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Dance review: 'The Butterfly Lovers' at the Ahmanson Theatre

February 13, 2010 |  2:36 pm

Sunday’s collision of St. Valentine’s Day with Chinese New Year spawns a dilemma: whether to exchange a valentine or hongbao (both are red, but the Chinese traditional “lucky envelopes” contain cash). Beijing Dance Academy’s new version of “The Butterfly Lovers,” running through Sunday at the Ahmanson Theatre, provides a solution. Ushering in the Year of the Tiger also portends romance! 

The 32-member troupe, comprised of graduates of China’s premier dance training ground, is testing the world stage in an environment in which diminishing state support requires revenue generation to fund the Academy’s existence.

Opening its plucky, colorful program Friday night were six short dances, several costumed in long silk gowns with extended sleeves that rippled in the breathy phrasing of Chinese traditional dance. With few exceptions, the rigorously trained and highly presentable dancers were under-challenged by choreography that settled in a primitive comfort zone of ever-evolving geometric shapes.

In “Lotus Flower in June,” fleet-footed ladies, dressed in pink silken trousers, their hair knotted in tight high buns, pitter-pattered through soft-edged formations. Their lovely smiles and gently tilting heads indicated a world of harmonious symmetry, a pleasant enough falsehood. Scurrying around the stage with green fans like Busby Berkeley lasses on quaaludes, their effortless technique shimmered, especially in swift backward moonwalks.

The best dances were for men. “Infinite,” a male solo set to acclaimed composer Tan Dun’s score, juxtaposed space-carving qi gong martial arts movement with the quirky, jerky arms of a Chinese Petrushka puppet. Gao Chengming’s dance excelled for its use of syncopation and for its polished performance by Wang Shengfeng.

Butterfly “Emperor Qin Counting His Soldiers,” inspired by terracotta soldiers buried below Xi’an, effectively channeled the troupe’s masculine power. Four strong dancers struck percussive angular poses clad in red, purple, turquoise, and gold warrior robes. Dance maker Chen Weiya varied stage formations with break-out solos, and let the raw physicality fly in tumbling that served the dance rather than just acrobatic display. The piece’s closing backdrop filled the Ahmanson space with ghostly Xi’an soldiers.

Considering the neat marketing gimmick of calling “Butterfly Lovers” “China's Romeo and Juliet,” it’s a pity that choreographer Zhang Jianmin gave the familiar 1958 orchestral score such a cluttered and incomprehensible interpretation. The choreographer, who supplied filmmaker Zhang Yimou with Zhang Ziyi’s dance in “House of Flying Daggers,” created a fantasia ballet long on schmaltz and short on coherent storytelling. 

Dating from the Tang Dynasty, the “Butterfly” legend tells of Zhu Yingtai and Liang Shanbo, whose relationship is delayed when Zhu cross-dresses as a boy to enter school. This obstacle removed, Zhu’s father arranges her marriage to a wealthy man. Learning the news, Liang dies, with Zhu following in suicide. The duo is reincarnated as loving butterflies.

None of these plot points, set forth in the program, were discernible in the work’s choreography. Instead a confusing array of characters -- pretty girls in white silk pajamas, butterfly-replicates in red and blue, bad guys in black head kerchiefs -- framed our heroes played by Wang Zihan and Shao Junting. After frolicking as student-compatriots, they snapped into tragic mode, suffering mightily for unclear reason. With its edgily garish production design and romantic leads somewhat long in the tooth, a late-career Lana Turner picture came to mind; especially when ladies bedecked in Technicolor-green qipao reminiscent of Douglas Sirk loungewear paraded the stage. Despite Wang’s high leg extensions, the stars’ dancing was only so-so in a style that settled for pageantry. It needed more physical oomph.

-- Debra Levine

"The Butterfly Lovers," Beijing Dance Academy, Ahmanson Theatre, 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. $35-$85.

Photos: Shao Junting with the ensemble, top, and with Wang Zihan in "The Butterfly Lovers." Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times