Boy meets bird, boy loses bird, boy finds bird again. What tale could be more familiar to ballet audiences than “Swan Lake”? The story Shanghai Dance Theatre has brought to the Boch Center Shubert Theatre is similar but with a twist: The bird is in danger of becoming extinct. “Soaring Wings: Journey of the Crested Ibis,” which premiered in 2014, is now making its Boston debut, and its principal dancers, Zhu Jiejing and Wang Jiajun, make it a journey to remember.
In the mid-19th century, more than 50,000 crested ibises populated Asia, but hunting and loss of habitat reduced their numbers. By the late 20th century, the species was thought to have become extinct. Some survivors were subsequently found in China, where the ibis is now protected. With a population that barely exceeds 2,000, however, it remains endangered.
Working from a script by Luo Huaizhen, director/choreographer Tong Ruirui tells the ibis’s story through “dance drama” — a mixture of ballet, Chinese classical dance, folk dance, and mime. The prelude to “Soaring Wings” finds an exuberant young woodcutter, Jun (Wang), standing with arms and legs spread, as if taking in the world. A white feather drops from the rafters and he catches it.
The story opens with villagers working and then frolicking. Jun arrives and distributes wood to the grateful folk. Once everyone has left, the ibises enter, with graceful swirls of their huge wings; heads twitch and nestle and snuggle, shoulders shimmy, hands and arms flutter, legs paw and strut. When Jun returns, he and ibis Jie (Zhu) meet and are smitten; their nuzzling duet, more Romeo and Juliet than Siegfried and Odette, exults in imaginative pair figure-skating lifts and embraces. After a sinuous, seductive presentation by a line of 24 ibises, Jie lulls Jun to sleep and gives him a white feather.
Act two brings men and women in dark shifts running in place, as if representing urban industrial Asia. A white feather is dropped and caught by these people, over and over, carefully at first, then carelessly, till it’s allowed to hit the floor. Hunters decimate the ibises; Jun, older and in city clothes, finds Jie and they have an anguished duet before she and the other survivors depart. The final tableau is set in a museum with stuffed ibis models in glass cages. One cage holds Jie, however, and Jun, now white-haired, brings her back to life with his white feather. The ibises make a joyful return, and the feather winds up with a quintet of students who appreciate its importance.
All this is mimed so clearly and danced so exquisitely that no program or synopsis is needed. The creators may have borrowed copiously (and intelligently) from both “Swan Lake” and “The Firebird,” but “Soaring Wings,” like the crested ibis, is one of a kind.
SOARING WINGS: Journey of the Crested Ibis
Directed and choreographed by Tong Ruirui. Story by Luo Huaizhen. Music by Guo Sida. Presented by Shanghai Dance Theatre. At Boch Center Shubert Theatre, through Jan. 12. Tickets $30-$100, 866-348-9738, www.bochcenter.orgJeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.