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

Anna Karenina

Date: October 18, 2013
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Choreography by Boris Eifman

Eifman Ballet

No one who knows anything about storytelling could seriously believe that choreographer Boris Eifman, in a two-hour ballet production, could manage to retell Tolstoy’s magnum opus about post-Crimean War Russian aristocracy in its full-fledged entirety. In this production, Eifman could not, but that was not his agenda. In his production notes, Eifman explains that he has cut out the various counterplot lines in the novel, and has made the Anna-Karenin-Vronsky love triangle the central focus of his ballet. By not directly commenting on hypocrisy, class struggle and social progress – all of which are among Tolstoy’s many central themes in Karenina – Eifman is set free to expound upon the inner desires and turbulences of the three characters.

The effect was mixed. Nina Zmievets, Oleg Markov and Oleg Gabyshev, the incredibly talented trio of dancers forming that love triangle, navigated Eifman’s hauntingly difficult steps with fluidic precision and boundless stamina. Absorbed in their own world, one could sense immediately that their energy was indeed feeding off each other. Zmievets particularly stood out with her carefully placed, fluidic lines, as well as her voracious athleticism. Markov’s despair in solitude, just as Zmievets’ Anna was about to leave his Karenin, was grievously captivating. But where Eifman offered very little in terms of dramaturgy, these characters did not have a substantial plot line to move along – the characters were left without real development other than fleeting displays of sensations. These characters might as well have been Juliet-Tybalt-Romeo. In passages where Anna and her lover expressed their love for each other, Zmievets and Gabyshev would often spin and gyrate in acrobatically challenging movements, as if their love was merely physical and delusional rather than lyrical and cerebral. In properly bloated passages, such as the masked ball scene or Anna’s death scene where the corps de ballet mimicked the incoming train, the dancers’ movements were even more clamorous, if not outright violent. Just when one thought Anna’s husband was about to confront his wife regarding her presumed infidelity, he feigned justice by plowing deep into Anna’s body, raping her. As the choreographic texture tilted towards the viscose, the dramatic balance moved towards, if unwittingly, towards bombastic physicality and little else. Were their desires and internal torments merely physical? Did Tolstoy have something else in mind?

Fast spins, high jumps, and long lifts are, when perfectly executed, all hallmarks of a gifted company, but they say very little about artistry and interpretation of an original work. Interpretative ballet is something more akin to enjoying a warm pot of tea in small, savory sips over a long afternoon than, as this Karenina turns out to be, downing successive shots of whole cream. The buffet of Tchaikovsky’s music was glorious, but they failed to link up to a coherent whole. For those who look for more than a perfect display of Russian acrobatics, the deficiencies here inevitably leave them yearning for more.

Eifman Ballet in Hong Kong.

Eifman Ballet in Hong Kong.

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