The Red Poppy was a staple of Soviet ballet, performed all over the USSR. But when the Soviets’ Chinese allies saw the production, they were not best pleased. On the piece’s 90th anniversary, Eveline Chao looks back.

One day in 1926, Mikhail Kurilko, chief designer for the Bolshoi Theatre, noticed two interesting items in the 9 January edition of Pravda, the official paper of the still-young Soviet Union. One reported that a Soviet steamer called Ilyich – Lenin’s middle name – had been detained in England. Authorities searched the ship for communist literature, but found nothing and sent it on its way. The other reported a “new phase in the struggle in China”. The Soviets were supporting Chinese nationalists in their fight against Japanese-backed warlords, with the ultimate goal of bringing about revolution in the country. In Lenin’s view, successfully converting other countries into socialist allies was crucial to the Soviet Union’s survival.

At the time, the Bolshoi was still adjusting – painfully – to its new role as a tool of the state. Developing new, revolution-friendly repertoire for its in-house ballet company, the Bolshoi Ballet, was a priority. These two stories from Pravda inspired Kurilko to pitch what would become the first Soviet-themed and Soviet-endorsed ballet, The Red Poppy, which premiered at the Bolshoi 90 years ago this month. Its plot featured an opium-fueled dream sequence, a critique of Western decadence represented by people dancing the Charleston, an evil English dock master named Sir Hips, and star soloist Ekaterina Geltser in yellowface. A huge hit, it set the template for the Soviet ballets that followed it: concerned with revolutionary themes, and emphasising collective athletic movement. A few decades later, it would also trigger an embarrassing diplomatic moment between the Soviet Union and Mao’s China, exposing the fault lines of socialist brotherhood. 

Unsurprisingly for a work controlled by a committee of bureaucrats, the ballet was mired in conflict

Unsurprisingly for a work controlled by a committee of bureaucrats, the ballet was mired in conflict throughout its development. Virtually everyone involved fought over every element possible (aside from composer Reinhold Glière – a master of the art of playing it safe who kept his compositions light and uncontroversial, stayed out of ideological battles between artists, and coasted through the revolution unscathed). The original scenarist’s treatment was rejected and his duties were passed to Kurilko, who is credited as its official author. A third person involved in the script fell out with ballet master Vasiliy Tikhomirov over the second act, and his name was removed from the project. One of the ballet’s most crowd-pleasing dances, the folksy Yablochko (or “Little Apple”), is derived from a Russian sailor song, and as Glière later recalled, the Bolshoi orchestra’s musicians considered it demeaning to play.  “Pressure, endless pressure,” reads an internal memo from the period, quoted by Elizabeth Souritz in her book Soviet Choreographers in the 1920s. “More than once the whole thing fell apart and we lost hope.”

Flower power

The Stalinist era was difficult for new productions: higher-ups wanted them, but it was hard for them to survive the ever-shifting demands of the state bureaucracy and censorship. Usually, it was safer to simply rework old classics with the right ideological spin. The Red Poppy too was nearly killed. In the spring of 1927, the culture commissar ordered the Bolshoi to bump it in favour of an opera by Prokofiev, as part of an effort to woo the acclaimed composer back from abroad. But then, the ballet found its moment. On 6 April, Chinese police raided the Soviet embassy in Beijing. Meanwhile, crisis was building in Shanghai. Nationalists had allied with communists to take control of the city, but had turned on them. Soviet papers filled with headlines about the slaughter of Chinese communists. The Red Poppy suddenly “resonated with the current political situation and thus received approval for performance,” writes Simon Morrison, a music professor at Princeton University, in his book Bolshoi Confidential.

One of the characters smokes opium and has a hallucinatory dream involving dancing flowers and flying dragons

In the version that premiered in 1927, the ballet opens to low strings and gongs. (In his manuscript, Glière labeled the passage “lifeless China.”) Then comes a soaring Russian tune, representing the Soviet ship. The curtain rises on barefoot Chinese laborers unloading crates from the ship. Then the heroine Tao-Hua, who Morrison describes as “a combination of orientalist clichés at constant risk of sexual assault,” is introduced, dancing for Englishmen at a restaurant nearby. A labourer collapses, worked to death by the English dock master, Sir Hips, a cruel man who beats the workers. The ship’s Soviet captain intervenes, and he and his crew help unload the ship. Tao-Hua is moved and “flutters her fan at the captain and gives him a poppy,” writes Morrison, who notes that flowers are symbols of beauty, splendour and youth, and red is the colour of love, revolution and communism. Tao-Hua’s evil master Li Shan-Fu threatens her, and the Soviet captain intervenes. The scene concludes with the Chinese labourers joining the Soviet sailors, along with sailors from Australia, Japan, Malaysia, and the US, in a happy group dance. 

In the next scene, Tao-Hua smokes opium and has a hallucinatory dream involving dancing flowers and flying dragons. The following scene takes place in a casino, where English revelers dance the Charleston. There’s also a tango striptease, an umbrella dance from Tao-Hua, a Chinese ribbon dance, and a waltz. Evil Li Shan-Fu tells Tao-Hua to serve the Soviet captain poisoned tea. She refuses, and instead pantomimes to the captain a message of warning and affection. She seeks his love, he instead tells her about the joys of socialism. Li Shan-Fu aims a gun at the captain but kills Tao-Hua instead, and poppies rain on the now-liberated Chinese workers.

Diplomatic dance

Critics panned the ballet, especially the hallucinatory second act, which they viewed as a regressive throwback to the 19th-Century penchant for exoticism, completely at odds with the realism of the first act. Nonetheless, thanks to the Kremlin’s backing, it was a wild success. It was programmed by state-controlled, state-financed opera and ballet theatres; performed at the Bolshoi more than 200 times in its first years, and some 3,000 times throughout the USSR. (Reviews became more positive once it was clear that the government supported it.) “It had everything a Soviet spectacle needed: exotica, politics, clear heroes and Western villains,” writes Morrison.

But by the 1930s the ballet had fallen out of fashion, and by the end of the decade, it was hardly performed at all. In 1949, that long-awaited Chinese communist revolution finally arrived, not long before Stalin’s 70th birthday. To mark both occasions, the ballet was revived.

A number of changes were made to the plot, which suggest an attempt at making it more acceptable to a Chinese perspective. The biggest change was that, where Tao-Hua had previously fallen in love with the Soviet captain, in the revival her love interest is one of the Chinese laborers on the dock, who not only gets his own solo dance, but is the one to lead the revolution. However, the overall vibe remained one of heroic Russians bringing enlightenment to the flawed Chinese. And in act two, Tao-Hua falls asleep without the aid of opium.

Even with these changes, the revival revealed how little the Soviets knew about their Chinese communist brethren. Mao Zedong was in Moscow at the time of the revival, seeking an alliance with Stalin; in February 1950, the two signed the Sino-Soviet Treaty. He was invited to see The Red Poppy, but declined. As it turned out, he had been warned not to go. The wife of the Chinese ambassador to the USSR had seen a dress rehearsal, and reported back that it distorted the Chinese revolution and the role of the Communist Party. Another member of Mao’s delegation, Chen Boda, attended instead, and as later recounted by Mao’s Russian interpreter in a memoir, Chen then informed the Bolshoi’s top brass that he found the ballet offensive.

Ballet was used as an ideological and diplomatic tool, shaping how other countries saw Russia

Several other complaints are recorded in exchanges between the Soviets and not just Chen, but various other figures as well. Most upsetting was that, though Tao-Hua no longer smoked it, poppy flowers still represented opium. They conjured the Opium Wars, when China was forced to allow the drug’s international trade and cede territory to Britain. In China, it is considered the most humiliating episode of the country’s history and remains a source of resentment to this day. Moreover, one of the Chinese characters in the ballet wore a queue (a long, braided pigtail), a symbol of subjugation forced upon Han Chinese by Manchu conquerors during the 17th Century, which had been banned in China since 1912. Finally, the character Tao-Hua was a dancer, which to the conservative Chinese communists, suggested that she was a prostitute.

“Clearly [the Russians] thought this was going to be this moment where Mao would come and go, ‘How wonderful that the Soviet Union is producing these sensitive, internationalist ballets about our common struggle.’ And in fact it was exactly the opposite,” says Edward Tyerman, a Slavic studies professor at Barnard College.

The Red Poppy was revived (and expanded) yet again in 1957, and this time, in deference to the Chinese, the pigtail was cut, the heroine was recast as a freedom fighter, and the title was changed to The Red Flower. Later, however, when Mao began to denounce Khrushchev and relations between the two countries fell apart, the title was changed back to The Red Poppy. That has been its title ever since, most recently for a 2015 Russian-Italian co-production in Rostov.

Ballet was used as an ideological and diplomatic tool, shaping how other countries saw Russia, ever since the Soviets first began sending dancers on overseas tours, to wow Western audiences with their mastery of the art form – and by extension, the strength of the Soviet Union. However, when the star dancer Rudolf Nureyev defected to the West in 1961, followed later by Natalia Makarova in 1970 and Mikhail Baryshnikov in 1974, it also became clear how easily such ‘soft power’ efforts could backfire – the defections gave the West a new reason to see itself as superior. Western understanding of those events, and of Russian ballet in general, frames things as a struggle between East and West. But, as the ever-shifting saga of The Red Poppy reveals, ballet was not just a tool for asserting cultural superiority over enemy nations, but also for cultivating relations with socialist allies. And as such, it could also become a place for tensions to play out between those supposedly friendly nations.

The offense that Mao’s delegation took at The Red Poppy was just one in an array of slights that left Mao stewing over his treatment by the Soviet Union – this resentment that would later culminate in the Sino-Soviet Split, which in turn helped ensure Western victory in the Cold War. All of that said, the wonder of ballet still left its mark on the Chairman during his Moscow stay. Though he declined to attend The Red Poppy, he went to see Swan Lake instead. It was Mao’s first ballet, and reportedly, he enjoyed it very much.

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