By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
The famous Chinese love story, The Butterfly Lovers (Liang Shanbo yu Zhu YingTai), is coming to Seattle’s McCaw Hall in September, with the Beijing Dance Academy, thanks to Li Hengda of Hengda Dance Academy. As director and choreographer, Li has been in China and the United States preparing for the show, which will tour through Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle, in what is a unique U.S. appearance of a classic Chinese tale, told through dance.
Li has an affectionate history with the famous story. He has choreographed the show before, in the form of a pas-de-deux (for only two dancers). He has danced the story himself in China, as the male lead. Li believes the story is relatable for nearly all ages and nationalities. A tireless promoter of cross-cultural pollination since he formed the American Asian Performing Arts Theatre in 1993, Li asserts that the story exemplifies traditional Chinese values, such as filial duty and honor, while also demonstrating atypical qualities in that the heroine is unusually bold for her time.
“She is strong,” says Li. “First, she makes up like a boy to study. Second, she doesn’t want to marry.” It’s true that Zhu does not want to marry. However, she is a dutiful daughter and agrees to do what her parents demand. “She’s nice, but she’s very strong, too,” adds Li.
It won’t be giving any spoilers to describe the story, which great numbers of people already know. A tragic tale, Butterfly Lovers follows two students who become good friends in school, the catch being that the boy, Liang ShanBo, does not know that his friend, Zhu YingTai, is a girl, because she disguises herself as a boy in order to get an education—something that wasn’t allowed for women in ancient China. When Zhu hears that her parents have arranged for her to marry another, she reveals (with some hiccups) her love to Liang, and the two enjoy a brief romantic awakening before a sad parting and, eventually, heartbroken death.
In addition to familiarity with the story, Li is also confident that most people, including those from the United States, will recognize the music, which has been played in many American symphonies, and was part of what first attracted Li to the story.
“I love this music and this story very much. In China, they have four famous love stories. This is one of them…I used to hear the story, but I didn’t know the details when I was a little boy. I heard the music—the violin—it’s very beautiful music.”
The Weekly polled local Asian and Asian American residents to discover how knowledgeable they are about the story—turns out, very.
“Isn’t that like a Chinese Romeo and Juliet?” wondered Kevin, whose family comes from Guangdong. In fact, The Butterfly Lovers has many parallels to Shakespeare’s equally well-loved tragedy, which supports Li’s assertion that this performance will have a wide appeal. Interestingly, Shakespeare wrote on the cusp of 16th and 17th centuries, whereas The Butterfly Lovers is over 1,400 years old. Perhaps we should be saying that Romeo and Juliet is the “Western Butterfly Lovers,” instead of the other way around!
Phil, who hails originally from Hong Kong, also pointed out that the stories are similar “even though they originated in two different cultures. Both couples face tremendous social pressure in pursuing their relationships.” Nancy, a Seattle University student from Hangzhou, remembers that the story is about “a great true love, and how strong families affect two young people’s relationships.” She recalled, “The two lovers were willing to sacrifice their lives to hold onto true love…I am impressed by their courage and strong will to pursue a love that they believed in but that their families opposed.” The story is “quintessentially romantic, in the sense that the couples would rather die than live without each other,” added Phil.
Li could not agree more, while emphasizing what is considered a happy outcome—that the couple lives together forever in heaven. “Whenever you see two butterflies, you should think of the story,” Li smiled, favoring the positive side of this romance that has charmed generations.
It’s clear that fans of The Butterfly Lovers are as impassioned as those of Romeo and Juliet. The connection is so strong, in fact, that a monument to The Butterfly Lovers exists in Verona, Italy, placed directly in front of what is symbolically called “Juliet’s Tomb.” In 2005, 15 couples from Ningbo, China were married there (Ningbo and Verona are sister cities).
If you are concerned the story will be difficult to follow since it’s interpreted into dance, don’t be. Li assures that through his unique fusion of Eastern and Western styles, the viewer will have no trouble understanding the story. In this show, Li has utilized Chinese classical style dancing while focusing more on “showing” than “telling,” and especially “intensity of feeling,” which he attributes to Western dance influence. The set and costume, too, are bound to impress, as 46 dancers from China’s renowned Beijing Dance Academy take the stage.
Li has won accolades in particular for combining Eastern and Western dance, and for his efforts in transforming the Western world’s perception of Chinese dance.
Recognized as a State First-Class Artist in China, Li immigrated to the United States in 1990 because of his desire to expand his knowledge of dance of all kinds. He earned a Master’s Degree in Fine Arts from the University of Washington, and was a principal dancer for the Pacific Northwest Ballet. Throughout his career, Li has found opportunities not only to dance, but also to direct, executive direct, and choreograph. Well-received works in which Li played a major role include “Panda” (XiongMao), a whirlwind of dance, acrobatics, and martial arts that thrilled audiences in Las Vegas, and The Dream of the Golden Crown, which was performed in China and the United States.
Li opened the Hengda Dance Academy in Bellevue in 1993, which offers classes for all ages in Chinese classical and folk dance, as well as ballet and Western folk dance.
Bringing The Butterfly Lovers to Seattle during a never-before-undertaken U.S. tour is the next of Li’s endeavors as an advocate for multicultural sharing and as an ambassador for Chinese culture.
The Butterfly Lovers will be performed at McCall Hall September 5-7. For tickets, go to ticketmaster.com, asianperformingarts.org, or call 425-830-8054.
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.