Asia TOPA Review: The Red Detachment of Women is visually spectacular, but politically controversial.

It’s not every night you go to the theatre to see a show and arrive at a protest. Well, that’s exactly what we encountered on the opening night of a very politically charged ballet work called The Red Detachment of Women. It’s important to understand why there is a backlash to such a show and perhaps how it was approved by curator Stephen Armstrong.

The ballet itself portrays an excerpt of history where a peasant girl Wu Qinghua who, after joining the Red Army, proceeds to exact vengeance, commit robbery and murder against the countryside upper class. The Red Army itself has been likened to an extremist organisation epitomising obsessions towards violence, killing, and glorification of power. It’s no wonder the Chinese community residing here in a progressive Australia is unhappy with it still being performed.

The Red Detachment of Women sees an incredible ensemble of easily 60+ dancers recreating this famous film in six parts, each introduced with a synopsis of what will take place. Visually, it is spectacular as the athleticism, precision, and intention behind each dancer’s movement go beyond the traditional conventions of ballet as a dance form. They have all embodied the army-like nature and behaviour of the Red Army, but in a sense, this story has two perspectives. One is that it’s the story of a hero, a young woman standing up for her cause, on the other hand, it shows the brutality of such a fascist group. To each their own, but it is an eye-opening exploration into a part of China’s history.

The stage is full of colour and energy as the dancers recreate one of the most memorable cultural works of the modern era. Beautifully accompanied by Orchestra Victoria and a local choir brings a vibrancy to the entire work, even in moments of death and brutality. While it is a bit unnerving seeing these scenes of warfare play out in what is normally such a beautiful art form, the company as a whole has done so respectfully. A standout moment from the work was indeed but a mere 45 or so seconds interlude which sees the entire company dominate the stage in a stampede of jetes (or leaps), insinuating their move to battle. Not only was it simple and effective, but the most powerfully dramatic moment.

The reviewer attended the show on opening night and while the short season ofThe Red Detachment of Women has ended, head here to see what else is showing throughout the Asia TOPA festival.