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

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

Turandot (ballet)

Date: February 7, 2015
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Hong Kong Ballet

Choreographer Natalie Weir’s Turandot proves to be a reliable workhorse by returning on stage in Hong Kong for a fourth time, some twelve years after its premiere. Set in Puccini’s original music, the choreography mixes classical steps with a contemporary variety. After Turandot is first kissed by Calaf in the transfiguration scene, she pirouettes sprightly, but not without collapsing her rotating axis into the caring arms of Calaf, as if ready to be completely consumed by his love. When Calaf pronounces her transfiguration: “E amore nasce col sole!”, she would stand arabesque penché while gazing coyly at him, but not before rolling with him on the floor in raunchy, steamy lust. Playing the role of this transfigured Turandot was the elegant Zhang Si Yuan, who has recently been promoted to company principal. Her movements were calibrated but faithful, and by the look of her face she seemed to be truly absorbed in her character. As Calaf, principal dancer Li Jiabo had sturdy lifting arms and, while not a particularly high jumper, produced with unfaltering reliability. Another company principal Liu Yuyao danced to the music of what is one of the saddest roles in all of opera – that of Liu. While the namesake was a coincidence, her dancing portrayed a character with unbound will-power to do what is best for Calaf, while using her impeccably strong calf muscles to glide her relatively large body frame across the dance floor with fluidic beauty. Set designer Bill Haycock enlivened what is typically the most visually boring scene in the opera – the riddle scene – by using about a dozen corp members to form words by raising alphabet shapes, in an effort not unlike the sequential unveiling of a word in Wheel of Fortune. Haycock also did magic with Liu’s death scene by placing her on a podium and dropping from the lighting grid a long-running red silk onto her dying body. By omitting Puccini’s three stooges, Weir and Haycock also managed to streamline the story and focus on the love story.

Liu's death scene.

Liu’s death scene. Photo credit: Hong Kong Ballet.

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Ballet and dance

Sleeping Beauty

Date: March 15, 2013
Location: Shatin Town Hall, Hong Kong.

Hong Kong Ballet

Sleeping Beauty, an opulent ballet-féerie, is not easy to stage. When executed well, however, it not only fills a company’s coffers but enlivens an evening with its lavish parade of choreographed dances, especially in Act III. The effort is spread fairly evenly throughout the company, but the spotlight is on the eponymous Aurora princess. Jin Yao, Hong Kong Ballet’s principal dancer, began her Aurora steps with some tentativeness, and did not look comfortably in control during her attitude derriere handshakes. This tentativeness could appear confusing dramatically, as if she was more apprehensive than coquettish while meeting her suitors, but proved more ominous as she would, in the piqué sequence in her subsequent variation, find her hands on the floor. The blemish, however, did not fluster her at all, as she picked herself up without losing a fleeting moment and marched on, finishing the variation with renewed urgency and dynamism. Her Act III was a revelation altogether. The briskness of her movements was matched with a beaming confidence and re-born conviction. Her four fish dives (including the picture-perfect end) in the adage was definitive and articulate. On her side, Friedemann Vogel leaped over mountains and found sturdy landings in a reliable display as Florimund. Vogel and Jin’s fluid partnership was all the more remarkable because Vogel is a guest dancer from Stuttgart and does not routinely collaborate with the Hong Kong Ballet. Perhaps he should. As Lilac Fairy, Zhang Siyuan was generous in presenting a graceful figurine and an adorable countenance. Wu Feifei was triumphant, displaying both impeccable technical prowess and a vivacious, almost prankish playfulness as Princess Florine. Li Jiabo did not find a lot of elevation as the fluttering blue bird, but nailed the monumental brisés voles with no hesitation. The rest of the company should find much to savor about their performance, as the sweet fruits of their rehearsals were evident in plain sight. The Garland dance could sometimes be stale to watch, but the dancers’ steps tonight impressed with crisp accuracy, and projected a high level of energy and sophistication that lifted the entire audience.

Jin Yao, in Sleeping Beauty.

Jin Yao, in Sleeping Beauty. Photo credit: Cheung Chi Wai (via Hong Kong Ballet’s website).

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