Portraits of Chairman Mao still loom over Tian An Men Square, but in another part of Beijing, groups of Chinese tourists line up for rides in an imperial palanquin--one of the decidedly reactionary activities prevalent at Daguanyuan, a popular Qing Dynasty-style theme park that opened the same year as the Tian An Men Square massacre.
These two extremes--the unyielding political realities of the 20th Century and the evocation of an ancient past that is ever more embraced and idealized--are reflected in the repertories of two very different Chinese dance attractions visiting the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts this month.
From Beijing itself, the Central Ballet of China appears Friday through next Sunday in a repertory that includes everything from Act 2 of "Giselle" to the opening scenes of "The Red Detachment of Women"--subtitled "a modern revolutionary ballet" when it premiered in 1964. This is the epochal dance drama that requires the womens' corps to aim rifles while on pointe as an embodiment of Mao's statement that "political power grows from the barrel of a gun."
Then on Oct. 27, 28 and 29, Cerritos audiences will sample another kind of dancing from another kind of Chinese society: the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan in "Nine Songs," a visionary full-evening modern-dance spectacle that fuses an ancient Chinese cycle of poems with violent images drawn from the Japanese occupation of Taiwan, the Tian An Men Square massacre and other examples of 20th-Century brutality toward the Chinese. Taiwan, you may recall, is considered a valiant young democracy by some observers, a rebellious island province of China by others.
Besides the mixture of politics and lyricism in their American repertories, the Central Ballet of China and the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan are alike in adding native Chinese elements to basically Western movement vocabularies: Soviet-style classicism for the former company, Graham-based modernism for the latter.
In the case of the Central Ballet's "Red Detachment of Women," regional folk dance elements enrich the choreography, along with military formations and that omnipresent signature of Maoist defiance, the clenched fist. The work came just two years before the disastrous upheavals of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, but company artistic director Zhao Ruheng denies any connection.
"It totally has nothing to do with the Red Guards or the Cultural Revolution," she declares, speaking through an interpreter. "At that time we didn't have any directive by the government to do something, but it was our own feeling that we had so many Western ballets, that we wanted to do Chinese ballets."
"We wanted to pick a theme or a story that would be easy to understand. ["Red Detachment"] was based on a true story in the faraway South, a remote area of South China. And the story is very suitable for ballet because there's a lot of women in it."
They chose an incident set on Hainan Island in which a peasant woman runs away from an abusive landlord, joins the Red Army and, eventually, participates in his destruction. Whatever its original intention, the ballet became an emblem of the Cultural Revolution, one of eight works approved by Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, during her reign as China's cultural empress. After her fall in 1976, the work survived in memory and in a 1970 theatrical film.
Unfortunately, only 45 minutes of "The Red Detachment of Women" are being danced in America, so Cerritos audiences won't get to see the ballet's nasty parody of Western-style decadence or the ultimate fate of the despotic landlord Nan Batian as described in the official 1970 government synopsis:
"He runs in haste. With two shots, [ballerina heroine Qionghua] ends the life of the crime-steeped counter-revolutionary chieftain. Red Army soldiers rush in. They pour a volley of bullets into the Tyrant's body, avenging the laboring people he had oppressed. The rising sun lights up the land. Liberation has come to the long-suffering people. . . ."
This scene reportedly drew gasps when it was performed to sold-out houses in Hong Kong 10 months ago. At that time Zhao Ruheng proved considerably more outspoken with the press about the ballet's Maoist content. Now she brushes past the subject, saying "Every country has its politics." She prefers to adopt a larger perspective: "You must remember that this ballet is based on the true history of China. One part of Chinese history. So that's why we're very enthusiastic in doing it."
Besides "The Red Detachment of Women," the two programs to be danced in Cerritos also include another story ballet from the Communist era, the wedding act from "The New Year's Sacrifice," and an example of multicultural modernism, "Before the Wedding," a pas de deux on a traditional Chinese subject by veteran American choreographer Norman Walker.
However, fully half the repertory will be relics of 19th-Century European monarchies: Act 2 of "Giselle," a suite from "Raymonda" and "Le Pas de Quatre." Zhao Ruheng says that Central Ballet of China brings a distinct Chinese identity to these Franco-Russian warhorses--"very delicate, and also dramatic. All the hand gestures and arm movements, for example. You know Chinese: They're refined in doing everything."
Technical refinement is also conspicuous in the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre's 1993 videotaped performance of "Nine Songs," in its blend of modern dance, Peking Opera movement, tai chi and other Chinese idioms. In addition, the work adopts something of a pan-Asian perspective with traditional music and dance borrowed from India, Indonesia, Japan and Tibet.
" 'Nine Songs' is not merely about Chinese alone," explains choreographer Lin Hwai-min, the founder and artistic director of Cloud Gate. "It's Chinese and it's universal. . . ."
In part, he continues, the work is "about how human beings at the end of the 20th Century have lost contact with nature. That's why I have a lotus pond with real water at the front of the stage. I think that the whole work has the function of a theatrical ritual.
"In Asian ritual, contact with nature is very clear," he says. "What strikes me about Japanese or Balinese or Indian culture is the sense that religious offerings are simply the skin of people's lives."
The emphasis on ritual and nature also pervades the work's literary source: poems by Qu Yuan written more than 2,000 years ago:
The rites are accomplished to the
beating of the drums;
The flower-wand is passed on to
Lovely maidens sing their song, slow
Orchids in spring and chrysanthemums in autumn:
So it shall go on until the end of
The poems are not always so serene; many of them describe troubled relationships between men and gods, and even include one magnificent evocation of fallen heroes. Unlike the beneficent deities in the poems, however, the nature-gods who dance, one by one, in "Nine Songs" relentlessly manipulate and oppress their human followers, sometimes literally walking over them and always generating the sense of threat that all Taiwanese have come to live with:
"A strong fear of Chinese invasion is very pervasive in Taiwan at this moment," Lin Hwai-min says. "Every day, there's a dramatic story in the newspaper about [nearby Chinese] missile tests. It's had a tremendous impact. A lot of people have been emigrating."
Nevertheless, Lin Hwai-min personally finds it "exciting and challenging all at once" to be an artist in Taiwan right now. "All kinds of energies from the society have been released, and it's very powerful," he says.
There are new freedoms as well. For instance, "Nine Songs" is reportedly the first dance work to evoke the so-called Feb. 28 incident, a 1947 uprising of Taiwanese against Chiang Kai-shek's newly arrived Nationalist troops that resulted in thousands of executions.
More familiar to American audiences is the image of a lone man confronting a Beijing tank--part of the "Homage to the Fallen" sequence in which past Chinese victims of massacre are named, depicted and then honored in a final candle-lit ceremony.
"I think maybe one of the reasons I wanted to choreograph this piece is to create a ritual of consolation," Lin Hwai-min says. "To bring peace to my life."
Lin's search for consolation may seem a world away from the revolutionary triumph depicted in "The Red Detachment of Women," but both works are attempting to grapple with recent Chinese history in the context of older values, and both are infused with a similar anger at injustice, the same anger that has fueled so much Chinese history, and extremism, through the ages.
* Central Ballet of China, Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Drive, Cerritos, (800) 300-4345. Friday-Sunday, 8 p.m. Also Saturday and Sunday, 2 p.m. $26-$42.
* Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan, Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts. Oct. 27 and 28, 8 p.m. Oct. 29, 2 p.m. $18-$28.