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

Paquita/Bolero/Le Carnaval

Date: May 30, 2015
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Petipa – Paquita Grand Pas Classique
Preljocaj – Le Parc final pas de deux
Edwaard Liang – Letting Go (world première)
Yuh Egami & Ricky Hu – Bolero (world première)
Ratmansky – Le Carnaval des Animaux

Hong Kong Ballet

The Hong Kong Ballet’s 2014/15 season closes with a mixed bill, with works by Petipa, Preljocaj and Ratmansky, as well as two world premières by Asian choreographers. The programming is as vast as the cast bill luxurious: Jurgita Dronina, Principal at the Dutch National Ballet who is recently appointed Guest Principal Dancer of the HK Ballet, handles Paquita; Alice Renavand and Florian Magnenet, both big stars of the Paris Opera Ballet, team up in Le Parc; and Tan Yuan Yuan, Principal Dancer of the San Francisco Ballet and long-time Guest Principal Dancer of the HK Ballet, dances the female role in Edwaard Liang’s new work.

On paper, Dronina, 29, is one of the most gifted dancers in the world today. Joining the Royal Swedish Ballet at nineteen, she was promoted to Principal at 23. A year later, she became Principal at the Dutch National Ballet, where she remains since. Had her performance as Paquita in Hong Kong this evening been more compelling, she would have lived up to her resumé. Alas, she did not. Her initial entrance was marred with hesitation: in attitude, her working leg slouched; her legs looked heavy, and her arms lethargic. There was not enough stamina (certainly not enough for the all-consuming effort that is Paquita’s GPC), and her movements were not sharp. In Paquita’s signature fouettes, because Dronina could not manage to start with the right angular velocity, the final turns ground to a slow, uncomfortable finish. In the interim, she tried too hard to re-accelerate but ended up mis-aligning her hips and almost tipping over. When her focus seemed lacking, Dronina’s short limbs (at least by Russian standards, though no fault of her own) make any onstage adjustments that much more herculean. Wei Wei, dancing the role of Lucien, performed with neither grave mistake nor the sort of satisfaction-inducing excitement. In his main variation, he missed a few steps and finished his fouettés with shaky sauté landings. The four main soloists of Gao Ge, Dong Ruixue, Yui Sugawara and Naomi Yuzawa infused much-needed stability and generous excitement, especially the last two, while the rest of the cast caused no harm but was predictably average.

Le Parc was impressive not only because it looked fresh despite being over two decades old (created for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1994), but because it stood out as a fine piece of theatrical choreography in contrast with Petipa’s GPC before and Egami/Hu’s work after (see more below). When Renavand and Magnenet danced, they moved with a weightless beauty, like feathers floating in a sleepy summer drift. Their bodies responded well to each other: when one body roared with physicality, the other retracted in submission. Comparing Renavand/Magnenet with the role-creating pair Guérin/Hilaire in 1994, the original pair effuses more sensual pleasure, while the current pair beams more melancholic sadness. It would be hard to deduce from the dancers’ chiffon tops that the piece explores facets of 17th century French nobility and social etiquette, yet there was no mistake that the two Paris Opera Ballet dancers were dancing a narrative of love. In one thrilling scene, they started kissing, followed first by Renavand embracing Magnenet’s upper body and then by Magnenet turning in position, swirling Renavand’s body around like a hammer throw. This rotating motion could have been vulgar or cartoonish, but in the hands of two experts of the art, in front of a dark-hued background, the pair danced as though two pieces of soft, white chiffons waltzed in mid-air with no earthly triviality or measly hindrance. Here, love flourishes, and fairytale ensues.

Edwaard Liang’s choreography found equally worthy interpreters in Tan Yuan Yuan and Liang himself. Tan’s lines, always perfect and sensual, moved around Liang’s body with a coy but sweet coziness. Her feet landed with precision and security, while her arms, visage and fingers embellished with pristine refinement. Tan’s execution dazzled with immaculate technique, but, in her trademark display, she did not flaunt them.

In Bolero, the choreography team of Yuh Egami & Ricky Hu seems to set the dance against a story in a psychiatric hospital, with the patient eventually succumbing to some sort of physical/mental condemnation. Imagine, as the music of Bolero gets louder and more complex, the patient becomes more agitated, with less and less self-control, and eventually incapacitated. Forcing a program onto Ravel’s formal work seemed awkward at best and sacrilegious at worst. (That being said, any sort of purely formal display will inevitably attract comparison with Maurice Béjart’s masterpiece, immortalized by Maya Plisetskaya.) In terms of choreography, there were a few snippets of juicy corp moves (dressed in black, with head gear) that placed emphasis on masculine prowess. The company’s male dancers executed well, with synchronized precision and a single-minded ability to project some sort of demonic powers. This type of choreography seemed inherited partially from Eifman’s brutal physicality and Ratmansky’s neoclassical motions with synchronized arms and feet, but the rest of the product (especially the choreography of the two leads) seemed lacking communicative power and expansiveness. The leads, Liu Yu-yao and Lucas Jerkander, executed the practiced moves with agile familiarity and thoughtful care, but looked as if they were unsure where to place or project their emotions. Movements were occasionally frantic but came with no inspiration; busy stage work was mechanically interesting but seemed distracting. Overall, the dancing was not particularly memorable (other than the corp parts with the demons), while the Bolero team seems to have over-designed the set and props.

Ratmansky’s Le Carnaval had some charming and corny moments, including deliberate onstage mistakes, as well as spoofs of well-known ballet choreography. As a whole, however, it failed simply because it begged for too much cheap (and juvenile!) laughs while offering very little thoughtful commentary by way of dance. Perhaps irony is exactly what the iconoclastic Ratmansky has in mind.

HK Ballet's season closing mixed bill.

HK Ballet’s season closing mixed bill.

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Ballet and dance

Two Dance Galas with ABT

Date: February 21 and 23, 2013
Location: The Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

February 21: Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes, Swan Lake Act III Pas de Deux, Pas de Deux from Stars and Stripes, Symphony #9
February 23: The Leaves Are Fading, The Moor’s Pavane, Symphony in C

American Ballet Theatre

Barbara Bilach (piano) (Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes)
Hong Kong Sinfonietta (orchestra)
David LaMarche (conductor)

ABT opened the Hong Kong Arts Festival with a pair of dance galas. The first evening began with Drink to Me With Thine Eyes, which features twelve dancers in thirteen snippets. Without music, Mark Morris’ choreography could look like a tacky gym video with funny leg movements and group pilates lunges. However, when coupled with Virgil Thomson’s piano music, played by Barbara Bilach, things started to get interesting: the musical textures seemed vividly re-imagined and radiated through rapid body movements. In Ragtime Bass, one of the snippets, lyrical passages in the tonic were represented by subtler, more ribbon-like motions, while a more rhythmically intense passage in the subdominant was realized via more overt, mechanical leg movements. Next were Paloma Herrera and Cory Stearns in Swan Lake’s black swan paired dance, where the two principals performed with a clinical precision but, albeit perhaps intentionally, lacked chemistry. In Stars and Stripes, Sarah Lane and Daniil Simkin, a dynamic duo of gushing energy and endlessly beaming smiles, had plenty of fun and received the most thunderous applauses. Lane was rather tight and wobbly at the beginning, but as soon as she warmed up and her feet started carrying her, dancing with the joy of a child but the seriousness of a consummate professional. Ratmansky’s delectable choreography in his new Symphony #9 has no obvious narrative, but dazzles with pure athleticism, especially in the fourth movement, as Herman Cornejo turned and jumped with boundless energy, and in the second movement, where Polina Semionova and Marcelo Gomes nursed poetic sexual tensions via contemplative body lines and contact.

In the second evening, Hee Seo and Roberto Bolle led an admirable cast in The Leaves Are Fading, Antony Tudor’s poetic tribute to unrelenting youth. Bolle’s lines were statuesque and pensive, while Seo, notably graceful in feel and form, imprinted particularly with her exquisite lowerings from full pointe. Symphony in C, the evening’s anchor, was pure luxury, even in Barbara Karinska’s uninspiring black and white costumes. Stella Abrera and Eric Tamm were properly athletic and bouncy in the first movement, especially in the juicy petit allegro. Simone Messmer and Jared Matthews in the fourth movement were like two dancing architects, building up the stage into a gala of 48 dancers in robust and well-synchronized motions.

The Hong Kong Sinfonietta provided live accompaniment from the pit, with ABT’s Charles Barker and David LaMarche conducting the respective evenings. The Hong Kong group was mostly dutiful, but did show some weakness in the upper brass, particularly during Stars and Stripes. Redemption did follow, with a Symphony in C that raced to a spirited, feisty finish.

ABT's Symphony in C.

ABT’s Symphony in C. Graphic taken from: Hong Kong Arts Festival’s website.

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