Efforts to create a new, post-capitalist artistic culture are fraught with peril. First of all, the tendency to dismiss pre-socialist traditions (artistic or otherwise) as “bourgeois” inevitably leads to a backlash. The impulse to preserve the past and retain one’s history will always prevail (science fiction Christmas cards in state atheist Soviet Russia immediately come to mind). Secondly, the artistic genres of “communist” states can sway overwhelmingly nationalistic, often at the expense of the art itself; propaganda can be art, but when you live in a totalitarian state, stuff can get stale real quick (then again, certain American gaffs remind me totalitarianism isn’t a prerequisite for banal propaganda). And then there’s that rare example of artistic achievement that falls victim to both of the aforementioned pitfalls—fails at relinquishing ties to capitalist culture and politically problematic in its nationalism—but still reaches the height of brilliance and beauty.
Enter Maoist ballet. As an avid ballet fan and former dancer, I’m slightly offended at the notion that I must reassure readers, “this is no ordinary ballet,” but it is an exceptional interpretation, and those who might otherwise be averse to ballet can take heart that this the style is uniquely dynamic and athletic. China’s Cultural Revolution dictated that the bourgeois culture of capitalism just be replaced with a new proletarian culture- hence the radical choreography and patriotic imagery. Of course, it’s still recognizable as ballet, and while a few Chinese instruments pepper the score, it’s primarily performed by a European-style orchestra.
Below is my favorite, “The Red Detachment of Women,” one of the so-called “Eight Model Operas,” (which were actually five operas, two ballets, and a symphony) all designed and organized by Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, intended as the ambitious forefront of China’s new revolutionary culture. Though I tend to watch it in pieces, isolating different acts and numbers for their stand-alone value, the libretto is epic and elaborate. The ballet is actually based on a famous novel that pulled true stories from the all-women Special Company of the 2nd Independent Division of Chinese Red Army, who had over 100 members. When Nixon visited China in 1972 to repair diplomatic relations, this is the ballet they took him to see—there’s no way that wasn’t a backhanded gesture.
In many ways, “The Red Detachment of Women” was a total failure. Even if we ignore the fact that the terrible politics of Communist China were being extolled en pointe, it’s intellectually difficult to argue that anything engineered by Mao’s wife could even be populist. And of course it’s a failure as all cultural revolutions are a failure; art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and no amount of communist shellac could purge the fingerprints of the Western progenitors of ballet. Still, the beauty and the innovation of the project are undeniable, and while “The Red Detachment of Women” wasn’t the dawn of a proletarian artistic movement, it was most certainly, well… revolutionary.