Shanghai Ballet’s The Butterfly Lovers, U.S. tour

Choreography by Xin Lili, Shanghai Ballet

Cal Performances, Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley

Nov. 1 and 2, 2013

This classic story, choreographed by Xin Lili, is China’s “Romeo and Juliet,” with many differences. The heroine finds her lover in school while in a boy’s disguise. Her arranged marriage to the school’s bully results in the death of her chosen love. Death cannot separate them: they are reunited as butterflies. The tale traces its origins from the third or fourth century Tang Dynasty.

The work partakes of elements from well-known 19th century ballets, “Swan Lake,” and even (in the marriage scene) from “The Sleeping Beauty.” Given that ballet training in China came primarily from Russia, as early s 1917 when Russian emigrants settled in Shanghai, the design and technical work of “The Butterfly Lovers” clearly echoes that tradition.

The title role Zhu Yingtai was exquisitely danced on Nov. 1 by Ji Pingping, although given the dramatic demands of the role, one could wish for more dramatic dimension in her performance. Her reluctant and finally vanquished lover, Liang Shanbo, was danced by Wu Husheng, who concentrated, although weakly, on technical virtuosity rather than character portrayal. The unwanted lover, Ma Wencai, danced by Zhang Yao, was, for me, the master performer of the work. His presence and projection, as well as his dance ability, made him the unlikely hero.

The production is beautiful in all aspects of scenic and costume design, although no credits are given for these important elements. The musical score, by Xu Jianqiang, was a loud, brassy, melodramatic set of motifs, which were best tuned out. Although the members of the corps de ballet were clear and exact, their work seemed purely decorative. Most delightful were the character dancers who appeared in a “dream scene” where they encounter magpies singing and Mandarin ducks and butterflies. Those dancers engaged in more Chinese movement, and the décor elements of that scene offered the most charming dimensions of the ballet.

San Francisco, CA
Joanna Gewertz Harris, Ph.D, is a dance teacher, historian, reviewer, and lecturer. She taught dance and theater at UCB, UCSC, Cal State Hayward and Sonoma, and is a frequent contributor to scholarly journals and books, most recently to H'Doubler, and Legacy in Dance Education, both from Cambria Press. Beyond Isadora, Bay Area Dancing 1915-1965 , her book documenting Bay Area history (Price $40. + 2.00 shipping) is available from her web site beyondsadora.com and her e mail, joannagharris@comcast.net.