Hong Kong Ballet Mixed Bill

Date: May 27 and 28m, 2017
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Elo – Shape of Glow
Egami/Hu – Carmen
Kylián – Petite Mort, Sechs Tänze

The title of this past weekend’s mixed bill, “Carmen and More”, is neither eye-catching nor revealing. But fans who made their way to the Hong Kong Cultural Centre anyway would be well rewarded: the Hong Kong Ballet, as a company, made a bold statement of authority, whereas its dancers dispensed some of the finest dancing in years. To be sure, the weekend, being this season’s last, was overshadowed by the imminent departure of the company’s much-beloved artistic director, Madeleine Onne, who was properly lavished with an emotional tribute after Saturday’s performance. But the most excellent level of dancing, which demonstrated the fruits of Onne’s reign, befitted a most appropriate send-off for her.

Shape of Glow was created by Jorma Elo especially for the Hong Kong Ballet. The piece celebrates, more than anything else, ballet as a showcase of the human body’s form and movement. The piece is divided into three tableaux, in the form of a three-movement classical sonata, with a slow movement sandwiched between two faster ones. Yumiko Takeshima’s costumes have streaks of bright turquoise along the arms and patches at the torso. Set against a predominantly dark backdrop, the costumes render, as the dancers move their four limbs, a gyrating lightshow. Whether propelling one’s body around the stage in an energetic series of coupé grand jeté, or throwing two bodies into perfectly mirroring glissades, Elo’s choreography seems intent on flattering the formal beauty of body movement. In both performances, Elo’s punishing schedule was well executed by the Hong Kong Ballet corps. Clinical precision aside, energy abided throughout. Shape of Glow’s incident formalism has no story line, which perhaps explains why it feels like such an appropriate piece leading towards the emotion-drenched Carmen.

Set in a capitalist’s factory, this Carmen has been condensed to focus on the love story between two factory workers, José and Carmen, on the one hand; and Carmen’s seduction of the world, as encapsulated in the sexual tension between the heroine and the factory boss, on the other. As the overture begins, one could hear a modernized derivative of the development section of Bizet’s Habanera. The corps, dressing in black and moving in organized chaos around José, seems ready to assert the force of destiny and hint at the treacherous ending ahead. Music changes, and Carmen comes out to join José. Here they wrap themselves in each other’s arms, showing deep affection and mutual love. The scene then moves to the factory floor, where two dozen dancers line either side of moveable tables. Dressed in blue collar garb, they are clearly there to toil for their boss. A worker finally succumbs to exhaustion, and her fellow workers, surrounding her, bemoan her fate (and theirs!). As they move about en tutti, swirling red pieces of silk into the air, one cannot help but see class friction, where laborer’s blood is clearly sacrificed for the spoils of the capitalist class. The vivacity of the motion also reminds me of the spinning chorus in Jan Philip Gloger’s Holländer at Bayreuth. Carmen at first seems ready to stand up for her creed, and then seems equally willing to seduce the boss who (uh-um) exploits them. The pas de deux between Carmen and the boss summarizes a transformation from active flirtation to gentle passion. The music similarly mirrors the action, where the Habanera begins with acute rhythms and ends in the style of a mellow ballade. Sex comes later, during the flower song, which is danced by Carmen and the boss. Their movements, in front of reflecting mirrors, verge on tasteful voyeurism. The most poignant moment comes towards its end, when the pair wraps around each other, looking utterly swept up by time and place. Music cues with a frenzied roll of the triangle and of the bass drum, which sets an ominous tone. When Carmen’s betrayal becomes known amongst her creed, the ladies confront her, in an epic choreographic battle set against the Votre toast! part of the Escamillo’s Toreador song. Here, corps movements are energetic, and verge towards brutality. Carmen’s reaction, set against the en garde motif, is definitely more mellow and contemplative, as though she is trying to explain herself. When José learns of the betrayal, his inner devastation and desire for revenge are well captured by a frenetic piece of delicious choreography with multiple jumps and wrecking ball-like arm motions. The ending shall remain unsaid here, not just because it is well known and equally anticipated, but because it deserves to be experienced in a live setting.

Carmen lasted about three quarters of an hour – much shorter than Bizet’s original version – but the proceedings did not feel rushed or off-pace. The Carmen-boss pairs: Ye Fei Fei and Lucas Jerkander on May 27, and then Liu Miao Miao and Jonathan Spigner on May 28, were fine specimens of excellent PDD dancing. Lucas Jerkander, who lifts effortlessly and acts with committed passion, may (should!) well become a principal within the next few years. His jumps were airy and his turns swift and upright. Ye Fei Fei moved fluidly and naturally, and found a good rapport with Jerkander. Her Carmen, chin up high and heels often off the ground, effused with outsized attitude and charisma. Her characterization, after her salacious act with the boss was caught by José, was a tad too remorseful…was Carmen, the freewheeler that she is and always will be, ever remorseful? But Ye was able to humanize Carmen, pulling her to the center and making her more relatable to the ordinary folk. The character of José is actually divided in two: José in Memory (danced by Li Jiabo and Li Lin), which has more dancing time and dramatic relevance; and José (portrayed by Liang Jing and Wei Wei), which has minimal dancing and is largely gratuitous. Li Jiabo’s portrayal was absolutely riveting. Li Lin’s dramatic language was more subdued than Li Jiabo’s but he was reliable in partnership.

Carmen’s soundtrack offers a rich and well-woven accompaniment to the proceedings. Here, the melodic DNA is Bizet’s, while the body of orchestration is based on Rodion Shchedrin’s Carmen Suite. Mike Orange, a local musician, offers an ambitious amount of accentuation and editing. The overture is a prime example of Orange’s effort weaving Bizet’s Habanera melody with electronic music, whereas the triangle and drum rolls layered on top of Shchedrin’s lush orchestration enhance the dramatic impulses onstage. One of Orange’s most daring editing is his addition of fade-in/out of the melodic line. As the fade-out commences, one may feel the loss in rhythmic/melodic momentum, but Orange seems intent on drawing attention away from the music and towards the dancing. Orange takes risks here, and while not everything clicks, the payoff is unexpectedly huge overall.

What makes this work by Yuh Egami and Ricky Hu so thorough and appealing is the harmony amongst stage, music, and dance. The effort speaks forcefully, with a singular language. The dancing is memorable, not because it punches with iconic fingerprints but because it glows with emotional authenticity. Through dancing movements, the roles of Carmen, José, and the boss have each been entrusted with a well-defined character. I surely would hope this fine work becomes an integral part of not just the company’s repertoire but also its creative identity going forward.

After the intensity of Carmen, Jirí Kylián’s works serve as a counterbalancing relief. Two pieces are not as technically driven as Shape of Glow or as emotionally driven as Carmen. In performance, the corp executed with more focus in the May 27 evening performance than at the May 28 matinee. In one scene in Petite Mort where the male dancers would run downstage with a large piece of textile, intent to cover the stage so that as they ran back, the ladies and the stage props would be swept off. On May 28, the execution showed how tricky it could be as one male dancer tripped over, leaving a gaping hole. As the dancers scrambled to correct, a female dancer was left downstage exposed, who also had to pick up a lingering piece of props before awkwardly finding her way to the back curtain. Sechs Tänze provided lots of comedic relief. Here, the entire dancing corps, particularly Natalie Ogonek and Shen Jie, showed a strong flair for comedy. In my years watching the company, the corps never exhibited such joy whilst dancing for the audience.  It would be a grave travesty if the next artistic director of the company does not afford the dancers many more of these opportunities in the future.

Egami/Hu’s Carmen. Hong Kong Ballet. Photo credit: Hong Kong Ballet.

Elo's Shape of Glow. Hong Kong Ballet. Photo credit: Hong Kong Ballet.

Elo’s Shape of Glow. Hong Kong Ballet. Photo credit: Hong Kong Ballet.