Shanghai Ballet Dances Butterfly Lovers for Second Time

6 Nov

Cal Performances brought the Shanghai Ballet to the Bay Area for its second appearance here and with Butterfly Lovers, the same ballet I saw in 2007 at Flint Center in Cupertino. A six-year hiatus naturally brings with it new principals in this tale of fidelity beyond the grave, “combining Swan Lake and Romeo and Juliet” a comment made by Berkeley ballet savant Nicole Liboiron at the end of the November 2 performance.

Nicole, native to Canada and of French-Canadian heritage with a startlingly thorough R.A.D. background, extensive performing experience and both teaching and choreographing herself, thus summarized the dichotomy of this full-length choreography by Xin Lilli, Shanghai Ballet’s artistic director to recorded music by Xu Jianqiang. Luo Huaizhen was responsible for the libretto which attempted to fuse a T’ang Dynasty folk/fairy tale with the rigors of classical ballet for this fifty-plus ensemble of dancers. While the results may not be successful in Western terms, the use of Chinese material is admirable; various undercurrents understandable principally to a Chinese audience must make it attractive to East Asian audiences.

No credits were given for the note-worthy scenery and the costumes. The opening scene features an idyllic school setting, then a country scene complete with distant pagoda before displaying a courtyard with vibrant autumnal maples in the background, finishing with a wintry scene. I have every reason to believe the progression of seasons not only reflected life’s passage, but conveyed a message attuned to Chinese rather than western spectators.

The costumes of the women in the corps de ballet might have come from a text book on Russian-style classical tutus, especially the skirt. Akin to a slightly drooping parasol, the skirts accented the bodice, the dancers’ slender torsos, framing pointe work, slender legs and conveying feminine modesty. In the early days of the PRC, the Chinese dance leaders turned to Soviet Russia when nations further west closed their doors to collaboration. Tutu-wise, go figure.

The Chinese sartorial panorama looked de rigeur, the gentleness of flowing fabric suggesting costumes constructed with silk.

Zhu Yingmai, danced by Li Chen Chen, attends boys’ school in disguise and becomes enchanted with Liang Shanbo, danced by Wu Husheng. The school bully, Ma Wen Cai was danced by Zhang Yao, who disrepects the teacher, cheats on his classmates and fights with Liang. Zhu tends to Liang’s wounds, falling in love with him. Zhu, summoned home, accompanied by Liang, has visions of pairs – butterflys, mandarin ducks and magpies. She drapes a bride’s scarf over her face, Liang interpreting this as play. With Zhu’s parting fan to Liang,
depicting butterflies, he realizes Zhu is a woman.

With a grand ceremony Zhu’s father arranges a marriage for her; to her dismay, the potential bridegroom is Ma Wen Chai, the school bully. Zhu is not happy. Liang comes to propose marriage, but Zhu’s father is not impressed. Zhu opposes the union. She and Liang profess their love, but Ma brings retainers to beat Liang lifeless.

In the final scene, Zhu, dressed in bridal red, follows Ma reluctantly, but manages to elude the marriage ceremony, and rushes to Liang’s grave. Zhu vows death and the heavens oblige, transforming the lovers into butterflies.

Technically, corps formations were models of clarity, point work, their landings from jumps soundless. There were two opportunities for male ensembles, one incorporating traditional Chinese gestures in competitions. For the women, there was a typical hand gesture close to the cheek seen in Chinese theater, face slightly cocked, conveying the demure, charm and modesty expected of well bred Chinese womanhood.

If the Butterfly Lovers tale stems from the T’ang Dynasty, the heroine’s disguise can be considered accurate – women’s feet had yet to be bound. Sansai tomb figures depict women on horseback playing polo.

Li Chen Chen made little use of her pointes until the betrothal scene and the struggle with her father, would be fiancé, Ma and being the center of a tug of war between Liang and Ma. We Husheng, tall and slender, partnered well, but his height does not provide a secure center for turns, unlike the more compact Zhang Yao as the villain; it seemed deliberate casting.

While admiring the development of Chinese themes for ballets, Butterfly Lovers with its elegant corps de ballet and the story thread of the young lovers was a clear dichotomy; the twain meeting only in partnering, magpie and mandarin ducks variations, and the corps de ballet ensembles at the opening and conclusion of the story. Nicole Liboiron’s remark was an opinion also voiced in Allan Ulrich’s review. In the Chinese tradition, however, the audience is attuned to stark opposites.


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