Choreographer Wen Wei Wang revisits Chinese Red Army ballet for Nixon in China

As the choreographer of a key scene in Vancouver Opera’s new production of Nixon in China, Wen Wei Wang finds himself constantly being taken back to his childhood years.

When Wang was seven years old, growing up in Xi’an, Richard Nixon made his historic visit with Mao Zedong. “It was in the newspaper and on the radio, and we were all aware that the door was opening to the West,” he tells the Straight over the phone from his home in Vancouver, where he moved in 1991. “I grew up in the Cultural Revolution time, and we felt like we were the best country in the world, and we were thinking, ”˜Well, they’re coming to us because we’re great.’ ”

Now an established local choreographer who’s acclaimed for Asian-flavoured contemporary works from Unbound to Cock-Pit, he’s been thinking back to those years a lot lately, and he admits in retrospect that they were often harsh. “We were always hungry,” Wang says. “You had to go to school without breakfast. By afternoon, my stomach was crying.” But there were upsides too: “In those days, under Mao, because everybody’s equal and nobody has vehicles and nobody can buy cars, in that sense we’re all happy because we don’t know what everybody else has.”

For an important scene in Nixon in China, Wang is entrusted with creating a shortened version of the famous Chinese ballet-opera The Red Detachment of Women, a propaganda piece written by Madame Mao. It’s a story about peasants saved from their brutal landlord by the heroic women of the Chinese Red Army—and a piece Wang had to both watch and perform in dozens of times in his younger years. He knows the tale inside-out, but it’s been a challenge setting it to the difficult rhythms of John Adams’s score. The ballet is performed on pointe, but Wang quips, “You have to feel like you’re in the army; you’re not a princess!”

In all, the experience of working on Nixon in China has given him a deeper understanding of the events he saw so simplistically as a child. “We all stand on our own side and think we’re right, but when you start to have dialogue and start to understand two worlds, things start to happen,” he says. “By the third act of this opera, you start to wonder who’s right and who’s wrong.”