Shanghai Dance Theatre's "Soaring Wings" Has an Environmental Message

January 4, 2018

Birds, with their expressive wings and glorious flight patterns, have always made good fodder for beautiful ballets: Swan Lake, Firebird, Sleeping Beauty’s Bluebird pas de deux and variation, for example. This month, Shanghai Dance Theatre is presenting the U.S. premiere of Soaring Wings: Journey of the Crested Ibis at New York’s Koch Theater (January 5–7) and Boston’s Boch Center Shubert Theatre (January 11–12). Blending traditional Chinese, ballet and contemporary dance styles, the two-act production is not a love story; instead, it focuses on the fate of the endangered crested ibis, a symbol of happiness and blessings in China.

Once populous throughout Asia and Russia, the elegant birds became nearly extinct during the 20th century due to human industrialization and urbanization. By the 1980s, only a handful were left, although conservation efforts have helped to slowly bring the species back. “It’s not a simple, linear storyline,” says Soaring Wings director/choreographer Tong Ruirui. Instead, the ballet aims to show the bird at different stages of its existence, as well as the interdependence between humankind and nature.

Shanghai Dance Theatre principal dancers Zhu Jiejing and Wang Jiajun. Photo Courtesy Shanghai Dance Theatre.

Although the 52-member Shanghai Dance Theatre specializes in classical Chinese dance, Ruirui included elements of ballet and contemporary into the choreography. “Since the dancers are portraying birds, it was very hard to only use Chinese folk dance, especially for the feet,” she says. “So what we did is incorporate Western dance for the feet and legs. However the top part of the body, including how they breathe and how they gesture, uses Chinese dance elements.” The result is breathtaking—see for yourself in the preview above.