The Shanghai Ballet came to the Tryon Festival Theatre at the Krannert Center on Jan. 28-29 for two performances of the ballet “The Butterfly Lovers.” I attended the first of these performances.
The legend of the “Butterfly Lovers” is famous in China. The story was set in the Eastern Jin Dynasty (265-420 A D), and the earliest record of the tale dates from the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A D). Music fans outside of China may have become familiar with the basic story through the very popular “Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto,” composed in 1959 by He Zhanhao and Chen Gang.
In the story, two young people, Zhu Yingtai, a girl who comes to a boys school dressed as a boy, and Liang Shanbo, a boy, meet as students and become friends. At the school, Liang is beaten by Ma Wencai, a bully. Later, when Zhu reveals herself as a girl, she and Liang express their love for each other. But Zhu is betrothed to Ma, whom she tries to reject, but she is forced into marriage. After Liang dies broken hearted, and the victim of Ma’s violence, Shu follows him into death. In the afterlife, they are transformed into butterflies and hence fulfill their love.
In this ballet, in four acts, each act is associated with a season of the year, beginning with spring, and ending with the return of spring.
The Shanghai Ballet company began in 1979, and Xin Lili, the current director of the company, was the choreographer of “The Butterfly Lovers” ballet, which premiered in 2001.
I enjoyed this performance very much, with certain reservations. The choreography by Xin Lili reflected a high professional standard. The dancing, both solo and with groups of the corps de ballet, was excellent. The costumes were mostly lovely, with a specifically Chinese appearance, which added an alluring exotic touch. For the Western observer, some of the visual aspects of the production may have been puzzling, such as the custom at a wedding for the bride to be dressed in red.
As storytelling, there were weak moments. In the opening act, the villain Ma is supposed to fight and beat Liang, but no action on stage suggest such violent actions. In later acts, Zhu’s refusal of Ma and the subsequent assault on Liang were vividly portrayed, and in this and later scenes the use of strobe lighting was highly effective.
The dancers who portrayed Zhu and Liang touchingly conveyed the excitement of the young lovers, as well as the pathos of their tragic destiny. Thanks to the members of the sound and lighting crew, I was able to get the names of these dancers. Zhu was played by He Linyi, and Liang was danced by Zhang Wenjun. These dancers were not among those listed in the program, although they are listed on the Shanghai Ballet roster on the internet. The dancer Zhang Yao, who very effectively played the villain Ma, was listed on the program.
The use of sections of the “Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto” in the climactic love scenes helped to make for me these sections the emotional peaks of the evening. The other music for the more formal ensemble dances was by Xu Jianqiang, and I found this music to be at a lower level of inspiration.
After the sadness of the lovers’ deaths, I thought that the final transformation into butterflies would be sweet, though in sadness, and tranquil, and the “Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto” does, indeed, end quietly. Instead, this ballet ended with a loud and crowded celebration, which rang false to me.
That said, the whole evening was a touching and rewarding look at unfamiliar treasures of the ancient traditions in the rich culture of China.