Featuring shimmering outlines of butterfly wings flitting on eye-catching costumes, the Shanghai Ballet brought an elegant mixture of Asian delicacy and Western style to the Charleston Concert Association’s season-opener on Oct. 23 at the Sottile Theater.

Located in Shanghai, China, the troupe, established in 1979, has been the recipient of a total of 32 medals in various dance categories from around the world. However, this record should come as no surprise to those who saw the world-class company’s overwhelmingly gorgeous performance of The Butterfly Lovers, a full-length ballet combining rare beauty and technical perfection.

Created in 2001 by the brilliant dancer Xin Lili, now artistic director of the Shanghai Ballet, The Butterfly Lovers, sometimes referred to as the Asian Romeo and Juliet, traces the ancient tradition of arranged marriages and the heartbreak that often ensues.

Unlike the Russian custom of repeating, enormous, sweeping leaps, the Shanghai Ballet focuses upon finely wrought steps such as impeccable entrachats (scissors kicks in midair).

The dancers’ arm movements (port de bras) expressed deeply suppressed feelings in ways I have never before witnessed, except perhaps when I saw the Charleston Concert Association’s first presentation of The Shanghai Ballet in 2002. In fact, this was a pivotal year, as it marked the first time that the company performed a North American tour.

But the most unique aspect of the performance was the manner in which precise movements, appearing to be coldly calculating, were, in truth, closely intertwined with a true warmth between the two doomed lovers.

However, concerning dramatic balletic moves, choreographer Xin Lili commanded her dancers to execute daring over-the-head lifts, demonstrating the raw strength and prowess of the male dancers, who were, at times, overshadowed by the exotic butterfly wings highlighting the female dancers’ tutus. Also, in truth, it was difficult to take one’s eyes off the ballerina-length, emerald-hued ensembles of the women in the second act.

Also visually dominating the third act were the male dancers’ dramatic orange and red outfits, which were enhanced by a backdrop covered with a Manet-influenced painting featuring large trees filled with autumn leaves which had reached their very peak.  

However, the costumes were not merely for adding sparkle to the stage. Rather, they also reflected the varying emotions of the characters, such as the intense happiness of Zhu, the young woman who truly believes, at one point, that she can marry the man she loves. This happiness was juxtaposed against the crumbling sadness shown in the eyes of Zhu, portrayed by the astonishingly talented dancer and actress Xiaofeng Yingta.

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