FringeReview Scotland 2018
Wen Hui, as someone who danced The Red Detachment of Women, which was one of the approved cultural performances of the Cultural Revolution that dominated China from the launch of the revolution in 1965 until it ended in the mid 70’s, choreographs an insight into what it meant to the participants and for the cultural landscape of China. Wen Hui uses a mixture of live performance, video testimony and original footage to give us an overview of the effect, the pride and the realisation that the whole process may not have been as it was intended by the end.
We enter to four female dancers onstage with poses and postures that come straight out of the ballet of the Communist heyday and from the Red Detachment of Women. From there the music of the period takes us off as we go on a rounded tour of a somewhat forgotten time. It was a time we see and hear, when you could threaten your husband with a divorce, so he would let you go to rehearsals and that those rehearsals were joyous and tough, so much so that they made you painfully work hard to make their grade.
The one problem with any show that is all about the performance of the past is documentary evidence of their prowess. Here we have some comfort in that there are films and the testimony of some of the most impressive of people – the ones that were there. We can be very sniffy in the Wrest regarding artistic freedom of expression and here we have an honest assessment of a time when honesty was perhaps less valued. Now there appear not to be revisionism but trying to get to grips with what was and still is, a difficult period in the history of China.
It begins badly though with projections on a curtain that is almost impossible to read. With the words delivered in their native tongue, we lose some of the nuances and the words of authentic voices so have to depend upon the translations we are attempting to read.
Once the curtain comes away we have a very creative screen which is used to interact with the dancers as well as provide a much better backdrop for the projections. The words are now clearer and we can relax more into the performance and tale to be told.
I have an interest in the 1970’s and the development of the Communist regime so I was fascinated to see all of the testimonies from an impressive and passionate group of people who knew the measure of the whole experience and now have the opportunity to reflect.
I enjoyed the testimonies in the most part but I just wanted more dance. It felt very conflicted because the authenticity of these voices worked for me but I was more concerned about seeing how dance had developed since
the Cultural Revolution and was denied that – a little. The crossover between then and now and the influence that the time had on the development of dance was therefore lost a little. I just wanted to delve further into the dance collective, the move from the rigid to the fluid and the propaganda importance of the experience and the impact upon the proletariat. It all got a little lost in trying to tell a tale in a short amount of time when we could have benefitted from lingering more on the artistic and the political – but there again I may be asking for quite a lot, given the situation within China itself.
However, whilst the mix of film and performance can be a delicate one, this gave us at least two performers from an ill remembered era. I was very convinced by the assertion that the time was right to reconsider the ballet and the work of the Revolution and remind ourselves, that it was not all cultural vandalism. People believed, and their belief was there for all to see on the film and onstage.
The most impressive parts though were the dance sections and interaction with the curtain, when the performance became more theatrically present and less dependent upon the memories of the past. It left the narrative a little muddled as it progressed through a thematic pathway rather than a linear pathway but I would have been happier with the muddle if I had seen more of the creative development.
I left me more educated and feeling that I had been present at an event that had reminded me of my democratic principles, ironically from a time and a regime that eschewed such decadence but having opened this box of delights left me wanting to see more about the new movement and slightly less about the old. I was, however sure that the boldness of the piece was its most valuable and whilst it might not have become the polemic I hoped, it was fascinating and intriguing in equal measure for us in the West to consider the experiences of those in the East.