The Maoist Chinese propaganda ballet, famously performed for Richard Nixon, will come to Melbourne in 2017.

The Chinese ballet The Red Detachment of Women will make its Australian debut at Arts Centre Melbourne next year as part of the inaugural Asia-Pacific Triennial of Performing Arts (Asia TOPA). Famously performed for US President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger on their historic visit to China in 1972, the ballet is one of the National Ballet of China’s most popular works and has been hailed as the first full Chinese classical ballet.

The Red Detachment of Women

The narrative work tells the story of a downtrodden peasant girl on China’s tropical Hainan Island, who, following kidnap and abuse by a powerful landowner, becomes a guerrilla and revolutionary, joining an all-female company of the communist Red Army and learning discipline through hardship. The ballet was based on a film directed by Xie Ji (which was based on a 1958 historical novel by Liang Xin) and was selected to be one of the “Eight Model Theatre Works” of the Cultural Revolution, one of the few officially sanctioned forms of culture between 1966 and 1976. The work incorporates elements of Peking Opera, Hainan folk song and popular tunes, as well as famously heroic arabesques and martial, drill-inspired choreography.

The tale of liberation and bloody revenge, which unites the stylised forms of traditional Peking Opera with the idealised story lines of revolutionary propaganda,  will be performed by a company of 70 dancers supported by Orchestra Victoria and a local choir.

This will be Arts Centre Melbourne’s third presentation of work by the National Ballet of China, following The Peony Pavilion in 2012 and Raise the Red Lantern in 2010. “We are excited to be presenting this flagship production as one of our highlight programmes for the inaugural Asia TOPA,” said Claire Spencer, CEO of Arts Centre Melbourne. “In the years since its debut, The Red Detachment of Women’s distinctive, colour-saturated aesthetic has found its way indelibly into Western mass culture to be amongst the most recognisable cultural works of the 20th century.”

Flesh Rebels from the Metropolitan Opera’s 2011 production of John Adams’ Nixon in China

Opera lovers will be familiar with the ballet, as The Red Detachment of Women plays a pivotal role in John Adams’ first opera, Nixon in China, inspired by the US President’s visit. In Adams’ all-original score, the composer manages to dramatise both the ballet and the Nixons’ reaction to it – and the actor playing Henry Kissinger even doubles as the brutal, Imperialist landowner.

The Red Detachment of Women is at Arts Centre Melbourne February 16-18, 2017