East courts West in The But­ter­fly Lovers

> BY JANET SMITH

The Georgia Straight - - Arts - BY DI­RECTED BY

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 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, 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.”

Char­lie Wu, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of the Asian-cana­dian Spe­cial Events As­so­ci­a­tion, which runs Lu­nar­fest, ex­plained the project in a sep­a­rate in­ter­view. “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, 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 ad­viser,” 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. In The But­ter­fly Lovers, Zhu, danced here by Yoko Kanomata, 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. “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, 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.

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