What happens when you take one of China’s most famous folk tales, pair it with the equally renowned, Asian-inflected concerto it inspired, and then give it to a western ballet company, a Japanese Canadian ballerina, and a Vancouver choreographer to interpret?
That’s the intriguing cross-cultural project unfolding at LunarFest this week, as dance artist Joshua Beamish creates The Butterfly Lovers for the Coastal City Ballet Company.
Beamish had never heard the 1,700-year-old tragic love story, a sort of Chinese Romeo and Juliet, before he was approached by Coastal artistic director Li Yaming and LunarFest to tackle the ballet. The choreographer, who has created work for everything from his own MOVE: the company to Wendy Whelan’s Restless Creature and Dutch National Ballet’s junior company, admits it took him a while to find his way with the challenging commission.
“At first I had no idea how I was going to approach the story. It’s a big story to tell in 26 minutes,” says Beamish over the phone before rehearsal. “But I allowed myself to each day only work on the things that inspired me. Also I gave myself time….I just gave myself permission to not know what to do at first.”
Charlie Wu, managing director of the Asian-Canadian Special Events Association, which runs LunarFest, explained the project in a separate interview with the Straight. “We thought this was such an interesting connection to bring the East and West together,” he said. “We’re hoping this may have a different way to bring people in—the Chinese community that know this story, and people who love the ballet and people who perhaps are into Romeo and Juliet.”
Now, in the week before its debut at the Vancouver Playhouse, Beamish finds himself consumed by the overwhelming score and the complicated tale that inspired it. It’s helped that Yaming has given him permission to tackle the cherished story in his own way.
“He’s been kind of like my cultural advisor, so we don’t make choices that are offensive or incorrect,” explains Beamish, who has made his name with more abstract, contemporary pieces. “This is the first realized story ballet that I have ever made. I don’t necessarily think that I could go and choose a Chinese story on my own. I was sought out because they were intrigued with what they thought I would do with the story.
“It was the idea that another culture came to me and said, ‘This is something very prevalent in our culture and we’d like to see what you can do with it.’ It was them saying, ‘We want this entity to evolve and to bring it to new people.’”
Beamish was immediately drawn to the gender play in the story, set during the Eastern Jin Dynasty. In The Butterfly Lovers, Zhu, danced here by Yoko Kanomata (who Beamish once trained with at Pacific DanceArts, Coastal City’s training arm) disguises herself as a boy so that she can go to school, at a time when women weren’t allowed to study. There she falls in love with Liang, but he can’t understand his feelings toward his friend—until he travels with her on her way home and finally discovers she’s a woman.
“That’s fascinating coming from this folk tale from long ago, and it gave an intriguing entry point into gender and love outside of gender,” says Beamish, adding the story has added practical challenges that have required even more role-reversal in his casting: “The story is set in an all-boys school but I’m working with a ballet company that is predominantly female, and I’ve had to find ways to use pointe.”
The lush, romantic violin concerto by He Zhanhao and Chen Gang has also posed some challenges for Beamish, especially when it builds to its frenzied crescendo. “The music gets epic—just when the music gets to 100 and you think it can’t go further, it hits 250 with super big, big orchestral sound. It’s so joyful. But then there’s quite intimate love music that really appeals to me.”
With the help of Yaming, who trained at the Beijing Dance Academy, Beamish has drawn inspiration from Chinese traditions, from the costuming to the symbolism of colours, from red’s wedding connotations to the white that foreshadows death. And all the while, he says, he’s tried to remember the occasion he’s creating the ballet to mark.
“It’s Lunar New Year and people are there to celebrate. They want to see people move and they want to see virtuosity,” he says.
LunarFest presents The Butterfly Lovers at the Vancouver Playhouse on Friday (February 16).