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.

Ballet and dance

La Bayadère

Date: February 16, 17, 18m, 18e, 19, 2017 (all five performances attended and reviewed as one)
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Choreography by Patrice Bart, after Marius Petipa

Nikiya: Ksenia Ryzhkova (February 16, 18m, 19), Ivy Amista (17, 18e)
Gamzatti: Ivy Amista (16), Tatiana Tiliguzova (18m), Prisca Zeisel (17, 18e, 19)
Solor: Osiel Gouneo (16, 18m, 19), Vladimir Shklyarov (17), Erik Murzagaliyev (18e)
Golden Idol: Jonah Cook (16, 17, 18m, 18e), Alexey Popov (19)

Bayerisches Staatsballett

Hong Kong Philharmonic (orchestra)
Michael Schmidtsdorff (conductor)

La Bayadère was first staged by Marius Petipa in St. Petersburg in February 1877. Many versions were presented over the years, including a significant revision by Petipa himself in 1900, but the most definitive version from which all subsequent productions are based was made in 1941 by Vladimir Ponomarev and Vakhtang Chabukiani at Kirov. This Bayerisches Staatsballett production, reconstructed by Patrice Bart for Munich in the late 90s, was the first German production of the ballet and one that inherited from Ponomarev/Chabukiani. Hamburg, Berlin and Dresden subsequently staged their own, but this Munich gem is the first, and arguably definitive, version in the eyes of Germans seeking a vessel to take them to the exotic Far East.

Bart’s version attempts to tell the entire story at a brisk pace. Solor’s opium sequence, which I usually find dragging and unproductive, is breezed through. Some of the elements, however, are crucially missing. The entire role of the head faqir, typical in nearly every existing version of the ballet, is eliminated. This poses various issues, as he is the crucial link between Solor and Nikiya (that link is now depicted by one of Solor’s friends). Also, without the faqirs, Bart’s Nikiya carries a water jug but with no one to serve to, meaning that the essential piece of theater depicting Nikiya’s compassion and grace is now completely absent. The entire sequence with the faqirs dancing is also removed, as is the Sacred Fire, next to which the two lovers would have sworn eternal love to each other. If not for a newly added variation with Solor, this scene would have no teeth. Even then, the addition, with its airy cabrioles and fast turns, contributes few as it is nothing more than a truncated version of Solor’s big number in the grand pas. Those aside, the story line is quite focused, and the drama flows quite naturally.

Tomio Mohri’s set and costumes take us through a whirlwind tour of the Far East – with Indian, Vietnamese, Burmese and Japanese all rolled into one. The colors of costumes and sets often sharply contradict each other, but this sort of confused and tacky orientalism is not entirely inconsistent with what Petipa, who has never traveled to the Far East himself, would have imagined anyway. The procession in Act I Scene 3, with three wagons, a huge tiger and dozens of dancers on stage, is simply a luxurious spectacle. The Theatre’s small stage (relative to the opulent set) makes some of the pas d’action look tighter than would be desirable. It is entirely possible that, with this being a German company after all, some of the corp de ballet dances are deliberately staggered out of line to increase safety margins. The costumes look gorgeous and meticulously handcrafted, and as they bask under the spotlight, the metallic paint on the gauzy costumes shimmers with majesty.

In the apotheosis scene, Solor, Nikiya and Gamzatti, wearing what seemed to be kimono pieces, reunit spiritually in heaven. That would contrast with the common ending (including the 1900 version in Petipa’s revival) where only Solor and Nikiya join in spirits. Mohri is perhaps addressing this contradiction where just a few minutes ago (in theater time) Solor is still conflicted between the two ladies, as evident in the sensual pas de trois. Nothing has been resolved, whether Solor’s flip-flopping, Nikiya’s murderous instincts or Gamzatti’s subsequent guilt. Could the angry gods let the temple collapse simply because resolution must still be forthcoming? The open-ended-ness deserves praise for its honesty and provides some food for thought. Dramaturgy aside, the effect is stunning, with the three characters moving upstage in white kimonos, imprinted with phoenix(?) pairs. Cloud effect consumes the stage. Minkus’ music draws to an apocalyptic, almost Wagnerian close. At that moment, time seems to have no relevance, and audience holds their collective breath till curtain falls.

Various casts took action on stage. Ksenia Ryzhkova was a capable Nikiya who dazzled with exceptional point work and stunningly efficient piqué turns. Other than an unfortunate fall at the very beginning of the February 16 performance, at the moment of Nikya and Solor’s rendezvous, Ryzhkova was outstanding and appeared more and more so as she found comfort in her surroundings. Ivy Amista danced two performances originally slated for Maria Shirinkina, who was a no show (though her husband, Vladmir Shklyarov, was). Amista was Munich’s prima Nikiya more than a decade ago and is well-liked in Bavaria. Her point work has lost some of its brilliance, and she looked tired towards the end of the shades scene. However, she made up with endearing expressiveness, not just with her body language but through that all-telling sparkle in her eyes.

Amista, Tatiana Tiliguzova and Prisca Zeisel shared duties as Gamzatti. All three were in fine form in the role. Tiliguzova had a natural edge with her deeply-chiseled face and, with a lone performance, plenty of reserves to accomplish energy-draining perfect lines and endless attitudes. On February 18, Zeisel fell off point as she attempted multiple double pirouettes after her fouettés in the Act I grand pas coda, but on the next day, probably as a result of sound advice, she took it easy with fluid, upright singles and received thunderous applause. Generous with her smiles, Zeisel carried grace and inner beauty. As a ballerina, her pirouettes were secure and solid, and her acting apt.

Osiel Goueno, Vladmir Shklyarov and Erik Murzagaliyev shared duties as Solor. Goueno jumped without fear, with exceptionally high cabrioles and silent landings. On different nights, he also managed different finishes in his Act I variation. While his barrel turns were technically marvelous, it was his jetés-saut-en attitude sequence that worked up the crowd. Shklyarov, who already has appeared as Solor in a televised Chabukiani/Zubrovsky staging for Mariinsky, shone with fine bravura technique and stage presence. Overall, Shklyarov was a more complete dancer with fine turns, airy jumps and, crucially, dependable partnership with his ballerina counterparts. His arched-back finish to his variations was simply iconic. The young Murzagaliyev had some good individual moments, but for the most part looked out of place in the presence of other dancers. His lifting and partnering techniques could surely improve. Golden Idol was danced by Jonah Cook and Alexey Popov. Cook finished each run with clinical perfection but lacked fearless ferocity, while Popov started his lone outing strong but lost steam in his final sequence of jumps and chaînés turns.

The epic moment of the ballet, of course, was the Kingdom of the Shades. 24 ballerinas descended the double-raked slope with grace and dignity. Towards the coda, and no matter how tired the ballerinas were, they managed to execute instances of temps levés in sync, as if two dozen of them were robe jumping together in perfect synchronization. Their tendus filed with compulsive precision, while their arm posed with beautiful alignment.

Maria Babanina, as music arranger, reworked some of the interludes at the margins to glue the piece, after cuts and additions, back together. The “oompah” style of Minkus, with no pun intended towards the Bavarians, was left in place here. Curiously, the entire music of Gamzatti’s Act I variation was rewritten, though it did not significantly impact the proceedings or the grace of the moment. The Hong Kong Philharmonic performed well below their desired level. Richard Bamping’s rendition of Nikiya’s cello music was absolutely divine, and single-handedly lifted the musical experience. Unfortunately, the solo violin obbligato lines, there to create morbid melancholy, were murdered alive, in utmost physical brutality in all of the five performances. As the violin struggled to hold on pitch, Solor and Nikiya’s finished their shades pas de deux, no matter how well-danced, without a deserved audience response, as if the audience was reacting also to the music. Michael Schmidtsdorff seemed to have a hard time modulating the orchestra’s pace even as circumstances on stage demanded such. As reasonably good as they are as a concert orchestra, there exists a long way before the Hong Kong Philharmonic could be considered a proficient ballet orchestra.


Kingdom of Shades, La Bayadere in Hong Kong. Credit: Charles Tandy via Hong Kong Arts Festival website.


Eugene Onegin

Date: March 17, 2014
Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.

Tatiana: Ke Lvwa
Onegin: Yuan Chenye
Lensky: Jin Zhengjian
Olga: Weng Jopei
Triquet: Lu Zhiquan

NCPA Orchestra and chorus
Valery Gergiev, conductor
Alexei Stepanyuk, director

In its 230-year history, the Mariinsky has never co-produced an opera with an Asian company. Until now.

Opening the 2014 NCPA Opera Festival was NCPA’s co-production with the Mariinsky of Eugene Onegin, which premiered last month at the new Mariinsky. The all-Russian cast at the premiere was here in Beijing to sing at the opening on March 14, while a fine line-up of local singers took over in the alternate evenings. Maestro Valery Gergiev conducted the resident orchestra at the NCPA.

Maestro Gergiev could not have found a better time to be away from his homeland, at a time when Russia was embroiled in its tussle with Ukraine over the Crimean peninsula. The audience in Beijing, with a significant Russian contingent, was protective and rabid in their reception of the maestro, even before a note has been played.

As the curtain drew up, hundreds of sharply colorful balls were littered and stationed perkily across the stage, as if saying that the place where these characters live is abundant with harvested crops and happy returns. A white swing was placed on stage right, where villagers would swing happily back and forth in their spare time, while a white table on stage left was where villagers would savor the fruits of their harvests. In director Alexei Stepanyuk’s vision, Tatiana’s world before Onegin’s rejection was one of simple pleasures, where sky was blue and fruits were plump and round. The costumes, by Irina Cherednikova, presented a civilized community where happiness was reflected in dress colors and plenty was the norm. Set designer Alexander Orlov seemed consciously ready to paint his props to reflect not just the lifestyles of his characters but, as the drama moves on, also the slippery slope of Onegin’s psyche that Pushkin so wished to project. The colorful garden scene soon gave way to Larina’s country house, with a more subdued, sandy white shade, and then to Gremin’s palace which was painted mostly in a rich but almost lifeless marble black. In the final scene, Onegin and Tatiana were standing in front of a black curtain, as if foretelling that there was nothing left between the two characters. When Onegin finally saw his fate, the curtain drew up, revealing an empty and dark stage with just enough light to illuminate fading puffs of smoke. In parallel was Onegin’s faded prospects and ultimate demise. This mechanism was a stroke of directorial genius, as if Stepanyuk was saying that the curtain of the eponymous character’s fate was finally revealed – one of nothingness. The rest of the curtain work was noteworthy: by drawing two curtains from either side at different speeds, and one curtain dropping behind them from atop, Stepanyuk was able to frame, like a camera shutter, the focus of each scene’s beginnings and endings, as if to intensify and focus on particulars of the drama. Especially poignant was the drawing down of the curtain at the end of Act II: when the orchestra scurried to a close, the curtains zoomed in on a hapless Onegin kneeling on stage left, intensifying Onegin’s singular moment of loneliness and guilt.

Alexei Stepanyuk’s production was not without flaws: it was not entirely obvious at which point Lensky turned from mild jealousy to intense rage, as it, together with Onegin’s flirtations with Olga, seemed to have happened in a split second. That hastiness seemed to rob the audience of quite possibly the most important dramatic turn in the opera. By utilizing those framing black curtains, the rest of the stage had to be set slightly upstage (about 10 meters from the pit), meaning that some of the singing was a little too far back and not ideal, especially in the vastness of the NCPA.

Jin Zhengjian, as Lensky, did not start well. In his duet with Weng Jopei’s Olga, his upper-middle registers struggled with noticeable breaks, and did not have enough vocal power to counteract Weng’s voice, which was not big to begin with. A slow start did not, however, ruin a fine end, as plenty was left in his vocal tank for his all-important Act II aria, which he rendered admirably. As a stage actor, Jin was dutiful but lacked some necessary fire to make him stand out as a dramatic lead. Yuan Chenye’s Onegin had no such stage presence issues, and his silky smooth timbre caressed Tchaikovsky’s phrases elegantly. He did find breathing problems in Onegin’s treacherous long phrases after Tatiana finally rejected him, leaving audible but forgivable gaping holes in his output. Relative newcomer Ke Lvwa, as Tatiana, had the moment of her life. Her portrayal was sincere without looking acted, occupied without looking self-indulgent. Her voice bloomed with a supple sweetness and her top was warm and secure. In the letter scene, her Tatiana was at different times giddy, hopeful, annoyed, and flushed with youthful love. Based on this performance alone, Ke should be on her way to international stardom. The Russian words from most of the singers sounded a little too artificially chewed, but that was to be expected from the all-Chinese cast. Lu Zhiquan, as Triquet, devastated his lines with questionable French diction not unlike Martin Yen mindlessly chopping vegetables, but as a stage actor Lu was loyally entertaining.

Maestro did magic with the orchestra, which, though not Mariinsky golden, sounded as good as ever. Gergiev’s phrasing of the Tchaikovsky score was mellow and smooth, like Fred Astaire skating on dance floor. The brass section, especially the horns, sounded obedient and delicate. In both the letter scene and Lensky’s aria, the oboe’s line floated with an inspired lyricism and tonal beauty. While no fire has been fired (so far) on the other side of the world in Crimea, I think Gergiev should unleash more musical fire from the upper strings, but overall the evening was a pleasurable one.

Alexei Stepanyuk's Onegin, in Beijing. Photo copyright: Mariinsky Theatre.

Alexei Stepanyuk’s Onegin: Act I, Scene 1. Photo copyright: Mariinsky Theatre.

Alexei Stepanyuk's Onegin, in Beijing. Photo copyright: Mariinsky Theatre.

Alexei Stepanyuk’s Onegin: Act II, Scene 2. Photo copyright: Mariinsky Theatre.

Alexei Stepanyuk's Onegin, in Beijing. Photo copyright: Mariinsky Theatre.

Alexei Stepanyuk’s Onegin: Act III, Scene 1. Photo copyright: Mariinsky Theatre.