In a nutshell, Crested Ibises is a contemporary ballet and folk dance production with an environmental message at heart.
At first glance, the plotline and characterization resemble genre classics like Swan Lake: boy meets girl and becomes enchanted by her, but inevitably loses her to a more significant force. However, such a straightforward interpretation does a disservice to what this Shanghai Dance Theatre production is trying to achieve.
The twist here lies in the fact that the crested ibis is an endangered species. Once the inhabitants of wetlands across East Asia with a population as large as 50,000, these waterbirds have suffered immensely from hunting and loss of habitat since the mid-19th century. According to a report by the US Natural Resource Defense, its population had dropped to 2,000 by 2017.
Crested Ibises addresses the implications of human evolution on nature and its creatures, with nuanced symbolism. It opens with a mystical scene shrouded by clouds — the ‘beginning of time’ if you will — followed by an idyllic image of pre-industrial society, where humankind and nature coexist in harmony. Here, the protagonist Jun meets the principle crested ibis Jie, and the two perform a romantic pas de deux. Events take a sharp turn with the arrival of industrialization: a troupe of dancers representing concrete slabs and glass walls invades the ibises’ natural habitats. The birds flutter in confusion, their feathers begin to deteriorate, until the last of their kind is on display in a museum cabinet.
It all ends with the rebirth of Jie and her reunion with a reincarnated Jun, a fantastical ending that shouldn’t be taken for granted. If anything, the case of the crested ibises is a story of success in wildlife preservation.
The implementation of dedicated sanctuaries across Japan and China since the 70s and 80s has seen a rise in the number of these birds, while a sobering warning for the fate of more endangered species resounds as the curtain closes.
However deep the content may sound, the artistic delivery of this superb dance theater will have children mesmerized. It’s a performance for the whole family to enjoy and take something away from to discuss once your thoughts have settled.