Chinese ballet comes to NJ State Theatre
The second-most prestigious ballet company in China came to the New Jersey State Theatre yesterday to display a masterpiece of Chinese ballet.
The Shanghai Ballet performed “The Butterfly Lovers,” a four-act, full-length ballet that tells the story of two lovers in fourth-century China who are forbidden to elope and die trying.
It is often called the Chinese analog to William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” according to Christine Chen, the executive director of the American Repertory Ballet.
“The Butterfly Lovers,” which premiered in 2001, combines traditional Chinese and Russian dance movements, Chen said, creating a fusion between Western- and Eastern-style choreography.
“[The ballet is] a traditional Chinese myth [meeting] the story arc of a Western classic like ‘Romeo and Juliet,’” Chen said.
Xin Lili, the artistic director of the Shanghai Ballet and choreographer of “The Butterfly Lovers,” identified this as one of four legendary tales in Chinese culture.
The story takes place during the Jin Dynasty in China during the fourth century, and is comprised of four seasonal acts.
In the first, set in spring, the audience is introduced to Zhu Yingtai, a woman disguising herself as a man so she can attend school. She and a scholarly boy named Liang Shanbo develop a strong attachment.
The second act begins in the summer. Zhu and Liang are walking home, and Zhu, desperate to out herself as a woman, attempts to express her femininity to Liang. She dances suggestively and wears a red veil, which is traditional Chinese bridal wear.
Still, Liang does not realize that Zhu is female. Just as the curtain descends to signal intermission, he has his epiphany and runs after Zhu.
Yet when autumn descends and the third act begins, Zhu is betrothed to a man named Ma Wencai, who bullied students at Zhu and Liang’s school.
Zhu flees from Ma every time he attempts to approach her, and the act’s choreography largely consists of frantic, panicked movements.
Liang then returns to ask Zhu’s father for his permission to marry Zhu. But Liang’s family is not of the requisite social standing, and he is rebuffed. The act concludes as Ma’s servants beat Liang to death.
“The physicality of the dancers is really important to conveying the characters,” Chen said. “The physicality of the dancers tells the personalities and the stories.”
In the fourth and final act, set in the winter, Zhu has fled her marriage ceremony and throws her veil aside as she embraces Liang’s grave.
After an elaborate dance, Zhu, flanked by several female dancers, commits suicide just as Juliet does when she believes her union with Romeo is impossible.
“When Zhu takes her own life, she does these … bourrées,” Chen said. “Juliet does that a lot in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ when she’s in her poison scene. It kind of conveys this panicked sensibility, but also something out of control.”
Unlike Shakespeare’s classic tragedy, and despite the deaths of the two lovers, “The Butterfly Lovers” ends happily.
In the ballet’s final scene, Liang and Zhu are reincarnated as butterflies in the springtime, and are permitted to be together in this form.
Chen said the cycle of the seasons symbolizes the development of the young lovers’ affection. It buds in the springtime, is in full bloom during the summer, begins to break down in the fall, dies during the winter and is reborn when spring returns.
Lili said she did not attempt to infuse the ballet with Chinese choreography, but the physical nature of the performers necessitated a non-Western style.
“Although we don’t deliberately set out to bring a Chinese influence to our ballet … Chinese bodies are different,” she said in an interview at the McCallum Theatre Institute in October. “I think Chinese dancers bring a new delicacy, different qualities and sensibilities to this Western art.”
Chen said much of the Western influence in Chinese ballet is the result of Russian dancers’ emigration to China following the creation of the Soviet Union.
Artistic expression was stifled during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, but Lili said China’s present situation is markedly different.
“Now it is very different,” she said. “Now the arts are for everyone — not just workers, farmers and soldiers.”
Because the world is familiar with the art form of ballet, Chen said, it is a convenient avenue to present Chinese culture and history to a large audience.
Though not an avid supporter of ballet, Chris Price, a School of Arts and Sciences junior, was impressed with the show’s representation of Chinese culture.
“The ballet was entertaining,” Price said. “As a person who loves theater, I appreciated how colorful the show was. From the backdrops to the costumes and then to the big movements of the show, everything just seemed really vibrant.”