Last week, Shanghai Ballet arrived in Champaign-Urbana and accomplished what art often does far better than any other form of diplomacy — the creation of meaningful cultural exchange and universal understanding. The particular gift it delivered, The Butterfly Lovers, created and choreographed by Shanghai Ballet's director Xin Lili, was an exquisite blend of tradition, legend, elegant and technically exquisite execution, all wrapped in a shimmering bow of magic realism.
Ballet is particularly adept at this kind of bridge building. Ballet speaks its own universal language. It is aspirational. Those who have come to excel in it have defied both gravity and great odds. Their tireless devotion to craft conjures wonder and joy. A magical blend of athlete and artist, they appeal to what is best in us and what we share.
The Butterfly Lovers, inspired by the Chinese legend dating back to the Tang Dynasty, tells the tragic love story love story of Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai. Set in the Eastern Jin dynasty (265–420 AD), it follows Zhu as she convinces her father to let her attend school [albeit dressed as a boy]. There she meets Liang and their initially playful friendship ultimately grows into a deeper friendship. Zhu's feelings soon transform into romantic love. She struggles to contain her feelings, as doing so would reveal her true identity. Called home by her father, who has secretly planned an arranged marriage with Liang's arch enemy, the wealthy Ma Wencai, Zhu sets off with Liang accompanying her. During their farewell, she hints at her true identity, but it is not till much later, upon his return that Liang learns the truth. Alas, it is too late. Spoiler alert: The elders have committed their children to a profitable yet, loveless marriage. Those who attempt to stop it, first Liang and then Zhu herself, pay the ultimate price. Tragic? Definitely. Over the top? Perhaps. Outdated and irrelevant in the year 2020? Unfortunately not. But more about that in a moment.
Image: A vertical row of female ballet dancers en pointe and dressed in orange robes, from The Butterfly Lovers. Photo courtesy of Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.
Ballet is theatrical, bold, dramatic. It exists in a heightened state with large gestures and all amps turned to 11. Yet for all its strength and power and mythic narrative, it can be exquisitely nuanced. And it is here that Shanghai Ballet shines. Principal dancer Qi Bingxue's Zhu was both complex and nuanced. An exceedingly elegant dancer with a quiet theatricality capable of great range, Bingxue conjured up a Zhu capable of subtle wit, aching sensuality, and, ultimately, sheroic agency. When we first meet Zhu she is [cross]-dressed in the traditional robes of a scholar. The choice to outfit her in a pink robe caused me a moment of initial irritation. But like Liang's blue robe, it served as a visual shortcut and set the leads apart from their classmates' more neutral robes.
Beyond all of the breathtaking leaps and passionate pas de deux, for me, Bingxue was at her finest during Zhu's moments of greatest struggle and defiance. Her movements of resistance were strong and clear. And her responses to continued subjugation were achingly sad. I have never seen a performer convey such beautiful brokenness. It is something I will likely never forget.
Bingxue was perfectly matched throughout by Wu Husheng's Liang. Bingxue and Husheng have the trust, and ease, and chemistry of the best ballet partnerships. Husheng's Liang is physically strong and gesturally tender, making him worthy of Zhu. His stunning mastery of the pirouette felt driven by Liang's overwhelming emotions. And his hands. The longing and the passion signalled by seemingly simple gestures was evidence not only of great technique, but of a deep connection to character.
But as is the case in many ballets, the love story comes to a complicated end. Liang is murdered. Zhu, unwilling to live without him and desperate to escape a life with Ma, follows him in death. But here, Nature, depicted as the brightest colors and most graceful beings in the Universe, intervenes, transforming our ill-fated lovers into butterflies, reuniting what Man had torn asunder.
The butterfly symbolizes transformation. Tragedy and struggle has metamorphosed Liang and Zhu. They exist in a new world where they are supported and honored. There is no going back. And for those struggling against families that refuse to see them, perhaps the notion that Nature celebrates us all, is truly one of hope.