Shanghai Ballet’s ‘The Butterfly Lovers’ cracks the cocoon

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Last week, Cal Performances brought the internationally renowned Shanghai Ballet to UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall in a night of drama, elegance and class. The company danced “The Butterfly Lovers,” a childhood romance with fatal consequences that has been touted as China’s “Romeo and Juliet” story. Former principal dancer Xin Lili directed the show, seamlessly weaving elements of Chinese traditional dance into classic ballet form. While at times the narrative was difficult to follow, the sheer technical perfection, athleticism and elegance of the professional dancers far outshined the ballet’s pitfalls, making “The Butterfly Lovers” a unique and memorable event.

One of China’s famous legends, “The Butterfly Lovers” tells the story of a schoolgirl and a schoolboy — Zhu and Liang, respectively — whose innocent love is thwarted by the wishes of their families. In the first act, we watch the two sprightly young lovers discover each other through innocent schoolyard games. But when a class bully intervenes to show off for Zhu, Liang is thrown to the ground and badly hurt. In an almost Hollywood-cliche turn of events, Zhu helps Liang to his feet and dances one of the most emotional routines of the production, expressing her deep love for the injured boy. As the couple walks home through the midsummer setting, Zhu is laden with anxiety because she knows not only that her love is unrequited but also that it will never be consummated because she is destined to marry a man of higher status.

Act III opens with the gaudy celebration of Zhu’s marriage to Ma Wencai, the childhood bully. Against the firm wishes of her father, Zhu abandons the wedding and runs to Liang’s side in an act of passion. But their reunion does not last long, as Ma’s guards soon surround Liang and force him to the ground, beating him to death.

In the final act, we see Zhu, cold and mourning in the winter snow. Once again, pure love has been defiled by the selfish desire for power and wealth. It seems Zhu’s only way out is to join her lover in his fate, but in a dramatic turn of events, she is surrounded by a kaleidoscope of butterflies of all different hues. Liang returns to the stage in butterfly form to meet her in her transformation, and the curtain drops as they are once again connected — this time in the form of fluttering insects.

At times, the narrative was difficult to follow because artistic director Xin clearly regarded the perfection and beauty of the dancing itself over its translation into a coherent plot. The company achieved something magical, however, in the pure spectacle of the production. The set designs and backdrops evoked the drama of ancient Chinese paintings — the dancers flowing through the scenes like smooth brushstrokes of deep reds, pale blues and icy whites. The costumes were extravagant but far from opulent, and the dancers seemed proud to don clothing that tied elements of traditional Chinese dance to the Western-dominated ballet uniform.

All of these elements, however, paled in comparison to the overwhelming excellence of the dancing itself. Led by Ji Pingping, who played the role of Zhu, the female dancers were pictures of effortless delicacy while the men, led by Wu Husheng as Liang, were strong and fluid. For a ballet of this caliber, technical perfection is expected, and the dancers delivered just that.

In the initial schoolyard scenes with most male members of the cast onstage, each dancer dissolved into the pure synchronicity of the company in motion, demonstrating impressive leaps while maintaining congruence with one anothers’ pace. The coupled dances of the magpies and the mandarin ducks in Act II displayed the company’s depth of talent, and the two leads, Ji and Wu, were bonded by their complementary style and formal strength throughout the production. With this performance, the Shanghai Ballet seems to have made its mark on American audiences as a respectable force and noteworthy influence on the future of dance.

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