Review: Shanghai Ballet ‘The Butterfly Lovers’

Last weekend, Shanghai Ballet visited St Louis with their folk ballet, ‘The Butterfly Lovers’ choreographed by Artistic Director, Xin Lili, as part of the 2013-14 Dance St. Louis Season. While an actual butterfly in nature goes through four stages of life to develop into its most beautiful self. ‘The Butterfly Lovers’ was a four-act ballet that, from the moment the story began to unfold, was a striking visual spectacle that left the heart fluttering.

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The ballet established a picturesque quality as the curtain rose on act one introducing the three main characters frozen in dreamlike poses, the stage misty and filled with blue light. Orchestral music with a lyrical Eastern influence set a foreign tone. The curtain fell and when it next rose, the stage was filled with a corps of women as butterflies with soft lighting, as if in a forest. Their lightness and the overwhelming colors of the backdrop and many stunning, shimmering costumes led easily to the feel of a romantic fantasy. There was not a lot of choreography happening beyond port de bras and bouree but enough to establish a tone and there was certainly enough to look at with the visual elements.

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Then came a corps of men against an earthy green backdrop. The schoolyard scene was a lovely display of poised gesture and technical brilliance without too much emotion from the corps. This allowed the light and playful quality of female lead Zhu, dance by either Fan Xiaofeng or Ji Pingping (the program does not specify unfortunately) to shine through from her first partnered jete. This paired well with a lyrical quality of male lead Liang, danced by Wu Husheng or Wu Bin and made him stand out from the other men. He employed a masculine grace even through grand allegro. The bad-boy role of Ma was a nice contrast with a dynamic, aggressive movement quality. The first act set the scene for the story-telling, employed moments of humor, and demonstrated the uniform excellence of the dancers. The male corps held a developpe a la second that would had rivaled the best corps of women in The Kingdom of the Shades. THe act closed with a contrasting dream sequence between Zhu and Liang behind the scrim. The movement was a bit more modern and was a nice foreshadowing of what was to come.

Act two continued with more dazzling costumes and new characters in little pas de deux moments. It was hard to tell based on the costumes which was the Mandarin Duck and which was the Magpie pair. The second couple in a lighter costume were brilliant in petit allegro, their sissones quick as lightning. It was mostly dance for dance’s sake, but was colorful and enjoyable.

The latter part of the act where Zhu disguised herself as a bride allowed for more story to come through. Pantomime in ballet can be tricky and old-fashioned and in this version, the story came through the expression of the music and the dancing without obvious gesture or overacting. The movement led well to picture and feeling. It was perhaps not involved enough to stand alone without all of the added visual elements, but also did not distract from cinematic feel and gentle unfolding of story. There were many touches of subtlety and small flourishes that added to a suspended sense of time and a slow realization of Zhu;s hidden identity and love for Liang. The two leads also began to employ maturity in their movement that showed a new depth of their characters and their dancing.

Act three brought a new autumn backdrop and bold red costumes for the wedding scene. It provided a taste of the Chinese style with hand motions not scene in western dance forms amidst exquisite partnering. The music in this act was more dynamic than the previous two acts, matching the sense of mounting tension. Particularly enjoyable dancing came from the group of six women in yellow dresses, who were sharp and bright. The colors and grandeur of the celebration contrasted well with the sense of darkness, isolation, and helplessness as Zhu refused against family wishes to marry Ma. All sense of play was gone by the time Liang arrived. The choreography managed to show Liang’s death without being innappropriate for children. The same is true of Zhu’s death at Liang’s tomb, surrounded by the cast of butterflies. It was easy to tell from a feeling what was happening without their having to explicitly show.

Act four was a return to a fantastical place where nature reigns without the cruelty or confusion of the human race. Each butterfly had a different costume color that led to individuality within a specific group. Watching each come on to the stage gave that childlike feeling of wanting to either catch or be each and every one.

It was curious to see the differences of common Western dance and Chinese style. Every body in Shanghai Ballet seemed codified. There was very little diversity in shape and size which made the group sections enjoyable for an overall picture. Every man and women had fantastic extension, nice feet, and a strong jump. Expression seemed to be built into the movement but only for the leads characters. The rest were wonderful dancers that lent to the color and feel but with  more a movement quality than performance, and could be summed up in a word or two. Also interesting was the difference in how the muscles are used. There is a trend in America and Europe of a grounded aesthetic, richly detailed in showing transitions through steps which requires a lot of strength and shows a different sense of effort. Dancers here popped into pointe and the men didn’t seem to get as deeply into their leg muscles in things like lunges. And while each female looked to only weigh one hundred pounds or less, there were very few sustained lifts. Most partnering consisted of a partnered jete. There was one shoulder sit and one press lift. Whether these qualities were implemented to lend a sense of lightness and veer away from the animalistic and strong qualities that is trendy in other parts of the world, one can only guess.

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If anything, ‘The Butterfly Lovers’ showed the supreme beauty of classical ballet; the colors, the fantasy, and design of everything from group formations, to costume, to physical design of each perfect, slender, capable body. If I’m honest, I used to dislike butterflies for exactly that reason.

They are so lucky- these odd looking creatures allowed to ball up in a cocoon during their ‘awkward’ phase and emerge flawless, leaving behind their former selves, and flying off. Anyone that has made it through teenage years can understand the appeal. Wouldn’t we all wish to come out of our shell, dispel our stubby legs and ungainly bodies, spread expansive wings and soar? This is what good ballet does. Shanghai Ballet’s, the Butterfly Lovers created a world where this seemed possible.

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