The climate change movement has the polar bear. China’s conservation activists have the crested ibis.

 

How the Northeast Asian “bird of good fortune” was brought back from the brink of extinction and became an icon of environmental protection is the story of Soaring Wings, a lush new production by Shanghai Dance Theatre coming to Lincoln Center on Jan. 5-7.

 

“The crested ibis symbolizes the idea for Chinese people that human beings and nature are intertwined and accordingly, nature should be respected and protected,” explains Chen Feihua, the troupe’s artistic director.

 

The distinctive bird with its bright red skin and long curved beak was once widespread from Taiwan to Russia. But by 1981 just seven wild crested ibis remained in China’s Shaanxi province, spurring an international conservation effort that saved the species. Soaring Wings traces this story from ancient China to its hopeful future, evoking the emotion of nearly losing the ibis forever to inspire an ongoing mission of a more conscientious future.

 

“Its destiny is more like a history of the environment,” explains Tong Ruirui, Shanghai Dance Theatre’s director and choreographer. “Modern times witnessed the awareness of natural protection, but also the near extinction of the crested ibis. Many extinct animals were completely out of human beings’ sight, but these birds are an exception.”

 

Adapting its story for Soaring Wings came naturally to Ruirui. The bird’s elegant lines mirror that of dancers, while using movement instead of words crosses cultural barriers to spread a universal idea, relying more on conveying the feelings of how humans have influenced the fate of the crested ibis, for better and worse.

Instead of relying on the usual dance drama plotline of a love story, Soaring Wings creates a “special aesthetic experience” through the rhythms and grace of Chinese dance and ballet.

“Essentially,” says Ruirui, “the dance drama is one of reality and a combination of both classical aesthetics and modern expressions.”

Soaring Wings runs Jan. 5-6, 8 p.m. and Jan. 7, 1 p.m. at the David H. Koch Theater, 20 Lincoln Center Plaza. Tickets are $22-$167.