Monday, January 24, 2005

(D) June 1, 2003 - Love Conquers All

THE legend of the Butterfly Lovers, the so-called Chinese version of Romeo and Juliet, has survived through the ages as one of the most enchanting and poignant loves stories in China. That much-loved tale was the premise of the dance drama presented by the Temple of Fine Arts earlier in the week. The charity gala of Butterfly Lovers was a two-day event held at the Petaling Jaya Civic Centre to raise funds for the temple’s new building.

This was not a new production. First staged in Kuala Lumpur at the MTC Auditorium in February 2002, the production has since travelled to Colombo, Penang, Johor Baru, Singapore, Perth and Madras, winning rave reviews.

The production is a contemporary interpretation, making use of the blend of dance and music styles unique to the Temple of Fine Arts.

“And so the story goes...,” said Si Jiu the story teller, “The heroine, Zhu Yingtai, daughter of a rich family, wants to study but is prevented by tradition. She succeeds in convincing her father and leaves to study in Hangzhou, disguised as a young man....”

There she meets Liang Shanbo, a fine young man and they spend three happy years together. When Zhu returns home, her father has already arranged a different suitor for her and prepares to marry her off. By the time Liang rushes to her home and discovers Zhu’s true identity, it is too late. Zhu is taken away and in the process of trying to get her back, Liang is killed. When Zhu bitterly condemns the feudal tradition that had thwarted their love, the heavens take pity, and Liang's tomb opens up to receive her. She throws herself in to join her lover in death. They are reincarnated as butterflies, hence the title.

The production is contemporary in two ways – dance movements and the presentation of characters.

The dance component, choreographed by both Shankar Kandasamy (group scenes) and Umesh Shetty (duets) consists of generous movements, both physically and in terms of space usage, unlike the more grounded and conservative movements of most traditional Asian dance forms. There were, of course, obvious hints of classical movements, both Indian and Chinese.

Overall, Chinese culture was given visual prominence especially in terms of set design, props, costumes, mannerisms of the characters, and societal norms. The Indian, Malay and Western cultures were more evident in the dances and music.

Acting, on the whole, lacked the intensity so crucial to a drama of love and the pain of separation and death. However, due recognition must be given to Umesh who played Liang, the free-spirited and intelligent young man. Perhaps it would have been easier for the performers to portray stronger emotions if they could have spoken the lines rather than miming them.

An important component of the production was its music. Apart from the Butterfly Lovers theme composed by He Zhan Hau and Chen Gong in 1959, which was used as the lovers’ theme, original music was composed for all other scenes making use of a blend of Chinese, Indian, Malay and Western instruments. Voices were not spared as music instruments as well.

This is a first for the Temple of Fine Arts in that the musicians were working with a genre that was not naturally their own. Composers Kumar Karthigesu and Jyotsna Prakash made a very good attempt at experimenting with the various ethnic sounds, melodies and rhythms resulting in seamless pieces of music befitting the moods of various scenes.

The “blend” was more prominent in some pieces than others. Take the piece entitled Study, for example. The composer made a clever use of percussion to bring out the fun, energy and comic moments in school.

Gamelan was given prominence in The Mid Autumn Lantern Dance, which had an almost Balinese-like exuberance.

Did I mention that they used synthesised gamelan? Intriguing.

Each composition provided an opportunity for an instrument to shine be it the sitar, the piano or the erhu, and to bring out different moods.

Yet another first for the Temple of Fine Arts is the use of dance movements in scenes of dialogue, specifically between Liang and Zhu. In the Butterfly Dream scene, the choreographer beautifully incorporated both the rhythm of the words and the underlying emotions of the music into a graceful duet.

In these solo and duet choreographies, movements were less “cultural”. Rather, the artistic expressions were inspired by humankind’s fundamental values and emotions of hope, faith, love, and desire.

Dance was at its narrative best in the school scene and the “heartbreak” scene. In the former, playful students pretended to study in front of their master and played truant behind his back. Even more dramatic was the heartbreak scene where the lovers were torn apart. Dancers ran around in a fury, tearing the lovers away from each other and encircling each of them like a rope. This was a very strong representation of oppression, entrapment and bondage.

One of the production’s intentions was to draw parallels between Indian and Chinese cultures. This was their reason for the introducing the dragon dance into the wedding procession, albeit a short one. According to Lam, in analysing both Chinese and Indian myths, he found that both shared the same mythological creature and symbolisms.

In addition to that, the production hoped to have shared some philosophical moments with the telling of the story about the silkworm that, now wrapped in its cocoon, would one day break free to become a butterfly.

The story ended with the lovers reunited, taking the form of a pair of beautiful butterflies dancing happily among flowers.

At the end of the day, Butterfly Lovers is just a love story. But it is a beautiful story retold well.

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