We speak to Creative Director of Asia TOPA Stephen Armstrong in the lead up to the 2017 festival

In the lead up to one of Melbourne’s most distinguished cultural festivals Asia TOPA, we had an in-depth chat with Creative Director Stephen Armstrong about the significance of such a curation of work and one show in particular, The Red Detachment of Women.

What is the idea behind Asia TOPA?

There are so many amazing creators and performing artists working in Asia today, but we simply don’t see them on our stages.  Everyone has been missing out. Creating a festival with our city-based colleagues – where each organisation curated their own activity – is an exciting way to change this, to celebrate many styles of work according to the priorities and artistic rationales of many companies.

Asia is a huge geographic area. It has immensely impressive artists working across hundreds of cultural traditions, but it is also very much a part of our contemporary identity as Australians; it is the environmental region we live in, trade in and travel in, and it represents the cultural heritage of many of us. Connecting with the imagination of artists and cultural leaders in the region should be an essential part of Australian life.

How do you go about curating such an incredible line-up of performances?
Associate Director, Kate Ben-Tovim has lived and worked in a number of Asian countries so she was an invaluable guide, particularly in India and Indonesia. We made separate visits across South East Asia and regularly visited China, Japan and Korea. Altogether, Kate and I viewed the work of hundreds of artists and met with dozens of artistic directors and cultural leaders. We also participated in forums and discussion groups convened in Asia to better understand the motivations and challenges faced by contemporary artists and programmers. We set out to reduce the obstacles and allow artists to do what they needed to do. We wanted to present the most exciting work already performing in Asia alongside new work, to let the program emerge from a place of discovery and exploration.

We brought artists from more than a dozen countries together in a series of creative labs in Melbourne and supported Australian artists to travel to Asia and seed collaborative projects with artists working in new and exciting forms, textured with traditions and rituals we are all connected with. Out of this came many new projects – this is probably what we are proudest of – and makes Asia TOPA distinct among Australian arts festivals. Australian artists are brilliant collaborators but there are too few opportunities for them to invite international artists to Australia to create inter-cultural works. And for our Asian colleagues, they struggle with very little infrastructure or support and have almost no mobility even within Asia. Europe and America have been developing their cultural profile and providing investment in this space for decades, Australia has been totally missing in action. But things are changing!

What do you want audiences to take away from such a festival?

To be delighted and surprised and confident about embracing the creative experiences on offer by artists from of our extraordinarily beautiful and culturally rich corner of the planet. To recognise that the contemporary imagination brings us far closer to one another and to understand that Australia’s modern heritage is truly global. We share this land with the oldest living culture on the planet (who never ceded their sovereignty) and it is the combination of this and our multiculturalism which makes us a unique society – not the fact that we speak English as a first language. In fact, English is not spoken at home by 40% of central Melbourne households but it is the national language of India!

How does performance art differ or compare between Asia and Australia?

Performance art is such an idiosyncratic genre with such an intensity of personal voice one tends not to compare in the same way as one might a classic performance. On a visit to Political Acts, an exhibition at Arts Centre Melbourne, audiences can immerse themselves in a retrospective exhibition of some of the pioneers of performance art from across Southeast Asia. What they will definitely notice is how urgent the work is (and remains). The artists performing in XO State are just a taste of the next generation of performers. What many contemporary artists in Asia tell us is that contemporary performance is about building cultural strength, about connecting the needs of the present with the wisdom and shared knowledge of the past to make the future strong.

What is The Red Detachment of Women about?

The Red Detachment of Women is a 1963 ballet adapted from a hugely popular novel based on the true story of an all-female detachment of Communist revolutionary fighters. Set in the early 30’s on the island of Hainan, it tells the heroic story of Wu Qinghua (pronounced Woo Ching-hwah), a peasant girl captured by the powerful landholder, Nan Batian who chains her up and prepares to sell her. She manages to escape his evil henchman Lao Si but the tyrant finds and beats her, leaving her for dead. Members of the Communist underground find and rescue her. She studies Communist ideas about guerrilla warfare, equality and peasant rights and trains as a soldier in a special detachment of women soldiers. The women soldiers ambush Nan Batian on the night of his birthday party. Wu, unable to control her hatred, shoots at him prematurely and although he is wounded, he gets away. She is reprimanded for her lack of discipline and becomes a better soldier as a result. During a fierce battle with Nan and his men, Wu helps lead the detachment to victory.

Why is this sort of work important for historical significance?

After the falling out between Mao and Khrushchev, the Russian ballet masters were withdrawn from Beijing. The Red Detachment of Women is the very first ballet created solely by the Chinese for a local audience. The ballet combines the highly stylised forms of traditional Peking Opera, with the highly idealised story lines of revolutionary propaganda, in which flawless heroes vanquish grotesque enemies. The choreographers of the ballet had studied in North Korea, Russia and Eastern Europe. They managed to transform the foreign and unfamiliar art of ballet into something with a strong domestic appeal, full of rousing songs and gymnastic athleticism, all in service of a simple and sympathetic story.

It became one of the eight ‘model operas’ allowed to be performed during the calamitous Cultural Revolution during which time many traditional cultural practices were banned and creative expression severely curtailed. The Red Detachment ballet is unique among these works for its astonishing ‘hybridity’. The ballet was famously performed for Kissinger and Nixon in their history-making visit to China in 1973 and the unprecedented coverage of that visit ensured that imagery from the ballet became recognised worldwide. In the world of classical ballet, the image of ballerinas in military uniforms wielding rifles was so utterly extraordinary it began to take on its own pop culture status as a feminist emblem (check out the video by all female punk band, Bikini Kill). These aesthetics were further popularised by artists like Warhol.

The work has so many cultural and historical ‘touchstones’ it is one of the few iconic performances of the 20th Century still being presented in its (close to) original form, and we are incredibly fortunate to be able to see here in Melbourne in 2017.

This work has been adapted for stage, film, operas and ballets. Which medium do you think works best for a historically political piece like this?

I haven’t read the book or seen the play. There are TV series, docu-dramas and full-length feature films based on the original novel. As a work of propaganda, it is a fascinating relic, and as a work of unique moment and energy and ambition and creative hybridity, it is unsurpassed.

What can we expect from this show?

Outstanding performances of extraordinary synchronicity and athleticism by one of the great ballet companies of the world. The highly saturated, pop design combined with traditional elements and revolutionary fervour makes for an unrepeatable experience.

Is there a standout moment from the show audiences should look out for?

No spoilers from me!

From what I know, Australia hasn’t created anything like this. Do you think we ever will?

The circumstances for making this work are so unique it’s not really something I can imagine.

The Red Detachment of Women will be showing at the Arts Centre from February 15-18. For further information and tickets, click here. To view the rest of the Asia TOPA programme, click here.