A couple of gourmands check out a new restaurant.
"The food in here is awful," grumps the first.
"Yes," sniffs the second. "And such small portions."
The wry old tale came to mind Friday night, when the Central Ballet of China--"direct," it says here, "from Beijing"--opened a four-performance stand at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts.
The ads heralded "The Red Detachment of Women." Not excerpts from the epochal Communist dance-drama, but "a full ballet in two acts."
Although we have never seen it on the stage, we know "The Red Detachment of Women." The movie version was shown here in 1971. The sociopolitical importance of this revolutionary opus has been well-documented.
Everyone loves it in China. Elsewhere in the universe, balletomanes may scoff at it. But they scoff respectfully.
This, you may recall, is the ideological extravaganza created by committee in 1964 and fiercely protected by the now-notorious Jiang Qing, a.k.a. Mme. Mao. This is a glorious, folksy, unabashedly simplistic demonstration of poster art fusing Asian idealism with Soviet heroism.
In "The Red Detachment of Women," the pitiful Quonghua throws off the chains of slavery, joins the ever-welcoming Communist militia, does some fouettes to signal ecstasy, dances a sensuous pas de deux with a rifle and daintily dispatches her capitalist tormentor. She kicks the back of her head in the best Bolshoi manner to indicate extreme agitation. After a period of dogmatic self-criticism plus an anti-feminist pause to sew a rip in a manly comrade's shirt, she glides off into a crimson canvas sunset.
Official attitudes may have fluctuated over the decades in China, but the popularity of this intrinsically unlikely exercise seems to have survived. Even a stubborn skeptic has to be fascinated by the inherent gut-thumping bravado.
Make no mistake, this ballet is propaganda--tawdry, banal and silly. The incessant flag-waving, both literal and spiritual, gets tiresome quickly. The hum-along score, attributed to a trio of faceless eclectics, is the sort of concoction that makes Khachaturian sound like Bach.
Nevermind. "The Red Detachment" remains a piece of cultural history. It does what it is supposed to do, and does it with conviction.
Contrary to promises, the Central Ballet didn't bring us all of the awful ballet. The company offered just 35 introductory minutes. Such small portions.
In this export version, the curtain fell after the heroine joined the artillery corps de ballet. On the way to this false climax, we got enough arty athleticism, enough toe-shoe ritual, enough colorful mime to know where the narrative was going. But, for reasons unknown, we were headed off at the Hainan pass.
It was frustrating.
The performance looked authoritative. The uncredited decors defined locale, character and mood with lavish, painterly precision. Rustic pomp was splashed across the stage with zest in depth. Kitsch, schmitsch.
Feng Ying first suffered, then triumphed eloquently as the guerrilla ballerina. Unfazed by music emanating from a tinny recording, the large supporting cast jumped, strutted, contorted, marched, wrestled, cringed and emoted as if lives were at stake.
Our hard-working visitors exhibited no such passion, alas, in Act Two of "Giselle," which opened the program. Although the classical steps, manners and patterns had been carefully assimilated, the result remained resolutely dutiful. Make that mechanical.
Long phrases tended to get chopped into small pieces. Spines refused to bend. Shoulders didn't. Faces resembled masks. The communal line emerged stiff, the inherent drama stifled.
Li Yan served as a retiring rather than ethereal Giselle, modestly partnered by Lliang Jing as Albrecht. Feng Ying used the should-be sweeping arabesques and potentially fleet bourrees of Queen Myrtha as warm-up exercises for more bellicose maneuvers to come. She and her cohorts didn't, couldn't, give us the Wilis.
The non-capacity audience on opening night greeted the white tutus politely, but cheered the red army with gusto.