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China's original ballet productions

The Butterfly Lovers

Updated: Mar 3, 2020 govt.chinadaily.com.cn Print

The Butterfly Lovers
梁山伯与祝英台

Ballet in four acts
World premiere in 2001 at the closing ceremony of the Shanghai International Art Festival
By Shanghai Ballet

Libretto: Luo Huaizhen
Choreography: Xin Lili
Music: Xu Jianqiang
Set design: Zhou Benyi
Costume design: Lu Caigen
Choreographyassistants: Chen Zhenrong, Cai Yilei, Li Fei
Libretto based on a Chinese legend of a tragic love story, The Butterfly Lovers (Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai)

A pas de deux by the hero and heroine inThe Butterfly Lovers [Photo/Official Weibo account of Shanghai Ballet]

Renowned as the oriental version of Romeo and Juliet, The Butterfly Lovers tells a sad romance between Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai. Daughter of a wealthy family, Zhu enters an academy disguised as a boy, where she falls in love with her classmate Liang. They spend a happy and intimate time together during their three years of schooling. Upon her departure from the school, Zhu makes hints to Liang about her real gender, which delights Liang. He goes to Zhu’s home to make a proposal. However, on hearing Zhu’s father has already betrothed her to Ma Wencai, Liang dies of grief. Zhu, lost in desperation, commits suicide before Liang’s tomb on her wedding day. The star-crossed lovers turn into butterflies after death and fly to their eternal paradise.

This story has been taken as the inspiration for bountiful artworks that in turn have had profound effects on Chinese culture. And its ballet version offers a successful interpretation of this oriental classic using the Western dance art.

Constituting four acts, the ballet starts with the prelude, "Butterfly Love". The hero and the heroine, surrounded by a group of dancers representing butterflies, are positioned at each end of the stage. Wearing Confucian clothing with folding fans, they walk toward each other, indicating they will meet at the academy.

Group dance of the butterflies [Photo/Official Weibo account of Shanghai Ballet]

Displaying beautiful idyllic scenery of the spring, the first act depicts the wonderful schooling time Liang and Zhu spend together, implying the budding love between them. However, Zhu receives a letter asking her to come back home. The second act begins with the dance group representing the great vitality of summer. Swans, butterflies and mandarin ducks all play in pairs, in contrast to the unwilling separation of the two characters. Seeing a groom procession passing by, Zhu disguises herself as a bride as a hint to Liang. But only after examining the fan given to him by Zhu does Liang realize that she is a girl.

Dance of a pair of mandarin ducks play in the water. [Photo/Official Weibo account of Shanghai Ballet]
A pas de deux at the separation of Liang and Zhu [Photo/Official Weibo account of Shanghai Ballet]

With the background now set with autumn leaves, the third act hints at a tragic atmosphere. At Zhu’s home, the guests are celebrating the engagement between Zhu and Ma Wencai. The finery and flying dance of the group dancers stand in sharp contrast to Zhu’s feelings. She begs her father to call it off. Meanwhile, Liang comes to make his proposal. Cruelly rejected and humiliated by Zhu’s father and Ma’s family, Liang dies. This part serves as the climax of the ballet, with the fierce dance depicting the undying love between the protagonists.

The last act, titled "Turning into the Butterflies", ends in winter. Mourning at Liang’s tomb in the snow, Zhu starts her last solo dance, surrounded by grey and black butterflies. Suddenly, as if heaven is abiding by their wishes, Liang and Zhu reunite and become a pair of butterflies. They dance with their colorful companions and fly to their eternal paradise.

Balancing both realistic and spiritual expression, The Butterfly Lovers is infused with many other traditional Chinese cultural elements, including the Chinese ink painting stage design, implications of the seasons and animals in pairs, costumes and ornaments in an ancient style, embroidered handkerchiefs, folding fans, pavilions and terraces. In particular, butterflies of the varied colors link all the acts: the colorful ones remind the audience of beautiful youth and reunion; the yellow ones suggest passionate love; the black and grey ones accord with the sorrow of separation.

The world-acclaimed Chinese original violin concerto The Butterfly Lovers composed by He Zhanhao and Chen Gang in 1958, narrating the same story, is chosen as the main melody. Passages from the Yueju Opera version of The Butterfly Lovers are also utilized to present a charming music style typical of South China's Yangtze River Delta.

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