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Famed ballet The Red Detachment of Women is again in the limelight, but this time for a courtroom drama and story that stretches across generations.
Last November, actress Liang Danni filed a complaint in Beijing's Xicheng District Court against the National Ballet of China on behalf of her 87-year-old father, claiming 550,000 yuan ($86,968) in compensation and demanding a public apology.
The court began hearing the case in mid-April, learning that like the ballet itself, the copyright dispute carries the imprint of earlier times in China.
Based on a film of the same name written by the elder Liang, the ballet became a popular "model" performance during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76).
It tells the story of a country girl who is abused by an evil landlord and escapes, then joins the Red Army and becomes a heroine.
Military uniforms, dancing, music and powerful marching songs combine with tender, soft moments in the ballet now considered a classic from the 1960s.
Liang was a soldier who joined the army in 1945 at the age of 19. He was demobilized in Guangdong and prepared to move to China's extreme northeast, but first returned to the island of Hainan where he had fought.
"It was the only way to see my old buddies," he told New Express Daily during an interview last year.
The Hainan trip turned out to be an inspiring journey. While there, Liang read historical records about a local women's army force founded in 1931 that won several battles.
He was so interested in their story that he traveled through deep forests on the tropical island for three months to call on survivors still living there. He wrote a movie script based on the tale in 1960.
The film was made and broadcast before National Day in 1961. It shot to fame and central government leaders commissioned a ballet adaptation in 1964.
"Liang was quite pleased to learn that The Red Detachment of Women was going to be adapted to a ballet," Li Chengxiang, then the head of the ballet troupe, recalled in his 2003 book. "He even offered script outlines for our reference."
The ballet too became well known across the country and was performed for US President Richard Nixon on his visit to China in 1972.
Yet few Chinese people then had any awareness of copyrights and the country had no related laws.
At the time Liang and the troupe never discussed copyright authorization.
After China's first copyright law came into effect in 1991, the writer and ballet troupe began negotiations on royalties.
In a letter to Liang in 1993, Li proposed a royalty payment of 3,000 yuan for a 10-year authorization.
They eventually signed an agreement that year for a payment of 5,000 yuan, but it had no specific 10-year clause.
Liang's son-in-law Feng Yuanzheng, who is also an actor, explained at a recent press conference that the copyright law at that time stipulated the longest period for authorized use was 10 years. The correspondence also discussed re-negotiation after rights expired in 10 years, he added.
The two parties should have re-negotiated in 2003, he said.
The ballet group's attorney told the court that the 1993 contract was not for 10 years, but a permanent arrangement.
The attorney noted the first proposal was for 3,000 yuan and the final figure of 5,000 yuan was settled on "for a reason", hinting that a one-time payment replaced the previously discussed 10-year arrangement.
The attorney also said the troupe hasn't made a profit from the ballet, with revenues from the performances less than a quarter of its costs.
Performing the ballet is not for economic interests, but to promote art, he said, adding that Liang has already been the biggest beneficiary. Without the ballet, he would not have the fame and wealth that he has today, the attorney said.
Yet Feng said the market is far from dismal, noting that many organizations have contacted the family for rights to adapt the work.
"I won't let it die - if the national ballet won't dance, others will," he said.
The National Ballet declined to make a public response out of concern it might be seen as seeking publicity in the case, according to local media reports.
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