The 52nd HK Arts Festival

The Beauty and the Sadness Beneath the Qipao

Text / Eugene Chan

Against a backdrop of light jazz music and well-dressed couples in Shanghai's iconic Paramount nightclub, Mr Wang's and Mrs Li's partners dance together, obviously engrossed with each other. This pivotal scene in the Shanghai Ballet's dance theatre production A Sigh of Love leads to an upheaval in the characters' respective marriages and propels the plot forward. Although the title and storyline echo that of the influential Hong Kong film In the Mood for Love (2000), the performance is set in Shanghai in the 1930s and 1940s, and uses ballet to take viewers back to a bygone era.


Illuminating people's lives in old Shanghai

After its early premiere in 2006 and touring performances in China and overseas. A Sigh of Love is finally coming to the Hong Kong Arts Festival in 2024. The play was originally co-created by the Shanghai Ballet and a team of French artists. It is based on a text and stage script written by Cao Lusheng, a Professor of the Shanghai Theatre Academy, and was choreographed and directed by French choreographer Bertrand d'At (1957–2014). The dance theatre's storyline is similar to that of the film In the Mood for Love, which narrates the affairs between two married couples, but Director of the Shanghai Ballet Xin Lili says it presents the atmosphere of old Shanghai. "There is a flourishing youth in every life... This dance theatre showcases the flavour of old Shanghai as well as the tragic romance between the male and female protagonists who are fated to be apart," Xin explains.

To transport the audience back to old Shanghai, members of the French creative team, including the choreographer, and scenery, costume and lighting designers, spent up to three years conducting research, exploring Shanghai's various historical archives and examining how people lived in the city back then. And the very first scene of group dancing reveals the fruits of the creative team's efforts. In this scene, dozens of dancers bustle around the street in front of a shikumen, a traditional Shanghainese building that combines Western and Chinese elements. Dressed in costumes such as qipaos, tunics, dresses and suits, the dancers play rickshaw pullers, nuns, grocery shoppers on the street and fan-waving neighbours. Through the use of the dancers' delicate movements and period costumes, the choreographer intricately portrays how people of different occupations and classes lived their lives in old Shanghai.

Choreography for the qipao

The qipao is the most representative outfit of the era, but it's not exactly the most practical outfit for ballet dancers. According to Xin, the French costume designers closely studied how China's qipao dresses had evolved during the past century—including features such as the collar, sleeves and pattern design—and created dresses with high slits for the dancers. Xin says: "The qipao was the quintessential Shanghainese outfit at that time, with different designs for married women and young girls as well as those who were not well-off." For example, the qipao worn by Mrs Li was designed with one folded side and one slit side to make it easier to dance in.

Wu Husheng, Vice-Director of the Shanghai Ballet and the dancer who plays the lead male character Mr Li, says mainland China had never seen ballet dancers wearing qipaos before the ballet production  premiered. He added that as the choreographer studied how the female protagonist danced and moved in a qipao before choreographing the ballet, many ballet movements were designed around the limitations of the dress—even the angles of leg lifts were carefully adjusted to avoid any embarrassment.

Qi Bingxue, Principal Dancer of the Shanghai Ballet and the performer of the lead female role Mrs Wang, says she first danced in a qipao while performing in A Sigh of Love. She reveals that she watched numerous old films to study how women moved in qipaos at the time in order to perform more vividly, and that she became used to wearing a qipao-style outfit during rehearsals. Qi smiles and explains: "The actors who were used to making big movements in ballet dramas were suddenly constrained by their qipao outfits. Still, the choreography was well adapted to the movements and gestures of dancers wearing qipaos, so the dance feels vibrant."

Dance with subtle emotions

Wu has now played the lead male character, Mr Li, in A Sigh of Love for 17 years. The character was Wu's first male role in ballet theatre, and playing the role has contributed to his artistic growth as well as providing a key to understanding how a choreographer thinks. For example, he mentions the recurring scenes of pas de deux performed by Mrs Wang and Mr Li, in which they move in opposite directions: "To illustrate the protagonists' mental states, sometimes they pass by each other, and sometimes their bodies move in different directions, but all along they are attracted to each other. That is what makes the art of ballet attractive and provides room for the audience's imagination."

The female protagonist wearing the qipao makes many unforgettable movements, and despite being constrained in a tight costume, she projects an image of grace while being metaphorically chained up.

The male and female protagonists are engaged in a tug-of-war between emotion and reason, and the audience is able to feel these subtle sentiments despite a lack of dialogue. "A Sigh of Love was a test of the actors' determination because the dances were arranged according to the storyline, in which the protagonists gradually experience strangeness, familiarity and a fleeting relationship. To handle these emotions, the dancers must be very patient… We acted as if we were telling a story. Whenever I finished a dance, I felt the character's emotions, undergoing relief, loneliness and grief," says Wu.

Although the dance theatre performance has toured for 17 years, the Shanghai Ballet still pursues innovation in A Sigh of Love and even staged the show in a real shikumen building in early 2023. Wu, who was born and raised in Shanghai, says that even though the Hong Kong audience will not experience the show in such a unique venue, festivalgoers will still become absorbed in the story. And the music adds further to the immersion, with the show featuring period tunes such as Double Suicide from Princess Changping, played on traditional Chinese instruments; the Mandarin pop song An Era Like Flowers by Zhou Xuan; and classical works of Beethoven. All of these speak of the joy and sorrow Mr Li and Mrs Wang experience when they get together and then break up. Meanwhile, the choreography combines different forms of dance such as classical ballet, modern ballet, folk dance and jazz dance, revealing how liberal and advanced Shanghai was during that era.


Shanghai Ballet A Sigh of Love


Venue:Grand Theatre, Hong Kong Cultural Centre