Dance review: Triumphant return for Bhaskar's classic Butterfly Lovers

Background dancers clad in sky blue in Bhaskar's Arts Academy's production Butterfly Lovers. PHOTO: LIJESH KARUNAKARAN
A still from the original 1958 production of Butterfly Lovers by Santha Bhaskar. PHOTO: LIJESH KARUNAKARAN

Butterfly Lovers

Bhaskar's Arts Academy

Victoria Theatre, Sunday (Dec 19)

More than six decades after it was first staged, Bhaskar's Arts Academy's production Butterfly Lovers returned with an energetic new cast and elegant fusion of Indian and Chinese cultures.

Butterfly Lovers, which first premiered in 1958, was Cultural Medallion recipient Santha Bhaskar's first full-length production in Singapore, inspired by a film version of the Chinese epic she had seen.

Much like Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, the story of star-crossed lovers Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai, who sacrifice their love when Yingtai's parents arrange her betrothal to another man, pulls at the heartstrings.

In the new adaptation of the classic, co-presented with the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre, choreographer Meenakshy Bhaskar paid homage to the context and intent behind her mother's earlier work, while adding a new dimension by infusing Chinese dance movements and music into the sequences.

Musician Neil Chua's soulful performance on the ruan, a traditional Chinese instrument, in the first act transported the audience to a bygone era.

The set design in vivid tones such as peacock blue and scarlet added a touch of dramatic flair.

While the sight of dancers performing bharatanatyam in traditional Chinese costume took some getting used to, the carefully calibrated choreography melded the two styles seamlessly to present a unique, unconventional routine.

The star of the show was Malini Bhaskar, who disappeared into her role as Shanbo, presenting a nuanced depiction of a masculine yet vulnerable hero, a bright scholar and a broken-hearted lover.

Malini's perfectly synchronised duets with Sarenniya Ramathas as Yingtai were such a visual delight, it left the audience wanting to see more of them together.

Acclaimed composer Rajkumar Bharathi took a novel approach to the musical score, departing from traditional carnatic music and complementing the flow of the drama with clever changes in tone and tempo.

Malini Bhaskar as Liang Shanbo and Sarenniya Ramathas as Zhu Yingtai. PHOTOS: LIJESH KARUNAKARAN

The background dancers, clad in sky blue, brought depth to the production through tableaus of student life, which added levity and humour to an otherwise tragic story.

The use of three-dimensional imagery in the production was an unexpected but pleasant surprise that helped to elevate the drama.

While this iteration stayed true to the original content, it would have been interesting to see a different interpretation of Yingtai's dilemma between true love and filial piety, one more relevant to women of today's generation.

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