Ballet and dance

Bayerisches Staatsballett: Mixed Bill, Das Triadische Ballett

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

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

Bayerisches Staatsballett II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chamber music and recital

Toolbox Percussion: Bricolage

Date: June 29, 2016
Location: The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, Hong Kong.

Westlake – Omphalo Centric Lecture (arr. Michael Askill) (Hong Kong premiere)
Cage – Third Construction
Kopetzki – Night of Moon Dances
Lam, Fung – Round (world premiere)
Trevino – Catching Shadows
Xenakis – Peaux from Pleiades (Hong Kong premiere)

Louis Siu, Karina Yau, Wei-chen Lin, Iskandar Rashid, Chronicle Li, Lei-lei Hoi (percussion)

This evening has been highly anticipated, not only because Nigel Westlake’s “Omphalo Centric Lecture” is a work that I have longed to hear live, but because I am eager to find out how Louis Siu has evolved as an artist. As reviewed here a few years ago, Siu proved technically proficient, but could be more expressive, whether musically or visually. That assessment was not damning, as his previous program was as technically audacious as he was young, but it would be disingenuous to dismiss him entirely by that sampling point of one single concert. This evening, his curation was as delicious as it was technically daunting, though much more in reference to the demands of ensembleship and stage management than the pieces themselves.

But first, “Omphalo Centric Lecture”. Westlake’s marimba quartet is made famous by its pulsating ostinati, whereby at least one of four percussionists would anchor the proceedings with a solid pulse, on top of which harmonic structures and further rhythmic embellishments are layered and interact with each other. The premise is simple enough, but a lot of effort and rehearsal time unseen by the audience are needed to perfect its execution. Many versions and arrangements endure over the years, but the arrangement by South African percussionist Michael Askill was presented here. The quartet comprising Siu, Yau, Li and Hoi did not fail to deliver the aforesaid basic premise, as Westlake’s pulsating locomotion was clearly heard here. Yet, no sparks flew at the fringe, and the quartet probably could have extracted more excitement and emotional gravity out of it by intensifying the various crescendos and accents, which also could have helped with ensembleship in terms of rhythmic cleanliness. The audience received the performance lukewarmly, that is, without much response after its end. That, however, probably had much to do with the decision, as Westlake’s piece rendered to a close, to dim the stage lights completely, which offered no visual delineation between the end of Westlake’s piece and Cage’s “Third Construction”. With Cage’s wildly popular composition, the quartet found much of the spark missing in the Westlake: tin cans, maracas and tom toms never sounded so good together! Even the various conch shell sirens, delivered by Li, beamed with wild and exciting frenzy. HKAPA’s Amphitheatre, which normally scatters sonic output and, in particular, eats up thin sounds, surprisingly provided a great deal of fidelity, notwithstanding the few lion’s roar moments coming out rather like a lazy cat’s meows.

Kopetzki’s “Night of Moon Dances” found the evening’s peak of ensembleship, when Lin (marimba solo) joined the group. The entire effort was clean and tidy, and smelled of either extraordinary focus or ample rehearsal time, or both. Lin’s stick work was fiery, and furiously accurate. His upright body stance and demeanor reminded one of a confident sportsman. There was much to appreciate from this performance, whether it be Lin’s clean stick work, Siu’s fearless bass drum playing, or Yau’s deft approach to the solitary timpani.

Doubledeck Factory was founded by local composer Dr. Austin Yip and percussionist Louis Siu in 2012, and has since been renamed to Toolbox Percussion to better describe its retooled focus on promoting percussive arts in Asia. “Bricolage”, Toolbox’s inaugural project, was this ensemble concert. After intermission, a Doubledeck/Toolbox-commissioned work by Fung Lam, titled “Round”, was presented. Using a mahjong table, the premise is simple enough: to weave a rhythmic fabric using the mahjong table and its tiles. Musicians would alternately generate sound by using a mahjong tile to hit another tile or the table. As musicians call up different rhythms asynchronously, just as four uncoordinated mahjong players would around a mahjong table, the theoretical result could be an adventurous and syncopated layering of rhythmic complexity. But what a should-have-been! In Lam, the rhythmic section was preceded, if intended, with the quartet playing a simulated/actual game of mahjong, as if to juxtapose it with the rhythmic section that was to come after. The rhythmic section built on a limp, and frankly never quite found solid footing anywhere. The effort, if entirely scripted, was unmemorable, and offered little musically or dramatically. The question is…why bother? Anyone who has watched Chinese dama play mahjong would know that finding four aunties well trained in the art of mahjong and who could play at a breakneck speed would have offered a more interesting sonic experience than this. If mahjong is a game whereby tension naturally builds up, that tension was hopelessly lacking here. By comparison, Alexandre Lunsqui’s “Shi”, which moves with more tension and excitement, all the while simulating the robust and diverse sonic experience at a Chinese dining table, has much more to offer.

Ensembleship was again evident in the pieces by Trevino and Xenakis. Percussionists are often accused of playing with their ears, which is mostly true, but aside from listening to each other, the sextet often had eye contact with each other. The curation of this concert was ambitious, but the overall musicianship was quite laudable. Aside from Lam’s composition, which started with a great premise but could benefit from a substantive revision, all the pieces were woven together by the six percussionists into an evening fabric of vivid rhythmic intensity — a bricolage, as one may say. As ensemble recital goes, Siu should not be singled out for review here, but as the artistic director most responsible for the evening’s proceedings, Siu and his effort are commendable. If this evening offers any guide as to the future of Toolbox, percussion enthusiasts in Asia should be thrilled with anticipation.




San Carlo/Rousset: Il marito disperato

Date: March 16, 2013
Conductor: Christophe Rousset
Production: Paolo Rossi
Location: The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, Hong Kong.

Il marito disperato (The Desperate Husband) is an opera buffa whose libretto triggers plenty of transitory laughter but whose score, while pleasant, offers very few memorable moments. It is thus not surprising that Amazon lists a grand total of one recording, and that the opera has been sitting in the library archives for as long as anyone can remember until San Carlo, in collaboration with director Paolo Rossi, brought it back on stage in 2011.

This production represents the fruits of a project by the Naples/Campania government aimed at restoring the city’s cultural tradition. The opera has roots in Naples: its premiere occurred there in 1785, and its composer, Domenico Cimarosa, launched his career in the city and is considered to be the finest embodiment of the Neapolitan school of music.

Il marito is rarely performed anywhere, but its subject matter is universal: a story of love and deception that exemplifies aspects of the human condition. Its delivery is rendered through commedia dell’arte, a method of stagecraft that dramatizes fixed social types, such as the funny old men, the scheming servants, and men with an outsized libido. In Il marito, exaggeration of clichés rules the day, in stark contrast to verismo’s naturalism, but as a communication tool of the human condition, the result is no less effective.

The desperate husband is Don Corbolone, who believes that Gismonda, his wife, must be locked at home to avert flirtatious intrusions. The scheming servant is Dorina, who takes the Don’s Machiavellian absolutism so personally that she is determined to avenge Gismonda, her mistress. Dorina first makes up slandering stories about the Don in front of Gismonda’s father (funny old man), and then encourages Gismonda to pretend to be in love with Count Fanfaluchi (the man with an outsized libido) so as to further annoy the Don. Gismonda also conspires with her friend Eugenia in a honey trap to solidify her case against the Don. Valerio, Eugenia’s love interest, represents a powerless spirit of innocence amidst all these trickery. As these archetypes cross paths, various aspects of the human spirit – jealousy, selfishness, and ultimately compassion and forgiveness – are laid bare for all to see.

These themes are so universal that they take place not just in Bourbon times but all times – it is with this premise that Rossi sets the piece in what he calls a contemporary “near future”, complete with dark shades, microphones and Nike headbands. While modern, the production is quite traditional in a sense that dramatic cues are aligned with the libretto. When the libretto calls for rain, weapons and clothing, they were sure to be ready onstage. Paolo Rossi, as a live-in director, breached the stage often, as if he was directing the whole thing as it soldiered on. His stage presence was not intrusive, but rather superfluous as he added very little to the flow of drama other than as a form of concept art. Video projections as well as colorful props on either side of the stage provided some embellishing flavors, but were neither impactful enough nor directly involved in pushing the story forward. The unique and winning concept, however, was the frequent appearance of a male dancer representing onstage the masculine ideal that lived in Gismonda’s psyche. Dressed like an aerobics teacher in those cheesy sports videos in the early 90s, the un-credited dancer would rollick, move about, and flex his muscles onstage just as Gismonda sang about loneliness (in Dove mai, dove si vide) or desire. The dancer became an onstage mental archetype in Rossi’s post-Freudian analysis.

Andrea Concetti, as the Don, exhibited a prominent Italianate baritone with full control of his vocal goods, especially in legato. Concetti is the kind of singer who does not fuss with embellishments, and more specifically tends to keep his vowel endings short but clear. This trait works to Concetti’s favor in the role because the Don’s spirit cannot appear too brash and ornate in the midst of a grand scheme against him. Maria Grazia Schiavo sang Gismonda, who as the outsider under house arrest early in the opera lamented wasted life in Dove mai, where her voice effused with hints of melancholy and youthful nervousness. As her participation in Dorina’s scheme became more pronounced, her vocal dispatch adjusted. In Da mille furie sono agitate, her big number in Act III, Schiavo’s Gismonda, now an insider with full knowledge of the scheme, exploded with full abandon. Here, her lines had conspicuously more support and clarity, with a fast, steady vibrato and a vocal top made of solid gold. Elena Belfiore seemed to thoroughly enjoy her stage time as the anything-goes Dorina. Her voice was buttery and smooth, but often times lacked projection whether paired with Gismonda or in ensemble singing. Filippo Morace, as the outlandish Count, had some of the best comedic moments of the evening, often by interacting directly with the audience and revealing him as the real butt of the joke. Alfonso Antoniozzi, as the father, sang well but impressed further with his acting and animated facial expressions. Patrizia Biccirè, as Eugenia, was a reliable singer and a savvy actress who naturally commanded the stage through her exaggerated body movements. Shi Yijie, as Valerio, polished his phrases with a gentle diligence and a fine metallic top. The promising young singer should find a bright future ahead of him.

The music in Il marito may not be truly memorable, but there are beautiful snippets, especially in ensemble efforts. The quartet at the end of Act I, where the avengers are about to begin their exploits, and the septet in Act III, where the schemers relish their scheme against the Don, are good examples of Cimarosa at his finest; this ensemble cast happily obliged, resulting in enjoyable, syrupy delight. Christophe Rousset, baroque expert with few peers, had the reliable San Carlo Naples orchestra in complete control. His tight leash provided the necessary law and order to rein in the overflowing comedic abundance onstage.

Il marito disperato, in Hong Kong.

Il marito disperato production still. Bruno Praticò (left), did not make it to Hong Kong, and was replaced by Andrea Concetti, who allegedly had to learn the entire role in a few weeks. Photo credit: San Carlo and the Hong Kong Arts Festival.


Il marito disperato production still. Photo credit: San Carlo and the Hong Kong Arts Festival.

Chamber music and recital

Louis Siu: Recital

Date: March 1, 2012
Location: The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, Hong Kong.

Louis Siu, a young and promising percussionist currently playing for the Macao Orchestra, presented a technically ambitious recital at the HKAPA Amphitheatre. The evening’s solo program swung between the brisk, whereupon Siu displayed seriously unreal mallet work in Alex Orfaly’s Rhapsody No. 2 for solo timpani, and the lyrical, where he crafted some smoothly delicious melodic arches in the African folksong-inspired Marimba Dances by Ross Edwards. The highlight of the evening was ensemble affair: a pair of world premieres of works by Alain Chiu and Austin Yip that dealt with the resonance and vibrating qualities of various percussive instruments. Chiu’s work, Resonantia Part 1, offered a rich layering of rhythmic fabric, with western and Chinese percussion locked in a fantastic duel of boundless energy. Yip’s Resonantia Part 2, scored as though it was the dramatic counterpoint to Chiu’s Part 1, was more nuanced and cerebral, with various percussive elements taking turns to shine as calls and responses of each other. The dependable trio of Chin-tung Chau, Rieko Koyama and Vicky Shin provided the necessary percussive resonance backing up Siu’s timpani in both parts. Together, the percussionists sounded like a pride of wild cats navigating familiar territory with crisp determination, yet mindful of each other. Accidental rim shots notwithstanding, Siu’s technical mastery of the art was somewhat marred by a lack of stage character, without which the musician looked stiff and robotic. In an evening with deeply cerebral and convoluted new music that wasn’t immediately pleasing to the average ears, Siu was perhaps taking himself too seriously. Overtly solemn and devoid of much public projection of emotions, his facial expression suggested a spent character who seemed more concerned about laboring to the finish than enjoying the moment. True or not, the severity of that perception cast a shadow over his technical skills and general mastery of his art.