in some of their laps). Upon returning to the stage, Abraham flicked his emotional switch down to a dark place: He silently wailed. His body sputtered. It was shocking, its pathos mesmerizing.

Less shocking but equal absorbing was Alex Escalante’s solo about getting dumped via cell phone. As the dancer repeatedly mouthed his disappointment into a microphone, his words looped back into the sound system. An echo chamber of voices chaotically intermingled, in which  Escalante’s laments, his conversation with his lover, and the crooning lyrics of Kiss and Say Goodbye by the Manhattans developed a three-way conversation. At the work’s beginning, Escalante asked the audience: Have you ever been in a relationship that had a total communication breakdown?

Broken down by too many voices, Escalante eventually staggered away from the microphone. His gait resembled a boozer’s drawl. He never fell down. Any amateur who loosened their limbs like Escalante’s would be on the floor, nursing his knees, crying for help.