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Sunday, 10 November 2013 13:11

Shanghai Ballet's 'Butterfly Lovers' defies gravity

Written by Chuck Lavazzi
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"Farewell" duet from Act I
"Farewell" duet from Act I dancestlouis.org

There were many remarkable things about The Shanghai Ballet's production of "The Butterfly Lovers" that Dance St. Louis presented at the Touhill this weekend. The colorful costumes, the incredible athleticism and skill of the dancers, the incisive way artistic director Xin Lili's choreography illuminated character and defined action, and the powerful emotional pull of the tragic story were all reasons to take notice.

But perhaps the most remarkable thing about "The Butterfly Lovers" was how familiar and accessible it was. The choreography and gestural language were all straight out of classic Western ballet and the recorded music, for a standard symphony orchestra, could easily have been mistaken for an Orientalist work by a late 19th-century European if it hadn't been for the typically Chinese vocals early on (all head voice and no vibrato). Yes, the story is an old Chinese legend dating back 1400 years to the Tang Dynasty, but the theme of star-crossed lovers who die tragically is hardly unique to China.

So this was all familiar stuff. But it was done with such supreme artistry, creativity, and dedication that familiarity bred not contempt but rather contentment. It was impossible to come away from "The Butterfly Lovers" without being dazzled by its brilliance and moved by its tragedy.

Most classical music lovers will probably know the story as the basis for "The Butterfly Lovers' Violin Concerto" (the Liang Zhu Violin Concerto in China), a 25-minute work written in 1958 by Chen Gang and He Zhanhao. The piece is enjoying something of a revival these days, popping up on classical music stations and on concert programs. The music for the Shanghai Ballet production (which premiered at the Shanghai International Arts Festival in 2001) is the work of Shanghai Conservatory of Music associate profession Xu Jinanqiang. It serves Luo Huaizhen's libretto well, advancing the action and illustrating character. The music for the pompous bully Ma Wencai, for example, perfectly illustrates the character's swaggering foolishness, while the lyrical themes for the lovers Zhu and Liang perfectly capture their passion.

The ballet is divided into four acts, each of which takes place in a different season. Act I (spring) shows how Zhu and Liang meet in school, where Zhu is disguised as a male to get around the cultural prohibition on women getting an education. In Act II (summer) Liang escorts Zhu home and finally tumbles to the fact that Zhu is not only a woman, but very much smitten with him. Trouble surfaces in Act III (autumn) when Zhu's father arranges her marriage to the bully Ma. Liang tries to sue for her hand, but Zhu's father is opposed and Ma has his thugs kill Liang. In the wintry fourth act, the grief-stricken Zhu throws herself into Liang's tomb and dies, but she and Liang are reborn as a pair of butterflies in a final celebratory scene.

Each act begins with an attention grabbing ensemble number that shows off the corps de ballet and sets the scene for the season. In the first act, for example, the students are all in shades of green while the dancing butterflies and birds that open the second act are in bright, summery colors. The fall wedding ceremony is all stunning red (the traditional wedding color in China) and gold while the final act opens with a chorus of butterflies all in white. The members of the ensemble were all remarkable dancers and their numbers were executed with a precision that was nearly superhuman.

Indeed, the dancers of the Shanghai Ballet didn't so much dance as glide and soar, as though gravity were little more than an inconvenience. Better yet, the principals were all fine actors as well, delineating character and emotion with their faces as well as their bodies. The "farewell" pas de deux that closed the second act, for example, was a good a piece of acting as anything I've seen on a non-musical stage, as was the tragic confrontation between Zhu and her relentless father in the third act.

Of course, Xin Lili gave them some fine choreography to work with. Her butterflies flitted about, seemingly light as air. Her lovers floated in ecstatic curves while the awful Ma was all short, jerky movements and angles (mostly obtuse, if you'll pardon the pun). The courtly dances for the wedding ceremony made great stage pictures and the martial arts–themed moves of Ma's thugs were appropriately menacing.

"The Butterfly Lovers" was, in sum, as fine a piece of classic ballet as one could hope for. It was, to paraphrase an old Harbach and Fields lyric, lovely to look at and delightful to hold in the memory.

Dance St. Louis's presentation of The Shanghai Ballet's "The Butterfly Lovers" has ended its two-day run, but the season continues with the Ballet Memphis production of "The Wizard of Oz" January 24-26 at the Touhill. For more information: www.dancestlouis.org.

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