Chinese ballet show draws protests for ‘glorifying Red Army’

Minister says staging The Red Detachment of Women is a privilege but protest organiser says government needs to understand what the story is about

Red Detachment of Women
A performance of The Red Detachment of Women in Tianjin, China. Photograph: Jason Lee/Reuters


Protesters in Melbourne have called for a boycott of a visiting Chinese ballet performance that they say “glorifies the Red Army”.

The National Ballet of China is performing The Red Detachment of Women, created in 1964, , at the Arts Centre in Melbourne.

The state minister for creative industry, Martin Foley, said staging the ballet was a “privilege”, but protest organiser Frank Ruan described it as “like putting salt on the wounds of some Chinese people”.

The ballet tells the story of an all-female company of the Red Army in the 1930s and has been described as “one of the 20th century’s most striking icons” by the Arts Centre.

“This is the piece that Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger saw with Chairman Mao who broke China’s isolation from the rest of the world. This is a piece steeped in cultural diplomacy and cultural opportunities,” Foley told SBS News.

But Ruan told Guardian Australia he found it offensive.

“I don’t think [the minister] understands what the story is about. Last November an old Chinese migrant in Melbourne rang me and said he heard about the performance. He said he was very upset because in the 40s, five of his family were killed by the Red Army. The story reminds him of the nightmares of his past.

“If they wanted, they could have chosen a traditional Chinese ballet, but they didn’t,” Ruan said. “Of course we would like to see the exchange of cultures between Australia and China, but we don’t want to see this kind of story in Melbourne and overseas. This group of performers was sent by the Chinese communist government. It is meant to praise the glory of the Communist party in the past.”

In August Chinese-Australians demonstrated against a series of concerts planned to honour the life of Mao in Sydney and Melbourne town halls.

“We just want to show that when the Australian government imports some culture from China, they should be careful,” Ruan said. “We don’t want the propaganda of the Chinese government. I think the people of Victoria’s government should understand what the story is about.”

The ballet, which features an ensemble of 67 dancers, an orchestra and a choir, opened on Wednesday as part of the Asia Topa festival – a collaboration between the Victorian and federal governments, the Sidney Myer Fund and the Arts Centre. The visit was announced by the Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, on a visit to China in September.

“Much more than a historical curiosity or propaganda relic, The Red Detachment of Women remains one of China’s most significant ballets for local audiences”, the Arts Centre website said.

The ballet includes “elements of Peking Opera, Hainan folk song and popular tunes alongside famously heroic arabesques and high impact, drill-inspired choreography,” Dance Informa magazine wrote.

Carrilo Gantner, chairman of the Sidney Myer Fund, described it as having “lost its propaganda power and become an iconic program”.

“The Red Detachment of Women is a creation from the tumultuous period … in which so many people suffered and so many died. As an adolescent, my wife Ziyin’s family apartment and possessions in Beijing were trashed and her grandfather killed in front of her by the young and inflamed red guards,” he said.

“[It] is thus an important and fascinating historical and cultural artefact but, of course, today it is so much more than that.”

The director of Asia Topa, Stephen Armstrong, was contacted for comment.

A four-star review in the Age described it as “a fairytale ballet. An optimistic fantasy about the triumph of good over evil.”

The critic Andrew Fuhrmann wrote: “I can’t help but think that the fierce and committed young women of the Red Detachment, with their can-do attitude and well-developed sense of social responsibility, would make better heroines for the next generation of ballerinas than anything in Fokine or Pepita or even Martha Graham.”

About 100 people protested outside the Arts Centre on the ballet’s opening night in Melbourne, reported.

The reviewer Nicole Eckersley wrote: “The protesters claimed this work celebrates violence, which is absolutely true. If you’ve ever thought the problem with ballet was that it didn’t have enough mimed hand-grenade lobbings and pitched gun battles, then is this ever the ballet for you.”

The Red Detachment of Women plays at the Arts Centre until Saturday.

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