Celebrating Chinese Dance in “The Butterfly Lovers”

The Shanghai Ballet, which was brought to life in 1979, brings Chinese culture into dance on an international stage.

Written by Willa Wu

The Shanghai Ballet performed “The Butterfly Lovers” in the Tryon Festival Theater of the Krannert Center for Performing Arts on January 29, 2020.  This brilliant group of performers make up the leading company in the ballet world, and performed the tragic yet beautiful love story in an elegant manner.

The ticket stub and program for the ballet, which included the context for the story and helped me understand.

The cohesive movements of the dancers truly made the Shanghai Ballet a memorable performance.  Because this was a storytelling ballet, the “dialogue” between the characters only depended on their body language.  I noticed that small movements had a considerable role in showing emotion, such as when the dancers simply wiggled their fingers, which exhibited an airy feel to represent their character, a butterfly.  Many small movements were first unnoticeable to me until I began to look for them consciously. The type of movement is also crucial in conveying the emotion between characters in both tense and relaxed scenes.  In the calm and peaceful scenes, slow and smooth movements were used, which strongly contradicted the jarring and sudden movements used in heated scenes (such as the fight between Zhu, Ma, and Liang). Out of all the characters, Zhu seemed to have the most diverse set of movements, which makes sense as she experienced the widest range of emotions throughout the story.

At the end of the play, all of the characters returned on stage to take a bow with a grand butterfly screen behind them.

A hallmark of the ballet were their many extravagant costumes.  My favorite costumes by far were the Mandarin Ducks. The colorfulness, together with the creative cuts of both the male and female’s costumes, were wonderful to witness.  The explosion of color set their costumes apart from the Magpies and even the Butterflies, which had at most three colors on each costume. The cut, namely the male’s, consisted of many straps that were unique and truly represented the colorful stripes on a real Mandarin Duck.  The clear effort that went into these costumes are appreciated, and certainly paid off on stage. The Shanghai Ballet’s website includes information about their other performances.  Just by looking at the cover photos for each performance, you can see that each ballet has their own unique theme, and the costumes reflect such a change.

The 20 minute intermission between Acts 2 and 3. The total runtime of this ballet was 2 hours and 10 minutes.

Structurally, the ballet consisted of four acts: “In School”, “Farewell”, “Against Marriage”, and “Transforming into Butterflies”.  My favorite act out of the four was “Against Marriage”. This was by far the most action packed act, and the visual and sound effects were stunning.  The audience collectively jumped out of their seats at the end when Zhu was seen vehemently refusing to marry Ma. The lightning visual and sound effects set a tone for the act, and it was refreshing to see Zhu stand up for herself in this act rather than just appearing sad.  This act was extremely exaggerated and dramatic both visually and audio wise, which made it very interesting to watch.

Having last been in a ballet when I was six years old, I was amazed to see the work of professionals.  Personally I have only been to the ballets that I was a part of, so witnessing large props such as the screen of butterflies was a shock.  I was impressed to see that the screen of butterflies was slightly transparent, and allowed you to see some movement of the dancers behind it.  It helped to convey the airy feel and flowed with the light and peaceful music, which perfectly melded into the storytelling aspect.

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