With some initial hesitancy I feel the need to reflect on my latest painting ‘Red Detachment’. I don’t necessarily want to talk for the work – it is important that it holds its own autonomy and I doubt that words will be sufficient to summarise my thoughts and feelings generated by this work. But this work has surprised me on many levels. It is as if it is has come from deep inside me and holds so many meanings with layers of personal and political histories.
I recently rediscovered a few postcards sent to me by my father from his time in China in the early 1970’s. The cards he sent to me were of the Chinese State National Ballet – in particular images from the dance ‘The Red Detachment of Women’. I suspect that he was taken to this ballet as part of the business hospitality that he received when there.
The cards always intrigued me – beautiful images of dancers in bright colours, some holding weapons and wearing uniforms leaping across the stage, some in unison, others dancing solos. Even at an early age I was aware of how different and perhaps exotic these images seemed in comparison to Western contemporary ballet.
On rediscovering these images I became motivated to do some further research in to these dances and have uncovered a number of interesting articles about these dances and their significance in recent Chinese history.
The ‘Red Detachment of Women’ was choreographed and performed at the time of the Cultural Revolution in China. It was a state supported art form and was very much written and performed within strict parameters to support government propaganda. My understanding of the story is that it is about a peasant girl that escapes from the evil landowner, with the help of a communist agent and then joins the red army to seek revenge on the landowner. Mao Zedong evidently loved it. The score was devised using a number of traditional Chinese folk songs and some of the dance postures were taken from Chinese Martial arts – when not holding guns many dancers have clenched fists in opposition to more western forms of ballet in which the hands are open and softer. There is plenty more reading that I am uncovering on this and if anyone has a film of these ballets do let me know – I ‘d love to watch them.
This piece of work has uncovered a whole new line of enquiry for me – how dance and art are used and sponsored by governments to support their own power objectives – the influence of patronage. It is a beautiful image to work with but what lies behind the beauty is complex – there is confinement and control within what initially appears to be a free powerful movement across the space.