Disclosure: Dance Dispatches received complimentary admission to provide an open and honest review of Wen Hui’s RED show.

The multi-media performance RED inspects the Chinese Communist ‘model ballet’ propaganda of The Red Detachment of Women with projected video interviews and poignant anecdotes from its cast members. Wen Hui’s RED modern dance show thoughtfully investigates how these model performances shaped national identity, as their songs constantly played on radio stations and the stories became ingrained in the citizens’ consciousness.

Four women stand in front of cartoon projection in Wen Hui's RED
Photo credit: Laurent Philippe

Wen Hui RED Performance Review

The four female dancers take the stage before the house lights come down, posing in front of a plush red curtain. They remain still – until abruptly switching forms, but they often freeze off-centre: staring at the ceiling in a self-made headlock, arched sideways to peer over one shoulder or doubled over and gazing at the floor. Their poses foreshadow the personal stories they share later in the program.

For a quartet of Chinese women from two generations, the cast was quite diverse in terms of movement style and life experience. Liu Zhuying, a former dancer with the Kunming Song and Dance Troupe, moves with maturity and ferocity – as she recalls the difficulty of performing outdoors, in the fields of small villages. (Rough soil was bad for the joints, but soft mud could easily twist an ankle.) Li Yuyao discusses Mongolian traditional dances and adds excitement to the stage with her fluid style.

Dancer poses next to cartoon projection
Photo credit: Laurent Philippe

They juxtapose the honesty and individuality of their dance phrases with the formulaic approach from the Communist era. The Chinese model operas depicted characters with certain stereotyped movements; some danced triumphantly in prominent areas of the stage illuminated by strong lighting, while the others shrank back into shadows on the outskirts of the stage.

Audience members who are unfamiliar with model opera will learn about how Western ballet aesthetics combined with martial arts poses and about the complex, exacting instructions given to the dancers. They show pages of their guidebook and dictate the precise movement prescriptions, while physically demonstrating the choreography.

Dancer warps photograph projected on screen
Photo credit: Laurent Philippe

Wen Hui’s RED dancers’ recreate short ballet segments; and it feels rigid. However, watching the former lead dancers on film, is completely different. They infuse great spirit into their movement; and they wistfully remember their rehearsals and grand performances during their interviews.  Although they quickly shuffle through the choreography, they gesture with great gusto after bashfully protesting they couldn’t remember the decades-old choreography. For a few shining moments, the audience can sense their immense pride.

The interaction of the dancers in the theatre and the cultural artefacts projected onto screens was a highlight of the show – and could have been teased out more. At one point, the dancers stand facing the screen with their back to the audience, and they blend into the scene. When the dancers manipulate the screen, the projected images warp into a surreal landscape with a starburst of added light. The interaction links the past and present in a very artistic way.

If you’re interested in dance and media, particularly projections, you will like pieces in Another Kind of Blue‘s Flirt with Reality show and, surprisingly, the dance-themed EVA Air safety video.

Two women face photograph projection
Photo credit: Zhang Daming

RED demonstrates that the model operas and their ideologies inspired many different sentiments. (One interviewee roguishly declares that the model operas, now synonymous with the Cultural Revolution, actually had nothing to do with the movement and sent conflicting messages.) The diversity of opinions and experiences may be the reason why it is hard to find a unified take-away message from the show, but the Chinese members in the audience offered particularly resolute applause for the unique exploration.

Choreographer Wen Hui’s RED was selected as a feature show by both the Southbank Centre’s China Changing Festival and the 40th anniversary of London’s international Dance Umbrella Festival.

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