The story of young lovers kept apart by familial politics is an old one. A variation on the theme dates goes back a millennium to folklore from China’s Tang Dynasty. “The Butterfly Lovers,” performed by the 35-year-old Shanghai Ballet in a Northrop Dance presentation at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis on Tuesday, interprets the “Romeo and Juliet”-style narrative through its distinctive flair for spectacle and theatrics.
Fan Xiaofeng and Wu Husheng assumed the lead roles in this evening-length work choreographed by artistic director Xin Lili and first performed in 2001.
Although it took time for their relationship to bloom both as characters and as dance partners, by the end of the evening they had a convincing chemistry. Wu is a particularly radiant artist — he brings an androgynous beauty to his stage presence that enhances both the grace and power of his dancing. Fan’s lightness of being is complete but she also reflects the determined personality of her character, a woman who will brook no barrier — even death — to live with her true love.
Butterflies, as the title suggests, play a key role. Much of the corps work involves movements meant to evoke the exquisite insects, and both hero and heroine end up transformed into these fluttering beings by the work’s climax. They are reincarnated to a happier and simpler life in the natural world.
Sometimes the swaying arms and bodies seem inspired by Busby Berkeley’s musical productions, which is both compliment and critique. In these moments — and others including a duet for two “magpies” in carnivalesque costumes that detracted from the fine dancing — the work veers toward the showy or melodramatic and even feels corny (although to be fair, many a ballet libretto is built on cliché). Likewise Xu Jianqiang’s music is often lush, but its intermittent cartoonish touches are overly obvious emotional touchstones in the composition.
Shanghai Ballet, which made its Minnesota debut with this performance, has high production values. The costumes are richly decorated and the sets (which reflect the changing seasons over the four acts) are elaborate. Often the dancing rises to the occasion — the choreography embraces both the tiniest detail as well as the boldest gesture, and it’s not always beholden to traditional ballet technique. “The Butterfly Lovers” is a fine introduction to the gifts this world-class troupe has to offer.
Caroline Palmer writes about dance.