It seems that I really can't help but depict innovation and tradition as opposite concepts, ones that tend to butt heads every time they meet, however, this time around, I thought it could be interesting to explore a way in which the two might work together. Despite this total contradiction, the two frenemies, if used effectively could actually bring forth a harmonious display of teamwork.
An example that comes to my mind is the work that has been done by my colleague, Paul James Rooney. May 19th of this year, Paul brought to the Pantomime stage his biggest creation yet - a piece entitled Butterfly Lovers. With his ongoing talent and intrigue in the choreographic process, he's staged several shorter pieces for Tivoli Ballet Theatre (as well as others), however, Butterfly Lovers is, as of yet, his longest and most elaborate creations.
About two years ago, Paul went to the company's director, Peter Bo Bendixen, with the idea. He considered the environment of the Pantomime Theatre, with it's intricate design and architecture of a Chinese temple, and the overall Chinese influence spread throughout Tivoli Gardens. Paul then began to research stories within the Chinese heritage until he found the one that inspired him the most.
The story of Butterfly Lovers goes something like this:
We follow Zhu, the only daughter of a wealthy Chinese family, who develops the desire to attend school, despite the societal circumstances preventing women from doing so. She convinces her father to let her dress up as a boy and go pursue her education, where she then is introduced to Liang. They become very close friends and, with Liang oblivious to Zhu's disguise, swear an oath of friendship.
After some time and a blossoming romance, Zhu is summoned home and discovers her father has arranged for her to marry a wealthy suitor. Liang follows Zhu to her home and learns of the truth, that she was in fact a girl. Realizing his feelings for Zhu, he is heartbroken by the news of her arranged marriage and gradually becomes so ill that he dies.
During the wedding procession, Zhu is guided, by fate, to the site of Liang's grave. She is anguished by the site and prays for the grave to take her too. With the sound of thunder, Zhu is engulfed by the grave and reunited with Liang. The story ends with Zhu and Liang reincarnated as a pair of butterflies, their spirits eternally together.
Being given such a tragic and traditional story with all the potential, Paul had many ideas.
For Paul, it was vital for the show to have proper acting. The story has a lot of depth and emotion, and, being given only 29 minutes to deliver the story, it was necessary for the dancers to be genuine and theatrical for the heartfelt drama to be conveyed.
Paul collaborated with costume designer Charlotte Østergaard in bringing his vision forward. They created costumes relevant to the story's Chinese origins but appropriate and flexible enough for those dancing in them.
For the score, he found the violin concerto that was the orchestral adaptation of the story of Butterfly Lovers. It had never really been used before for a ballet and happened to be an exact fit for the time frame he was working with.
He visualized very minimal scenography. The Pantomime Theatre itself already has so much elaborate detail that he wanted it to work symbiotically with what he was putting on stage.
And of course, one of the most important elements - choreography. With that, Paul is no novice. During his professional career, before working at the Pantomime Theatre as a dancer and choreographer, Paul was able to work with the likes of Matthew Bourne and Will Tuckett, both whom he names as inspirations. Both English choreographers, notable for creating modern day story ballets, valued the aspect of telling the story but being true to the art form. Paul recalls:
"I'll never forget when Matthew Bourne said 'ballet wastes a lot of music'. He was referring to the fluffy village scenes, typically in the first acts of ballets, in which you've got gorgeous music and it's been wasted on the corps de ballet having small reactions and just being villagers. I try to keep this in mind in filling up the music and using each bit to tell the story.
"Then Will would always talk about the process before coming out on stage. When I was a rabbit in The Wind in the Willows I would have to think about what brought me out of the hole and what my thoughts and emotions were upon coming out. I had to be there, present, already before even coming on stage."
I ask Paul a little bit more about how he's sculpted his own personal choreographic style:
"I'm often fusing things together. I mix jazz, contemporary and ballet together, the things that I like. Very often I think about creating an image, a picture for someone to snap in their mind and be able to take away with them after the show is done.
"This was my first time doing a narrative ballet and I'd honesty love to do more. This was the first piece I've made where I've sat back at the end of it and been content. I've realized I'm a lot better at choreographing when there is a problem that I need to solve. For instance, once I made a short piece for an event in which there was very little space. I had to work and choreograph with that information in mind. Sometimes the problem can be catering to a certain audience. Sometimes it can be weather conditions or time of day or stage setting. It's all about problem solving. For Butterfly Lovers, the challenge was telling the story in 29 minutes."
I then go on to ask Paul what I am most curious about - with a story holding so much tradition, being nearly 2000 years old, how is one supposed to bring it back and make it relevant to the audience in 2017?
"I've tried to create a piece that is choreographically and theatrically of today's style. I've used modern theatre techniques like splitting the stage. I think the acting also modernizes it. It's a believable kind of acting that's honest and clear, to deliver the story.
"I've also incorporated steps to differentiate it. It's not purely classical, even though the dancers are wearing pointe shoes. I've added in the odd flexed foot. The boys do kartwheels over stools, partially to represent the "school boy" youth, but partially to break the boundaries of type of dance it is. It's a medley of everything because I value all of these styles.
"A lot of choreographers try to be new for the sake of being "new". But I want to be true to ballet. I want to honour the tradition. Ballet needs to be impressive. It's extraterrestrial. It's not pedestrian. People passing through the Gardens need to see it and know it's something that not everybody can do. I want to push ballet, but still hold onto ballet. I've always been versatile and I think that there is room for all genres. I like all genres and I want to honour them as they are and not change them too much. It's the same with fashion - sometimes you dress with the trends and other times you want to dress up in a big old fashioned gown. Or even in a room, you'll find interior pieces with elements from all decades. It's all appreciated for what it is and it's not outdated. Everything has a place to be honoured, no matter how different."
Butterfly Lovers is, in my eyes, a wonderful demonstration of high quality acting, dancing and storytelling by artists of today. While it is a tale dating back to 265 A.D. with archaic morals and social standards, it can be presented to the modern audience in a very pure form. It is a tragic love story, it has an empowering female lead, it is a story of heart. And through innovative steps, clear portrayal, captivating costumes and exemplary theatrics, this old fable can be translated to a timeless population.
Butterfly Lovers is playing five more times at the Pantomime Theatre in Tivoli Gardens until July 27th. Don't miss your chance to watch it!
** Thank you to Paul James Rooney for these lovely pictures :)