By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
Coming soon to Seattle will be the first-ever performance in the United States of the Chinese classic tale, “The Butterfly Lovers,” told in dance by the Beijing Dance Academy, under the direction and choreography of Li Hengda from Bellevue’s Hengda Dance Academy. The performance will combine the world-famous talent of Beijing Dance Academy’s dancers, and Li’s trademark mélange of Chinese and Western dance. Put together, this upcoming version of “The Butterfly Lovers” promises to please a wide range of viewers, and put a new spin on the ancient story.
“The Butterfly Lovers” is one of the four greatest Chinese folk tales selected during a 1920s folk movement in China. The story is notable for its tragic element, its romance, and its strong heroine. As those familiar with the story know, “The Butterfly Lovers” tells the story of Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai, two lovers who would rather die than live without each other. The two meet in school where Zhu is pretending to be a boy in order to gain an education. When she finds out her parents have betrothed her to someone else, she reveals herself to Liang. The two enjoy only a short time together before Zhu, a dutiful daughter, succumbs to her parents’ wishes. Liang dies from a broken heart. Not long after, while on her way to the home of her new husband, Zhu passes her lover’s grave. Too overcome to carry on, she joins him there. As the story goes, the heavens open, and the two lovers transform into butterflies, thereby to spend eternity together.
It’s a stirring story, and one that Li has interpreted in a new way by combining elements of both Chinese and Western dance.
“I really wanted to use movement that is classical Chinese,” said Li. “But for the structure, I wanted to try something more Western…[In] traditional Chinese choreography, they ‘tell’ a lot of the story, but it’s not like a movie that can make you understand. So in this one, we focused on the feeling…and used this to catch the audience, who will follow the artist and the feeling…also, they can see the physical movement.”
As Li points out, Chinese classical dance can be focused on narrative; whereas, Western dance, especially modern dance, is more interested in the expression of feeling. Chinese classical dance is formal in the way that Western ballet can be formal. However, there are differences, such as the use in Chinese dance of martial arts and acrobatics. Li, whose background includes the Beijing Dance Academy and the Pacific Northwest Ballet, is fluent in Chinese and Western dance, which uniquely allows him to introduce new ways of considering dance to varied audiences. In his 2014 production of The Dream of Golden Crown, the director of the Chinese National Acrobatic Troupe thanked Li for “improving our Chinese acrobats to an art form—it’s not only acrobatics.”
Li’s versatility allows him to incorporate innovative methods, which he uses in “The Butterfly Lovers,” such as coordinating the colors of the costumes with the phases of the narrative. Add to this the consummate professionalism of the Beijing Dance Academy performers, and you have a show that is guaranteed to please. Per Li, the performers dancing the roles of Liang and Zhu are senior dancers with many awards under their belts. He emphasizes that dancers at the Beijing Dance Academy are the best of the best from all around China. Who better to introduce Seattle audiences to this famous Chinese love story?
According to its website, the Academy is “the only institution of higher learning for professional dance education in China, as well as the largest prestigious dance school with comprehensive concentrations in the world.” It is called “the cradle of dancers.”
It is these dancers who have taken on Li’s challenge of combining Chinese classical movement with Western emotive gesture, and who are charged with demonstrating the deep passion of the main characters, one of whom does not fit into a neat category. In Li’s view, Zhu is rebellious (she disguises herself as a boy, she pursues a forbidden love); yet for Li, Zhu also represents the four qualities of a worthy person: Xiao (filial), Dao (follows the right path), Zhong (loyal), and Yi (acts with principle).
“This lady is perfect,” says Li. “Not meaning that her beauty is perfect, but that her XiaoDaoZhongYi is perfect. She agrees with her parents—I can marry whoever you want me to marry, because you are my parents…She also promises her lover, we can die someday [and be together]. If we cannot be together [on earth], we can love together in heaven.”
Li assures that “The Butterfly Lovers” will be easily understandable. He explains that the story will be divided into the customary four parts. The first part tells of the early days of friendship, and blossoming, but hidden, love. “The boy is thinking, oh, we are good friends! The girl is thinking, oh, I love you, but I cannot tell you! This is a challenge for the dancers.”
The second part initiates when Zhu receives word that she must marry another, and Liang accompanies her home, or in Chinese, ShiBaLing XiangSong (the 18-mile walk home). The distance is specified because on the one hand, it is short, and on the other, long, because the lovers deliberately extend it.
“They go back and forth because they don’t want to separate.” During this second part, Zhu reveals herself as a girl and the two express their love for one another. The challenge for the dancers during part two, explains Li, is acting out the clues that Zhu gives to the initially clueless Liang.
Part three is comprised of the preparations for Zhu’s wedding, while part four culminates in death and rebirth. Ultimately, the story is hopeful, promising as it does eternal love. With Li’s artistry and the breath-taking talent of the Beijing Dance Academy, they deliver a new take on this old story, in a first-time-ever performance tour in the United States. The performance is sure to inspire and delight.
“In China they say: If talking doesn’t show your feeling well enough, you can sing. If singing doesn’t show your feeling well enough, you can dance! Dance is the top way to show feeling,” Li says.
“The Butterfly Lovers” performances at McCaw Hall will be held from Sept. 5-7. For tickets, go to ticketmaster.com, asianperformingarts.org, or call 425-830-8054.
Kai can be reached at email@example.com.