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Company members of Shanghai Ballet perform The Butterfly Lovers at Cal Performances on Nov. 1 and 2, 2013.

Less than two weeks after Cal Performances brought the Nederland Dance Theatre’s exquisite dancers to Zellerbach Hall, Bay Area balletomanes reveled in the Shanghai Ballet’s 50-member, classically gifted company.

The Butterfly Lovers, a four act story ballet choreographed by Artistic Director Xin Lilli in 2001, showed-off the technical brilliance of the 34-year-old company and left no doubt that Chinese culture can be found in buoyant jetés and perfectly-matched arabesques.

The ballet’s synopsis dates to a fourth century Tang dynasty tale and suggests comparisons to Romeo and Juliet. Ill-fated lovers, secret identities, familial opposition, and more than one death provide obvious, but easy to comprehend concepts through movement and mime, drama. In this case, the final scene is not a funeral; it is resurrection, as the two lovers rise from the grave as shimmering butterflies.

Zhu Yingtai (on Nov, 1, Ji Pingping) disguises herself as a boy in order to attend school. There, she forms a warm bond with Liang Shanbo (Wu Husheng). They are bullied and bedazzled by a fellow student, Ma Wencai (Zhang Yao). When he injures Liang, Zhu nurses her friend’s wounds and falls in love, but Liang remains oblivious to her amorous affections. Instead, he’s swept up in simple, youthful admiration of paired butterflies, Mandarin duck couples and two magpies united in song, but fails to recognize the love mate right in front of him. Soon enough, Zhu’s family has arranged a profitable marriage to a wealthy man, who of course, is none other than the devilish Ma. Inevitably, Zhu resists the marriage, Laing appears to profess the love that has finally burst open in his heart, fathers of the soon-to-be-married couple storm about and insist on obedience, and Laing is beaten to death. At his grave on her wedding day, Zhu dies for love. Reunited in death, they fly aloft as eternally paired butterflies.

The plot line offers Shanghai Ballet a tremendous opportunity for stunning visuals, which did not disappoint. Costumes, oddly given no credit line in the program, were highlights of the evening. With the exception of a peculiar, rainbow-feathered male character in pink-purple tights—perhaps indicating a rare bird, but treading well over the borderline into distractingly comic—there’s not much that can beat the ballet’s blend of tutus and traditional Chinese clothing.

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The Shanghai Ballet performs The Butterfly Lovers at Cal Performances

The sets, also not attributed in the program, were delicious. Most American ballet companies have stripped down their touring productions, so it’s a rare pleasure to gaze upon skillfully rendered, full-stage backdrops. The deep, cool greens of Act II’s lush waterfall allowed the dancer’s tutus to resonate powerfully. Act III’s fall season, lit to perfection by the lighting of Gleb Filshtinsky and Boris Eifman, gained a three-dimensionality that imbued the scene with soul during a pathos-filled love duet. And the evening’s most stunning moment (marred only by what looked to be an elongated wad of bubble gum stretched across the upstage channel), was the snowy opening of the final act. Gray-toned, tipped with whites, one wished time could freeze too: allowing a longer look at the beauty on display. The offending “bubble gum,” turned out to be an enormous pink butterfly, spanning the stage when lifted at the ballet’s end. Masking it while it lay on the ground would have saved the visual spoiler, but even so, the frosty images remain unforgettable.

From the start, the 16-member female corps set the tone for the night’s dancing. Staccato bourrées firing from their feet, wing-shaped formations executed with precision, fingers fluttering in tribute to butterflies, but also, to the fine traditions of their company’s centuries-old Chinese dance heritage, the Shanghai Ballet is a fine-tuned instrument. A male corps, defying gravity with dazzling brisés and impressive ballon (rebounding quality) in every jeté attitude (a leap with bent back leg), drew deserved applause. Dressed in gorgeous greens, gentlemanly browns or vibrant, aggressive reds, it was impossible to separate the appreciation: Was it their stellar dancing, or the breathtaking costumes that astounded? In the end, it didn’t matter, because each element was refined to the same level of detail. The corps is remarkably well trained—anyone who has had the awful task of watching female ballet dancers whose feet don’t arch in the pointe shoe knows true pain—and the principal dancers make clear why they have dominated international ballet competitions.

The choreography and the ballet itself suffered from some predictable physicality, far too much gesturing and posturing and ironically, a lack of chemistry between the two leads. On opening night, Pingping and Husheng, while individually impressive, failed to create the necessary heat as star-crossed lovers. Even the flashes of fiery dancing, from Yao, brilliant, but too abbreviated and infrequent, left this reviewer pining for more. Xin has added Swan Lake, La Sylphide and George Balanchine’s Serenade to the repertoire—all dances without the rich Chinese influences in The Butterfly Lovers, but with far more actual dancing. Having established the relevance of their relevance within the ballet world, one hopes the Shanghai Ballet will return with a repertory program emphasizing not just the dancers’ refined national sensibilities, but a larger serving of their gorgeous classical ballet dancing.

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