Conveying Tragic Love Through Ballet: “The Butterfly Lovers”


The Shanghai Ballet performed “The Butterfly Lovers”, a Chinese tale, at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts in the Tryon Theatre on January 29.

Written by Grace Chen

I went into the performance knowing little about the story of “The Butterfly Lovers” and I purposefully did not look at the provided summary so I would be surprised by the performers. It turned out to be a great learning experience in trying to create my own interpretation of the dancers’ message.

My ticket in front of the theatre.

Since the entire show was performed without a single word spoken, the plot and the emotions of the characters had to be shown through dance. An example is with the dancing pairs of Liang and Zhu, and Ma and Zhu. The audience could easily see that when Zhu was with Liang, they moved together fluidly. In contrast, when she was dancing with the Ma, they seemed to have more powerful moves that translate to a more tumultuous relationship. Another moment of strong emotion was when Zhu was informed of the arranged marriage between her and Ma. The conversation between her and her father was clear: Zhu did not want the marriage and her father was annoyed at her for not listening to him. The dancers showed this by having Zhu run away from Ma towards her father and her father pushing her away.

Besides the choreography, the outfits worn by the dancers were spectacular, however, the simplest costume caught my eye. I really liked the white garments worn during the middle when the two lovers discover their budding feelings because they told the audience that the dance was different from the others. The clothing resembles the underclothes that people would wear in the past which I associated with the portrayal of the true feelings of the two lovers. The simplicity of the outfits allowed the audience to focus more on the dancers’ emotions with the beauty of the choreography standing out since the scene felt more personal than any of the other dances.

The programme of the show inside the Tryon Theatre.

Other than the performance and the outfits, the ending of the story could be a little difficult to interpret. The story ended like Romeo and Juliet but with less confusion between the lovers and more passion. The programme described the scene as

“Liang died for Zhu. Zhu died for love.”

On Zhu’s wedding night, she visited Liang’s grave to grieve for her former lover when a storm comes and she performs a sharp dance paired with flashing lights and intense music. She falls to the ground and in the next scene, we see Liang and Zhu reunited in heaven and wearing white as a happy couple. It is a sad yet satisfying ending.

As I mentioned before, I watched the performance without knowing too much about it so I could challenge myself. I spent a while during the ballet trying to interpret what the red and white magpies were representing. At first, I thought they were showing the differences in having a relationship with either man. A relationship with Liang would be more understanding with a white outfit and elegant moves. A relationship with Ma would be more turbulent as it was shown through red outfits and sharper moves. I came to this conclusion because the colors the magpies were wearing were the same as the ones worn by Liang and Ma. However, I realized when I was wrong when I saw Zhu and Liang admiring each other’s magpies. It was then that I saw that the magpies were a representation of their personalities with Zhu being passionate(red) while Liang still being elegant(white).

This ballet was a great experience and if you have the chance to catch either the Shanghai Ballet or a performance on “The Butterfly Lovers”, I highly recommend it!

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