It’s known as the Chinese “Romeo and Juliet” — though it predates Shakespeare by centuries. “The Butterfly Lovers” is a traditional Chinese folk tale, dating back more than a thousand years. In it, a girl disguises herself as a boy so that she can attend school; while there, she forms a close friendship with a boy her age. Years later, her identity is revealed and they fall in love, but are forbidden to be together. After his death, she visits his gravesite and begs for it to open. It does, and she jumps inside. A moment later, two butterflies flutter out; two souls, now together for eternity.
“Butterfly Lovers,” complete with a cast of 42 dancers and a vast array of beautifully flowing costumes, flies into McCaw Hall Sept. 5-7, performed by members of the Beijing Dance Academy’s classical Chinese dance department. It’s presented by American Asian Performing Arts Theater, a local nonprofit founded by dancer/choreographer Li Hengda. Li, originally from Beijing and himself a graduate of BDA, came to Seattle in 1990 to dance with Pacific Northwest Ballet. Now a resident of Mercer Island, he is an MFA graduate of the University of Washington and the founder of Hengda Dance Academy in Bellevue.
Li has known of “Butterfly Lovers” since childhood — “Everyone knows this story in China,” he said in a telephone interview. It was, he said, a lifelong dream to present this love story as a dance drama. As a PNB dancer for six years, he found himself drawn less to neoclassical ballets like George Balanchine’s work (“most of it is technique and physical movement”) than to “dance that is more emotion, more feeling.”
Traveling to the U.S. for the first time, his “Butterfly Lovers” will feel lushly romantic. A brief promotional video of the piece shows silken costumes whirling in a soft rainbow of color, an emotional connection between the two lead dancers (in one moment, she runs and leaps into his arms; you believe, for a second, that she might fly right past them) and a sense of gentle tragedy.
In his post-PNB career, Li has become a cross-cultural ambassador, traveling between China and the U.S. to share the art of dance, in many different forms. Six years ago, he presented his acrobatic dance piece “The Dream of the Golden Clown” in Seattle, performed by the China National Acrobatic Troupe; more recently, he brought a show called “Panda!” — a hybrid of dance, acrobatics and martial arts — to Las Vegas.
His version of “Butterfly Lovers” will feel very different. The full-length dance is performed in classical Chinese style, which, like ballet, has its own vocabulary. Traditional Chinese dance, Li explained, is more circular than ballet; dancers are more likely to move in curved progressions. Rhythm and breathing are key elements. Women wear soft slippers rather than pointe shoes, and move in a rapid heel-toe walk that makes it look as if they are effortlessly gliding across the floor.
Bringing “Butterfly Lovers” here — Seattle is part of a four-city tour — has been a huge undertaking. Forty-nine dancers and backstage staff are coming from Beijing, along with about 200 costumes, designed by A Kuan. The music, newly written for this production by Chinese composer Guo Sida and using both traditional Chinese and Western instruments, is recorded.
Li hopes that the performances will be a showcase for the Beijing Dance Academy, which is, he says, the top dance school in China. “So many of these students are gorgeous dancers,” he said. The BDA, a university (its students arrive with extensive training already under their belts), offers many different majors — classical Chinese dance, ballet, Chinese folk dance, gymnastic dance.
And he hopes that Western audiences will find the beauty in this beloved Chinese story, and in the distinctive movements that tell it. Those who attend “Butterfly Lovers” at McCaw Hall will find, Li said, powerful drama “both from the movement on the stage, and also from the heart.”
“The Butterfly Lovers,” performed by the Beijing Dance Academy. 7:30 p.m. Sept. 5, 6 and 7; McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Seattle; tickets start at $58; 425-830-8054, mccawhall.com