Ballet and dance

Hong Kong Ballet: Wheeldon, Ratmansky, McIntyre

Date: June 2, 2018
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Ratmansky – Le Carnaval des Animaux
Wheeldon – Rush
McIntyre – A Day in the Life

The penultimate performance of the Hong Kong Ballet’s 17/18 season, in the evening of June 2, was notable more for a teary-eyed video tribute to Liang Jing, the Company’s retiring senior ballet master, than for the dancing. That was not to say the dancing was sub-par – on the contrary, much joy could be culled from tidbits of individual performances throughout the evening. On the whole, however, the evening’s triple bill of modern choreography labored steadfastly forward like a transcontinental train without generating the sort of blood-boiling excitement one would find in a roller coaster. Both the Ratmansky and the Wheeldon were previously staged by the Company; only McIntyre was newly premiered. In the Ratmansky, Liu Miaomiao sported with precision and rampage as Elephant, while Li Lin and Jonathan Spigner, as Horses, approached their steps with rhythmic clarity. But Gao Ge’s Swan, while technically faultless, did not sway the audience with emotional impact. In Wheeldon’s Rush, last-minute substitutes Chen Zhiyao and Wei Wei danced gloriously in perfect partnership. Chen’s still lines brimmed with elegance, while Wei Wei’s supporting work was rock solid. Their pas de deux would have been perfect had Wei Wei been more conscientious of his stance, which tended to turn-in like an ugly duckling. A Day in the Life offered perhaps what would be the emotional high water mark of the evening. Set against 13 Beatles songs, McIntyre’s choreography adhered to the rhythmic and melodic tendencies, rather than the lyrical meaning of the music. Eight dancers shared duties more or less equally, but highlights belonged to Li Jiabo and Xia Jun. To the music of Mother Nature’s Son, Li Jiabo swamped the stage with energy, generated chiefly from the strength of his core and leg work. Xia Jun danced to Wild Honey Pie, an experimental piece by McCartney that lasted barely over a minute. But what a minute that was. Xia Jun unleashed a voracious tornado of power through powerful limb work, especially his arms. Swift movements that brought his arms from a stretched position to over his chest and back punched with rhythmic sensation. The volume of the soundtrack was either amplified slightly to match Xia’s solo fervor, or his tremendous effort was perceived to have amplified the ambient track. Xia’s performance in this evening alone should guarantee his place as a premier dancer of the Company. The rest of the cast was also good: Chen Zhiyao and Liu Miaomiao showed their more chirpy side dancing to the snappy Beatles tunes, while Yang Ruiqi danced with the sort of White Cat-like spirit that enlivened the auditorium. But the evening as a whole lacked intricate choreography worthy of lasting imprint in the memory; nor was there a long build-up that would mirror the grand pas in the classical repertory (Balanchine’s Stars and Stripes, as an example, would have offered that sort of climactic bookend). In the end, that grand pas finale belonged to Liang Jing, who would depart after more than two decades of service – as dancer and as ballet master – to the Company. Four former and current artistic directors, as well as many dancers, lavished their praises in the video tribute, but the most personal tribute came from Madeleine Onne. Her voice, nearly cracking with poignant melancholy, expressed her gratitude to Liang with sincerity and sensitivity. As she sang the praises of Liang’s devotion, plenty in the audience nodded in agreement. That was perhaps that singular oomph moment missing in the programming.

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Ballet and dance

Whipped Cream

Date: March 22, 2018
Company: American Ballet Theatre
Choreography: Alexei Ratmansky
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre.

The Boy: Daniil Simkin
Princess Praline: Sarah Lane
Princess Tea Flower: Hee Seo
Prince Coffee: Cory Stearns
Prince Cocoa: Joseph Gorak
Don Zucchero: Blaine Hoven
Chef/Doctor: Alexei Agoudine
Marianne: Catherine Hurlin
Ladislav: Duncan Lyle
Boris: Roman Zhurbin

Hong Kong Philharmonic
Ormsby Wilkins, conductor

Richard Strauss completed scores for only two ballets, one of which is Whipped Cream, premiered in 1924. The story tells of a boy who, after overindulging on whipped cream, falls ill and starts to hallucinate and dream of a world of dancing confections. The original production, with lavish costumes and elaborate sets, was meant to bring back memories of the glorious yesteryear, with veiled references to the preferred bygone days of (perhaps) the Hapsburg Empire. Alas, that premiere did not go well with the Austrian public; any nostalgic feelings were quickly nullified by the brutal reality during this period of First Republic: hyperinflation ran rampant, and Austrians (and much of the German-speaking Europe) were barely making their ends meet. Strauss resorted to defending himself by explaining that he merely wanted to create joy, but the ballet’s exuberance in the eyes of the impoverished public left such a bad taste that it was mothballed for much of the rest of the composer’s life.

ABT’s revival of Whipped Cream (albeit with new choreography) during one of modern age’s longest bull markets seems timely. Unemployment has been inching downwards (at least in America). Inflation remains stubbornly low. The majority of Americans is not impoverished by any modern standard. In this production, premiered last year, Alexei Ratmansky douses the Company with copious amount of busy choreography, with demanding jumps and turns for both men and women. Sure enough, Mark Ryden’s set and costumes have all the trappings of a gilded age that, while referencing a distant past, echoes a prosperous society in which we are supposedly living in. But is that true? Income disparity has been severe and getting worse; social inequity has been exacerbated by political hacks unwilling to reverse the status quo. And yet we all feel comfortable with the sets and costumes, as if we have become so elitist, and so gilded, that, even if the art is purely escapist and fictional, we could be rendered defenseless if accused of losing perspective and insight into the deeper, perhaps unseen, problems in society? If we can’t find the repugnance of an elitist art amidst poverty and injustice in the same manner that ballet goers found repugnance a century ago, what does it say about the ballet goers today? Are we elevating ballet to an elitist art form so much so that we could see, and relish seeing, the art as a narcissistic reflection of ourselves, while conveniently forgetting, if only for the fleeting moment, the rest of humanity who could barely make their ends meet, in this gilded age in the 21st century?

Ballet remains an elite, not necessarily elitist, art form – one that requires world-class training and hard work. For all the potential trappings of an elitist evening, this evening’s performance was undoubtedly a showcase of the elite. Daniil Simkin was sensational as the Boy, a role he created last year. His boyish and fun portrayal was in stark contrast to performances seen earlier: as Romeo, and in Van Cauwenbergh’s “Les Bourgeois” (in Taipei, in 2017, not reviewed). His grand écarts were bouncy and weightless, bending up well past the 180-degree line. His coupé jetés encircling the stage were so smooth and effortless, as if he was a wild animal roaming on four legs in free land. Sarah Lane, as Princess Praline, displayed strong upper-body strength, and acted with passion and commitment. Her jumps were, at least on this occasion, lacking suspension en l’air. Both Cory Stearns and Hee Seo had good evenings juggling between Ratmansky’s fiendishly complex choreography and dramatic eloquence, but between themselves, a chemistry languished aside. Blaine Hoven’s muscular movements as Don Zucchero were decisive without losing the role’s comedic angle. Joseph Gorak’s excellent Prince Cocoa reminded us how even a secondary role could enliven an evening’s experience, much in the way that a scintillating Mercutio could lift the entire experience of Romeo and Juliet. Catherine Hurlin starred brightly as Marianne, another secondary role. Hurlin’s flexible body untangled Ratmansky’s choreography with fluidic and seemingly painless ease. One would be forgiven for deeming her outstanding performance, coupled with genuine eye contact and ebullient smiles, the brightest star of the evening. Ratmansky’s choreography for corps was busy but not frenzied, and accorded soloists with extended solo sequences that well-matched the long arches of Strauss’ phrases. The final grand pas, filled with classical steps and references to the Le Corsaire and Don Quixote of the ballet world, romped with uninhibited abundance and fanfare.

Ormsby Wilkins, a resolute leader, gave a measured reading of Strauss’ score. The orchestra executed with clinical precision, and was trouble-free all evening save for a minor blip in the high horn passages towards the end. More emphasis on carving out long Straussian phrasings, instead of meticulously shaping individual notes’ intonation, would have been preferred. Mark Ryden’s set was astoundingly beautiful, with warm colors and creative props. A trolley which the Boy would eventually climb atop to claim the figurative confectionery crown was wonderfully decorated; it was also used only once. The theatre filled with a jolly good spirit. In the context of the society in which the production is performed, whether it can be considered lavish or wasteful, or both, is a matter that deserves to be debated on another day.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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