Shanghai Ballet Performs: The Butterfly Lovers

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“The Butterfly Lovers” was performed by The Shanghai Ballet in the Tryon Festival Theater of the Krannert Center for Performing Arts.
-Written by Daniel Holley

A sizable audience files into the Tryon Festival Theater, eager for the show to begin.

The Shanghai Ballet told the story of “The Butterfly Lovers” through the use of enchanting choreography. No words were spoken by the performers as they hopped, spun, and tip-toed across the stage to convey the emotions of their characters. Dance sequences behind a transparent curtain helped further the story by showing us a glimpse into the minds of the characters, and tense standoffs between rivals made clear the hatred and despair they felt.

The performers also utilized many unique and interesting costumes to help the audience understand their role. My personal favorite was the costume the primary antagonist wore throughout most of the play. Draped in red to oppose the protagonists blue, it was hinted early to the audience that this man would be trouble for the hero. His narcissism and sense of entitlement was also highlighted by his crown, which set him apart from his more modest peers.

The program for the performance was handed out to every member of the audience, and contained information about the story and its history.

One element of the performance that stuck out to me was the use of lighting. There were several instances where the production crew used interesting lighting effects to help convey emotion. For example, as the protagonist thinks about the woman he loves, she dances away behind a transparent screen illuminated by several spotlights. These lights are spaced apart, causing her to come in and out of view as she moves to give the feeling that she is a fleeting and unsure thing. As viewers, we are able to sense the protagonists worry that she may disappear from her life. Later on in the play, as the protagonist is surrounded and attacked by the antagonists henchmen, a single spotlight is shone down upon him, but he is not centered within it. This lack of symmetry naturally adds to the discomfort the audience associates to the assault the hero faces at the hands of his enemies.

At the end of the story, torn apart by an arranged marriage and family politics, both protagonists perish in their pursuit to be together. With an abrupt flash of lightning, they are finally reunited in death and are reborn as butterflies. Together they dance across the stage, and a large butterfly tapestry is raised behind them to symbolize the end of one journey and the beginning of the next.

Although I have been to other professional performances of theater or music, this was the first ballet I have attended. Although it was a challenge to transition to a style of storytelling so dependent upon actions and motion rather than words or lyrics, I enjoyed learning about a new art form. I look forward to the next event I will attend, Step Afrika!: Drumfolk.

For more information about the Shanghai Ballet’s performance, visit

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