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

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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Ballet and dance

Carlos Acosta: A Classical Farewell

Date: June 30 & July 2, 2016
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Petipa – Swan Lake White Swan Pas de deux
Bournonville – La Sylphide Act 2 Pas de deux
MacMillan – Winter Dreams Pas de deux
Fokine – Dying Swan
Vaganova – Diana & Actaeon Pas de deux
Stevenson – End of Time
Mollajolli – A Buenos Aires
Van Cauwenbergh – Je ne regrette rien
Van Cauwenbergh – Les Bourgeois
Acosta – Carmen
Reinoso – Anadromous
Garcia – Majisimo

A Classical Farewell is Carlos Acosta’s farewell from the classical dance stage. The production, which Acosta takes across the world before he closes his illustrious dance career, features his handpicked selection of young Cuban dancers. While Acosta is the main bill, in reality he only appears in three of twelve pieces, leaving the bulk of the hard work to his compatriots. The overall effect could not be considered underwhelming, however, as the male corps effused Acosta’s dancing shadows and female corps gave us glimpses of Marianela Nuñez and Tamara Rojo, both of whom were Acosta’s frequent and favorite partners in Covent Garden.

At 43, Acosta could no longer hang as high and as long as he could in the past. His sauté fouetté, in particular, found such a short hang time that his landing was at times found ahead of the beat. But that was not to say Acosta lost one of his prized virtues in dancing – his crisply perfect timing, as he would quickly find the necessary adjustments to re-synchronize with the taped music. In the only classical piece he performed – the Diana & Actaeon divertissement – his movements were liquid, and his stance was always picture perfect. He used his extended and still-extremely flexible limps to shape beautiful contours. When his body lines were carefully positioned at rest, one could see great sculptures of body art, as if Acosta was not only performing as a dancer on stage but exhibiting as a sculptor in a museum. Laura Rodriguez, benefiting from Acosta’s enormous hands and rock-solid lifts, danced the Diana part with an expressive, carefree abandon. Her greatest liability, as was the case with the other female soloists though no fault of their own doing, was that her limb extension was not far enough to produce the most elegant lines that we came to expect at major houses; but they surely worked hard to make up for the deficiency with good effort and focus. In Acosta’s other solo piece, Van Cauwenbergh’s “Les Bourgeois”, Acosta danced to the eponymous Jacques Brel song in the style of Tevye from “Fiddler on the Roof”, or Falstaff. In this instance, Acosta showcased not so much his dancing prowess as his talent for drama and comedy, and revealed what could possibly be a viable career of dramatic choreography and feature production ahead.

Dancing closest to the shadows of Acosta was Luis Valle, who moved his body with great rhythmic precision and exceptionally powerful legs in “Carmen”, where he danced with Rodriguez. The pair moved seamlessly, and well reminded the audience of Acosta and Rojo of the yesteryear. Acosta’s choreography was sensual, intense and dreamy, quite in the same stylistic vein as Martha Clarke’s “Chéri”. The rest of the dancing was fine, but Ely Regina Hernández’s rendition of Van Cauwenbergh’s “Je ne regrette rien”, to Edith Piaf’s music, stood out, not merely because of her rhythmic acumen but because her body strength allowed her to execute some extremely memorable body lines full of charisma and style, as if Sylvie Guillem did Pina Bausch.

José Garcia’s “Majisimo” rounded out the evening. Created in 1965 for the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, this divertissement combines classical techniques with Hispanic flair. Here, the corps seemed genuinely most comfortable. While Acosta had the leading role, the star potential of Enrique Corrales, Javier Rojas and Luis Valle really shone through. Corrales might have been a weak and unsteady Siegfried, but he was brimming with smile and confidence in this particular endeavor. The three could be seen occasionally out-hanging Acosta in mid-air. They seemed to relish their stage presence, even next to the dancing giant that was Acosta. This evening, as it turned out, might be better remembered for the bright potential future of Castro-era (or post- Castro-era?) Cuban ballet than as Acosta’s farewell from stage. The audience might not have expected this, but it might just be exactly what Acosta has planned all along.

Acosta in Hong Kong

Acosta in Hong Kong.

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