Review-Butterfly Lovers-Hong Kong Dance Company


By: Karen Cheung

I had seen Yang Yuntao’s work with the Hong Kong Dance Company when he choreographed Smiling, Proud Wanderer in 2006 and Border Town in 2007, and they had both been performances that made a lasting impression on me, not only with how well the skillfulness of the dancers came across in the pieces, but also with the dance moves’ powerful abilities to tell a great story. This time, he works with HKDC again to put on The Butterfly Lovers as director and choreographer. The Butterfly Lovers features not only the piece of its namesake but also the other three stories that, together, have been known as the four great myths/love stories in Chinese literature.

The dance begins with a group of men in suits, sitting on chairs on an elevated platform on the stage; each one stands up and exits the stage one by one until we are left with a woman who would go on to open the play with the fragmented notes of The Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto and a man who would be later walked through the four myths with us.

The Butterfly Lovers calls itself a ‘grand dance form’ and, true to the name, many pieces are abstract with strong emphasis on a sense of imagery translated into dance. By that I mean that the setting, music, and overall atmosphere of the dance is top-notch; in the first Act, which tells the story of The Weaver Girl and The Cowherd, we get a striking picture of the weaver girl slowly ascending back up into the sky as the cowherd circles the stage, dancing solo in desperation. Throughout the scene a chanting can be heard in the background which at the end eclipses the originally peaceful Chinese music, conveying a heightened level of emotion as the lovers’ yearly meeting comes to an end. The second Act, The Legend of the White Snake, similarly contains powerful visuals, with its green and white colour scheme – green umbrellas and green mist that stands in contrast yet complements the whiteness of costume of the snake-protagonist. There were also little scenes that struck me, such as when the young man stands alone in the dark with a green umbrella watching the story unfold, and in Act Three, Lady Meng Jiang, when the old women stagger up the sloping platform on the stage, their backs slightly hunched.

My favourite section of choreography was the third Act, Lady Meng Jiang; the opening of the second part when the dancers huddled together, moving to the beat was the best composition in the dance, and it also featured dancing with sleeves, which was a delight to watch. They were more flurries of action and great emotional contrast between that of the playful and lively bickering couples and Lady Meng Jiang, who looked on the verge of insanity as she frantically searched for her husband. The second Act’s White Snake also had a demure yet seductive quality to her, slithering about the stage elegantly. I have surprisingly little to say about the title story, except that I thought at one point when Sanbo sprawled across the front of the stage he looked terribly awkward, and that I felt that the dance had ended rather abruptly.

This choice of treating the material as a ‘poem’, however, also means that the piece is a quite departure from the traditional Chinese dance performances that the audience may be expecting. The dance style is graceful and quiet, as opposed to the powerful, sweeping, martial-arts like dance moves  more commonplace in dances retelling Chinese tales, and the focus of the pieces are often on solo or duo dances as opposed to group ones, which makes them lose the hot-blooded punch so unique to the Chinese dance. Because of how slow-paced the storytelling is, I also had to force myself to keep my mind from wandering off, not helped by the couple next to me expressing very vocally their opinions on how boring they thought it was.

Another thing that rather annoyed me was the lack of synopsis on the four stories in the programme. Perhaps, because these tales are well-known all throughout China, the company must have presumed that the audience must know each plot, but it left me struggling to recall what little I had learnt about the myths back in Chinese Literature in secondary school. Given how ambiguous a lot of the choreogaphy is, expats or others in the audience not familiar with the stories might be left in a state of confusion, trying to piece together a coherent story. Granted, the emotions still came across well, which I presume is the intention of the director; nevertheless, it took a lot of pleasure out of the viewing, not knowing the back story which inspired this interpretation.

Overall, while the dancers’ talents were not in doubt, they did not compensate for The Butterfly Lovers’ deficiencies. This production, in its subtlety and abstraction, fails to engage the audience effectively through the medium of dance. The performances waver along that fine line between mundaneness and quiet beauty and, while veteran dance critics or literature professors may enjoy it, I have to admit that I was disappointed; for me it felt more like how I assume a Die-Hard lover would feel when watching Terence Malick.

The Butterfly Lovers is playing at the Grand Cultural Center through Sunday. For more information, click here.

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Rate This Show: 1 2 3 4 5 Audience Rating: 3.0


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