Ballet and dance

Anna Karenina

Date: February 23, 2018
Company: Ballett Zürich
Choreography: Christian Spuck
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre.

Anna Karenina: Viktorina Kapitonova
Count Vronsky: William Moore
Alexei Karenin: Filipe Portugal
Princess Betsy: Giulia Tonelli
Betsy’s companion: Wei Chen
Levin: Tars Vandebeek
Kitty: Michelle Willems
Stiva: Daniel Mulligan
Dolly: Galina Mihaylova
Vronsky’s mother: Anna Khamzina
Countess Ivanovna: Mélanie Borel
Seryozha: Isaac Wong Hei

Christophe Barwinek, piano
Lin Shi, mezzo-soprano

Additional music on soundtrack

Modern choreographers, when interpreting Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, often choose to focus on the love triangle between Anna, Vronsky and Karenin, because the emotions boiling among the trio overflow with plenty of material for one full evening of entertainment. Rarely would a choreographer venture deep into societal and philosophical aspects of Tolstoy’s work, simply because these concepts cannot easily be interpreted by dance motions. Take, for example, Alexei Ratmansky’s production for the Mariinsky. Most of the stage actions center around Anna, and her relationships with Vronsky and Karenin. When Ratmansky veers off, he tends to focus on what affects Anna personally. The corps is mostly used as sugary glazing to move the story along or, in the case of the elaborate horse racing scene, as a standalone, show-off-your-corps sort of spectacle. Secondary characters are given very little stage time, and they, when finally onstage, rarely partake in any choreography of significance.

Christian Spuck, in a Ballett Zürich production that opened the 46th Hong Kong Arts Festival, attempts something more ambitious. His production gives greater prominence, as well as more feature choreography, to three other pairs of characters: Stiva and Dolly, Princess Betsy and her consort, and Levin and Kitty. (By contrast, Ratmansky’s production for the Mariinsky hardly features these characters with much if any intensity.) As the ballet opens, readers of the novel would instantly recognize Stiva the adulterer and Dolly his despondent wife. The two characters would for the rest of the ballet hop on and off stage, with short bursts of intricate choreography to expose their relationships – abrasive enough to be emotional, sometimes even militant, but never enough to cause, unlike Anna’s, irreversible road to infamy. By repeatedly bringing the pair back, even as Anna’s life begins to crumble, Spuck perhaps wants to juxtapose the difference between these two adulterers: society back then would overlook adulterers like Stiva who nevertheless cause no irreparable damage to family and society (through the immense will of Dolly, to be fair), but would come down harshly on people like Anna whose extra-curriculars are certifiably her family’s – and herself’s – wrecking ball. Daniel Mulligan’s deliberately arrogant ballet stances and ignoble steps elaborated the outward and animal instincts of Stiva to great dramatic effect. The gutted facial expressions of Galina Mihaylova’s Dolly, most of which were directed towards the audience as she was left alone re-calibrating what remained of her dignity, made us wonder whether she would be better off choosing a Schopenhauerian escape from society once and for all?

Tolstoy makes Princess Betsy the anti-Orthodox, anti-Buddhist archetype, the sort of socialite with lax morals who would neither admit being nor associate with one: she of course snubs Anna as soon as society starts abandoning the latter. Curiously, she and her consort, aptly danced by Giulia Tonelli and Wei Chen, are given the most classical, conventional steps and sequences; perhaps supported pirouettes and classic arabesque lines cultivate the impression that Spuck is intentionally trying to contrast this pair, or at least deviate artistically, from the rest. Tonelli was a graceful dancer, with all the properly nefarious facial expressions. Chen gave Tonelli rock-solid anchorage as she pirouetted next to him, and elevated his dramatic significance in the act by naturally weaving himself into the action through eye contact and timely gestures.

Some of the most beautiful choreography in the entire production is given to Levin and Kitty, especially when they reconcile in the fields and during their wedding. The stage in these scenes is minimally decorated, with sparsely decorated tree trunks nonetheless brightly lit with optimistic color tones. In perhaps the evening’s coup de théâtre, audience gasped with excitement as the pair, portrayed by Tars Vandebeek and Michelle Willems, rode on stage on a bicycle, oblivious to the world and material life. This is not Lise and Colas riding on a bicycle and happily waving at an audience; this moment belongs to Levin and Kitty, and themselves alone. If Spunk intends on channeling a Schopenhauerian aesthetic ideal, or at least magnifying Tolstoy’s agrarian spirit, this is the moment.

Now we are left with the choreography between Anna, Vronsky and Karenin. Nothing was particularly awe-inspiring, and the only jaw dropping moment came during the love-making scene between Anna and Vronsky, where the undressing of Anna was more vulgar than was sensual, outdone only by the two frolicking and rolling on stage with such brutalist ugliness that, if deliberate, could only be explained as a brilliantly concocted contrast to the aesthetic ideal of Levin and Kitty. Again, Spuck could be forgiven for channeling Tolstoy here. Viktorina Kapitonova, as Anna, was a great dancer with confident steps and beautiful lines. Her arm placements, stunning as they were, felt luxurious yet natural. Her portrayal, save for those forgettable love-making moments, was entirely believable. Her dissolution scene, filled with intense pain, made a lasting impression. William Moore, as Vronsky, and Filipe Portugal, as Karenin, were two dependable lifters and committed stage actors, but Spunk has cast aside the characters by giving them very little bravura moments to shine.

Musically, some of the most poignant moments are handed to Levin – Rachmaninov’s depressing Op. 26-12 Noch’ pechal’na (The Night is Sad) was rendered when he was rejected by Kitty. Vandebeek’s possibly unintended fall to the ground towards the end of Levin’s solo weighed even more somberly on that destitute moment. Levin’s music upon his first return to the farms was the contemplative Rachmaninov’s Ne poy, krasavitsa! (No not sing, my beauty), Op. 4-4. Both songs were beautifully sung by Li Shi, to the fine and dreamy piano accompaniment of Christophe Barwinek. These two watershed musical moments are where the ballet production is also weakest – the drama seems completely driven by music and voice, and not necessarily by Spuck’s choreography or stage direction. By giving more prominence to other characters, the ballet company has more slots to show off its talent, but at the expense of finding time to fully develop each character to its full dramatic capacity. The impossible task of trying to explain Tolsoy’s masterpiece with totality remains unfulfilled, but Spuck can certainly not be faulted for the lack of trying.

Ballett Zürich’s Anna Karenina. Photo credit: Hong Kong Arts Festival.

Ballet and dance

Le Corsaire

Date: November 4 (evening), 5 (mat), 2017
Company: Hong Kong Ballet
Choreography: Anna-Marie Holmes, after Konstantin Sergeyev and Marius Petipa
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre.

Conrad: Wei Wei (4e), Matthew Golding (5m)
Medora: Maria Kochetkova (4e), Jin Yao (5m)
Ali: Li Jiabo (4e), Li Lin (5m)
Lankendem: Xia Jun (4e), Wei Wei (5m)
Gulnare: Ye Feifei (4e), Chen Zhiyao (5m)
Birbanto: Shen Jie (4e), Jonathan Spigner (5m)
Pasha: Ricky Hu (4e), Shunsuke Arimizu (5m)

City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong
Judith Yan, conductor

The first time I watched the ABT was back in 1998, in that Company’s premiere of Le Corsaire. Back then, I had limited knowledge of ballet and its world, but was nevertheless mesmerized by the airy steps of Medora. I was also dumbfounded by a rapturous buzz, during intermission, of a fine young dancer, in the relatively minor role of Birbanto. Of course, Medora was the great Nina Ananiashvili, and Birbanto was Angel Corella. The production presented in Hong Kong this week inherited from that ABT production, by then Boston Ballet’s Anna-Marie Holmes, the first North American to have danced with the Kirov.

The Hong Kong production, with modified choreography by Holmes in the grotto and garden scenes, offers stunning costumes and a lavish set, by Hugo Millán in conjunction with BNS Ballet National SODRE Uruguay. The side draperies offer a festive palette, especially in the garden scene. Rear video projection enriches each scene with blue skies, rugged seas, or an animation of a slowly extending palace, leading up to the garden scene. Wei Wei, as Conrad in the evening performance, gave solid jumps and fine turns. His turn-in stance could sometimes be a little off putting, but when in movement his focus was intense and rightly placed. Matthew Golding showed enormous power with his fiery jumps and handy lifts. Much of that power originates from his sizable thighs, which look especially voluminous when juxtaposed next to the legs of Jonathan Spigner, who is already one of the more muscular dancers in the local Company. Holmes’ large set inside Cultural Centre’s relatively small stage did not do Golding any favors, as he seemed confined and unable to do any en manages bravura runs of significance.

Maria Kochetkova was flawless as Medora. Her piqué turns were swift and gorgeous to look at, and her jumps yielded great height especially when measured against her diminutive figure. Jin Yao, in the matinee, showed signs of an aging ballerina, with muddled steps during Medora’s Act I variation: most of the regular pirouettes were done off balance and not in sync with music, while the couple of beautiful pirouettes attitude en dehors simply disappeared. Her Act II fouettés did not even nearly make the full count. That being said, she brought the role to life with timely eye contact with her counterparts and with the audience. Her pantomime, especially towards Golding’s Conrad, looked entirely believable, and would have delighted Ananiashvili, herself an animated and committed actor on stage. Li Jiabo and Li Lin were both fine as Ali, with Li Jiabo being more impactful dramatically as a loyal servant of Conrad and with Li Lin more dazzling with his swift (especially those cloches!) and musically precise movements. Ye Feifei, having taken a leave of absence from the Company, from 2014-2016, was in her best form since her return. Her core has strengthened, and she seemed more willing to commit her steps with greater emphasis on artistic fluidity and emotional abandon than merely with technical perfection. She also seemed more flexible than she has ever appeared, especially with multiple gorgeous, and seemingly effortless, side oversplits. Chen Zhiyao appeared slightly more mechanical as the other Gulnare. Her turns were clean and sharp, but being the much younger dancer her steps looked counted. She also found her body brushing against the side curtains not once but twice. Xia Jun made most out of his limited time in the role of Lankendem with sharp moves and fiery acting. Ricky Hu and Shunsuke Arimizu offered plenty of comic relief as Pasha, with Ricky Hu not only offering small details in his steps but also showing a particular apt sense of timing, for example, while playfully toying his ceremonial staff with Medora.

Judith Yan had great ideas in the pit, especially in the Act I overture. Her arms moved furiously, and her cues were crisp and firm. Alas, she seemed unable to fully realize her desires from the City Chamber Orchestra’s playing. The orchestra had a strong strings section (with concertmaster Amelia Chan delighting with fine solos), but was otherwise quite weak, especially in the lower brass. The percussion section, especially at the cymbals, often found itself behind the beat, though no harm was visibly done on the dance stage. Madeleine Onne, the Company’s previous director, may have already planned this production well before her departure earlier this summer, but Septime Webre, her replacement, could be lauded for executing this project beautifully. The entire Company seems to enjoy their output, as did the audience based on their wild reception at the end both performances.

Ballet and dance

Don Quixote

Date: August 26 and 27, 2017
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Choreography by Marius Petipa and Alexander Gorsky, with additional choreography by Nina Ananiashvili

Kitri/Dulcinea: Iana Salenko
Basilio: Shen Jie (26), Wei Wei (27)
Mercedes: Yang Ruiqi
Espada: Li Lin
Don Quixote: Lucas Jerkander
Sancho Panza: Luis Cabrera
Lorenzo: Ricky Hu
Gamache: Jonathan Spigner
Kitri’s friends: Dong Ruixue, Naomi Yuzawa
Queen of the Dryads: Chen Zhiyao
Gypsy Baron/Tavern Keeper: Yuh Egami
Cupid: Law Lok Huen Tirion
Act III Bolero dancers: Shunsuke Arimizu, Lai Nok Sze Vanessa
Act III variations: Nana Sakai, Chaelee Kim

Hong Kong Ballet

Hong Kong Sinfonietta (orchestra)
Benjamin Pope (conductor)

Hong Kong Ballet opens its 2017/18 season with Petipa’s Don Quixote. With its unambiguous optimism and feel-good pleasantries, the ballet helps to ring in the company’s new era under its new Artistic Director Septime Webre. Much of the choreography is unmistakably Petipa’s and Gorsky’s, but Ananiashvili, who at Bolshoi was once an iconic Kitri herself, streamlines the storytelling by shaving away a great deal of original choreography, including much of Espada’s and a good deal of corps dances in the dream scene. Remaining faithful to Cervantes, Ananiashvili has left in place some non-dancing theatrical elements, such as Don Quixote’s unfortunate entanglement with the windmill or Sancho’s food stealing episode. The end result is a Don Quixote that offers a flowing storyline with the essential colorings of Petipa/Gorsky. The truncations, however, offer less opportunities for the corps to show off their goods, especially pointe work during the dream scene.

Leading both evenings as Kitri was Iana Salenko, a guest artist from Berlin. Salenko’s Kitri is fiery, fun and playful. Barely over five feet tall, Salenko’s small body frame allows her to move with seemingly no effort. Her great sense of musicality allowed her développés to unveil naturally, eventually reaching perfect alignments on beat. Her turns set ablaze the stage with intensity and focus, and her finishing steps were not only clean but well attuned to the corresponding melody. The only blemish on the August 26 performance was that she fell off pointe after her first few fouettés in the evening’s climax, but to her credit, even when the conductor did not seem willing to bend to her reduced velocity, she picked up speed out of sheer will and executed the rest of them admirably, if not, given the circumstances, flawlessly. In the August 27 performance, her ending pièce de résistance, packed with many doubles a few triples, was visually more stunning to watch, though as a whole she was more in form and gave more in the first performance than in the second.

Shen Jie on August 26 offered a mischievous Basilio, whose fake death prompted a delirium in the auditorium. His chaîné turns were swift and weightless, while his sautés found great reach and clean finish. He was a dependable lifter, and his single-armed lifts of Salenko prompted perhaps the loudest mid-ballet applauses in both evenings. Wei Wei on August 27 was not as outwardly dramatic. As a late replacement for Shen, who was originally scheduled to dance both evenings, Wei was seen moving slightly off the pace of Salenko when dancing with mirroring steps. Nevertheless, he has shown to be a reliable partner with good lifts and solid support, and, as the evening progressed, Salenko seemed more and more willing to entrust him to get the job done.

Li Lin’s Espada and Yang Ruiqi’s Mercedes had the right attitudes for their roles, but did not have nearly enough steps to allow the company soloist and coryphée, respectively, to fully shine. Lucas Jerkander’s Don was appropriately stolid throughout, while Luis Cabrera’s Sancho was comical without being whimsical. Jonathan Spigner showed superb comedic talents as Gamache, and could be seen applauding profusely after each of the variations in the wedding scene. He was enjoying the moment as much as the rest of us in the auditorium did. Chen Zhiyao’s Queen had shaky moments, especially at the beginning of her variation on August 26, but performed much better, and with more of the Queen’s lyrical classicism, a day later. Shunsuke Arimizu and Vanessa Lai showed a well-rehearsed pair of Bolero dancers, and provided the perfect evidence that even dance numbers that are frivolous to storytelling could be essential enhancements to the buffet galore that is Don Quixote. Nana Sakai and Chaelee Kim provided variety and additional flavorings during the grand pas, albeit with imperfections. Sakai was a bit rigid in her first evening, but seemed more relaxed in her second. Kim looked nervous and lacked jump height in both evenings, but arguably executed more cleanly in her second outing. As Kitri’s friends, the dedicated pair of Don Ruixue and Naomi Yuzawa, by having fine evenings deserving commendation, showed depth in the company corps. They had a full work load as they also danced the second act gypsy dances. Tirion Law offered a sunny and chirpy characterization of Cupid. Her arm alignments were elegant and natural, and her smile intoxicating. While she had some problems synchronizing her still alignments with her music’s rest beats, her solo performance as a whole was easily the most memorable, if not the best, among the corps.

The staging was minimal but had some interesting moments, including the opening scene where cartoon silhouettes depicting Don Quixote and Sancho were projected, as if they were readying a journey. Some stage direction should also be thought over: in the wedding scene, an extra showed up awkwardly at upstage right, right in the middle of the wedding group dance. For a while I was expecting something from her. Also, some props were placed so close to the center that they could easily chop off Basilio’s flights. The costumes were, for the most part, unattractive and forgettable. Hong Kong Sinfonietta was in the pit, led by guest conductor Benjamin Pope. The orchestra sounded well-balanced and lyrical: its surprisingly refined phrasings and buttery intonations were, alas, more Straussian (Johann) than Minkus. At times, the orchestra sounded like they were dabbling in some sappy music of Richard Heuberger, rather than the energetic vigor that is Minkus. Sparks did not fly. The rudder does not navigate itself; any such curious coloration (or lack thereof) must point to the navigator, i.e. Pope. To Pope’s credit, he moved the drama flowingly, perhaps in deference to the modified choreography, but on few occasions, the music would pick up abruptly, with the dancers barely finishing their bows and being rushed awkwardly offstage.

Don Quixote. Photo credit: Conrad Dy-Liacco/HK Ballet.

Ballet and dance

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

Hong Kong Ballet

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.

Ballet and dance

Paris Ballet Legends

Date: May 11, 2017
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Coralli and Perrot – Giselle Act 2 pas de deux, with Lucie Barthelemy and Alessandro Riga
Meehan after Ivanov and Petipa – Black Swan pas de deux, with Ge Gao and Ryo Kato
Robbins – In The Night, with Muriel Zusperreguy and Josua Hoffalt, Aida Baida and Esteban Berlanga, Agnes Letestu and Stephane Bullion
Cue – La Mort du Cygne (The Dying Swan), with Esteban Berlanga
Fontan and Sarrat – Carmen Toujours! pas de deux, with Lucie Barthelemy and Olivier Sarrat
Martinez – Les Enfants du Paradis pas de deux, with Aida Baida and Esteban Berlanga
Caniparoli – Lady of the Camellias pas de deux, with Yao Jin and Lucas Jerkander
Van Cauwenbergh – Les Bourgeois, with Alessandro Riga
Favier – Non, je ne regrette rien, with Agnes Letestu and Stephane Bullion
Prejlocaj – Le Parc final pas de deux, with Muriel Zusperreguy and Josua Hoffalt

Balletomanes in Hong Kong will certainly remember two of the pieces this evening: Les Bourgeois, danced by Carlos Acosta in 2016, and Le Parc, danced by Alice Renavand / Florian Magnenet in 2015. Van Cauwenbergh’s choreography is not so much dancing as it is acting, and here Riga romped the stage as a cigarette-smoking bombshell, with the sort of clownish smile and gestures that aroused delirious laughter in the auditorium. Aided by a younger and more flexible body, Riga’s rendition in contrast with Acosta’s felt less muscular and more natural. In Le Parc, Zusperreguy and Hoffalt’s flawless techniques would stand out more if only they did not beam with great chemistry, which they certainly did. Zusperreguy flowed just as graciously as Renavand (and Guérin – their inspiration), and seemed to enhance the role by adding a hint of nervousness and uncertainty, as if she is well aware of life’s reality even as the couple, in ecstasy, momentarily escapes from it. This display of insight was well in contrast with Jin/Jerkander in Lady of the Camellias. The Hong Kong Ballet pair displayed all of Caniparoli’s visual language while managing to find, seemingly, no chemistry between themselves. Jin’s Marguerite, often looking towards the audience, was more eager to please them than Jerkander’s Armand – something that was unfortunate, especially since the pair found good chemistry dancing together in Hong Kong Ballet’s full version back in October 2016. Alas, such was the fact of life with galas where getting into character could be a monumental task. In the Favier, Letestu and Bullion displayed great efficacy of movement and precision while dancing within the confines of a carpet barely larger than the average bathroom stall. Fontan and Sarrat’s Carmen Toujours! was perhaps one of the most exciting new choreographies I have seen lately. Physical moments switched back and forth between cruel violence and sappy tenderness, in deference to the wretched history between Carmen and Don Jose. In the frenetic scene where Jose was about to stab Carmen a la Sweeney Todd, the psychological intensity seemed most and appropriately intertwined with the visual physicality. It would have been perfect, if only the corresponding music was not the flower song, which opera lovers would find out of place. I look forward to comparing it against Yuh Egami/Ricky Hu’s new choreography for the Hong Kong Ballet later this month. Robbin’s In The Night looks and feels Parisian without actually programming as such. All three pairs’ dancing was precise, especially the dancing between Letestu and Bullion. The seasoned pair moved their legs cleanly without unnecessary jitters. Their dancing revealed not a word of flamboyance but a waterfall’s worth of human sensibility. Motions flowed with generous profundity of thought and conviction. Henri Barda, who for decades has been Robbins’ most trusted collaborator, colored the moment with delicious live rendering of Chopin’s nocturnes, among other music. His piano, situated in the pit area (stage right), was spotlighted loosely but prominently from above and was clearly programmed to be an equal partner to the dance proceedings onstage. His performance, full of voice and sentimentality, was worthy of the standing ovations the auditorium lavished him.

Robbins’ In The Night: Paris Opera Ballet legends in Hong Kong. Photo credit: Le French May website.

Ballet and dance, Theater

Cecilia’s Rhapsody

Date: March 18, 2017
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Blue Ka-wing – The Invisible S
Ata Wong Chun-tat – Très léger
Rebecca Wong Pik-kei – Nook

This contemporary dance program brings together three works in response to “Cecilia”, a short story about Hong Kong’s urban landscape that launched Hong Kong writer Dung Kai-cheung’s career twenty-some years ago. Blue Ka-wing’s piece, divided into multiple segments, questions whether the body matters in this world. In one segment, two dancers, with their bellies on the floor (actually, on a glass podium positioned mid-stage) and their hands and legs flapping around, are caricatured as instant message-typing goldfishes swimming aimlessly in a fish tank, to the waltzy music from Disney’s “Up”. Meanwhile, music switches intermittently into abrupt sequences of Stockhausen-like pulses, whereby the dancers jump up and take turns to embrace, slap at, or just look at each other. In another segment, the two dancers take turns to physically abuse each other, whether by slapping, kicking or pinching severely, as if alluding to some uncomfortable realities of modern society. Overall, the theatrical presentation here is quite memorable, but the dance language is too varied, and ultimately muddled.

Ata Wong Chun-tat’s piece begins with a dancer, dressed in a geometrically awkward costume that seems precisely to un-flatter the human body. Dancer Mok Chun-tung’s weighty body seems to reinforce this idea, though it must be noted that Mok, being a theater-actor by training, shows dancer-like flexibility and endurance, not to mention well-defined facial expressions, in his captivating solo. In the background, the soundtrack begins with a primitive sequence of long electronic pulses and ends with a soppy Cantopop song, played through a portable deck player held up on stage by a performer. In between, Chan Tze-wing renders live music with a cello while donning a long black dress and sitting on the shoulder of a lifter (hidden within the dress). This musical development, from the primitive to the commercial, seems to mirror the gradual increase in sophistication of the dancers’ movements during the piece, as though the choreographer wants to describe a developing humanity, probably in relation to Dung’s urban visualization of the city. If the piece is meant to be thoughtful and broadly contemplative, it succeeds theatrically and visually. But as a piece of dance theater, the language here seems too broad, with neither a lasting impact nor an all-encompassing glue that brings the various body movements under a cohesive thesis.

Of the three pieces, Rebecca Wong Pik-kei’s “Nook” offers the most coherent dance language and the most satisfying mix of dance and theater. A dark stage is lid with four rows of LEDs across the depth of the floor, with two on the floor and two hanging above them. Dancers Alice Ma and Takao Komaru display a well-rehearsed partnership where two body weights counter each other with seamless perfection just as they move freely across the stage. The two dancers mostly dance apart, but when they are together they are mostly connected through a piece of red dress (worn on Ma). At times Komaru would grab one end of the dress and swing violently, flying Ma’s body across the stage. Dancers would occasionally wrap their heads in the red dress and be led by the other, as though human relationships, no matter how beautiful, could at times find one side to be suffocating and subservient. When the dancers move together, they offer a most intense eye contact, infused with meanings undefined and unknown, as if alluding to the unpredictable and often dreamy human relationships in Dung’s work. With “Nook”, the overall effect weaving dance and theater together is most cohesive, while the dancers’ performance is most natural, sizzling, and revelatory. Komaru’s solo effort at the beginning, frenetic and muscular, reveals the top-class classical training behind the utmost fluency of his steps.

Alice Ma and Takao Komaru, in Rebecca Wong Pik-kei’s “Nook”. Photo credit: Hong Kong Arts Festival.

Ballet and dance

Mixed Bill / Das Triadische Ballett

Date: February 21, 2017
Location: Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, Hong Kong.

Balanchine – Allegro Brillante
Duato – Jardí Tancat
Siegal – 3 Preludes, Rialto Ripples
Gerhard Bohner, after Schlemmer – Das Triadische Ballett

Bayerisches Staatsballett II

The appointment of Igor Zelensky as Ballet Director at Bayerisches Staatsballett in 2016 means that his predecessor, Ivan Liška, would either leave or be reassigned elsewhere. Liška, who has for nearly two decades overseen the ballet company’s rise into a formidable company with equal emphasis on classics and modern, has since taken up directorship of the junior company. Liška’s new appointment may be seen as a downgrade to some. But in many ways, Liška’s new appointment could very well point to his personal ambition to raise the prominence of the junior company and, given Liška’s stature and prominence, Munich’s desire to become a magnet for young rising stars. Many of these young stars were vividly featured this evening.

As the feminine protagonist in Richard Siegal’s choreography, to popular tunes by George Gershwin, Margarida Neto dazzled with a fantastic display of athletic finesse, precision timing and theatric artistry. Witnessing Neto’s acrobatic athleticism was liberating and revelatory. Her demeanor revealed an inner-self that is rebellious at heart. A contemporary whom she would readily look up to would be Natalia Osipova. Her three male counterparts were dutiful and humorous, but as they jumped en tutti with Neto it was clear that Neto exhibited superior control of timing (in relation to music) and muscles (in achieving elevation). I would not be surprised if Neto soon finds an offer as soloist in the senior company or elsewhere.

If Balanchine’s choreography chiefly demands technical mastery of the individual steps, Bianca Teixeira and Francesco Leone, the soloists in Allegro Brillante, were more than competent in that regard. Teixeira displayed strong arched back and good pointe work, while Leone was a solid partner with effortless elevation. Crucially, both were musically inclined and ready to dance to the music rather than to a list of steps. The rest of the ensemble revealed a well-rehearsed junior company in which jumps were in sync and positions were well-aligned. Liška should be proud of their effort overall.

Das Triadische Ballett, of course, was created by Oskar Schlemmer during the nascent days of Bauhaus. Dance, which before Bauhaus was designed to express emotions, were reduced into mechanic display of basic geometric forms and movements under Schlemmer. Ballerinas in tutus would move like a horizontally spinning disc. Danseurs would move like robots, with their limbs moving in simple degrees of freedom. If Bauhaus as a design philosophy means to reduce objects into abstract principles of functions and forms, then Das Triadische Ballett is a hugely significant attempt to apply that philosophy into dance. Whether that treatment has any philosophical or historical significance in altering dance thereafter is up to debate (though most modern choreography, including Balanchine’s, probably borrows fundamental abstractions from or reflects such abstractions central to this philosophy), the singular outcome definitely results in something fundamentally different from what the dancing world has heretofore experienced. This Munich showcase is based on a reconstruction by Gerhard Bohner in 1977. In this instance, Hans-Joachim Hespos replaces a soundtrack having works by Tarenghi, Bossi, Debussy, Haydn, Mozart, Paradies, Galuppi and Handel, with his own. The mutation is not entirely uncalled for, as Schlemmer himself has proclaimed the work to be accompanied with contemporaneous music.

In contrast with the music in the 1970 reconstruction by Margarete Hastings, which is available on Youtube, Hans-Joachim Hespos’ work is more violent in its usage of atonality and random noise. Tuneless output has the effect of drawing the audience’s attention away from what is presented to what the tuneless noise means. Whether it be (presumably) metallic scratching or beating of random pieces of plastic, that randomness does trigger in the modern mind a corresponding action, focus, or event that may or may not be what the choreographer intends to be. This is perhaps why a continuous rendering of tonal Haydn, Mozart or Handel could better direct the audience’s attention towards the dancers.

Of course, Schlemmer does not intend the piece to be merely about dancers. Costumes form a huge part of the display philosophy. Here, the costumes defer squarely to Schlemmer’s original, where costumes with names like “Sphere skirt”, “Disc”, “Wire Costume” and “Gold Ball” are meant to represent abstractions of the human body which, with their specific material properties, determine the dancers’ every movement. The physical presentation here is formal, without any unnecessary embellishments. Dancers essentially are there to showcase the costumes as models. For the most part they did well, other than an accidental clash between the “Disc”s and the occasional exposé of the dancer’s arm in the “jellyfish” costume, which certainly would not have pleased Schlemmer.

The bigger issue in this Bohner reconstruction is the dark background. While the dark background features movements and costumes more prominently, the overall presentation is too tiring to the eye, especially when the costumes are constantly spotlighted over darkness. Schlemmer calls this “triadic” because he aims to juxtapose presentations in multiples of three, whether it be a reference to the number of dancers, costumes in each segment, or in the dimensionality of the presentation. But it also refers to the tripartite-ness of the presentation — one that is partitioned into yellow, pink, and black. Here, because everything is maneuvered in pitch black, the three partitions exist only in the different costumes, and, ever marginally, in the music composition. Any future revival or reconstruction would probably benefit from the tripartite-ness of the background color, if only to go easier on the eyes. That being said, Liška should be lauded for his bravery and determination to allow such a significant project —  historical in its place in German modern art and modernism — to bear fruit. The Arts Festival, likewise, should be commended for bringing Schlemmer’s adventurism, for the first time, in front of the Hong Kong audience.

Das Triadische Ballett in Hong Kong. Credit: HK Arts Festival website.

Das Triadische Ballett in Hong Kong. Credit: HK Arts Festival website.