La Bayadère

Date: February 16, 17, 18m, 18e, 19, 2017 (all five performances attended and reviewed as one)
Company: Bayerisches Staatsballett
Choreography: Patrice Bart, after Marius Petipa
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

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)

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.

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

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.

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

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.

La Bayadere

Date: April 11, 2013
Company: Romanian National Ballet
Choreography: Mihai Babuşka, after Marius Petipa
Location: Bucharest National Opera House, Bucharest.

The first brick for the Bucharest National Opera House, which currently houses Romania’s national ballet company, was laid in the early 50s. By then, however, Romania’s ballet foundation has been set. In 1929, Vera Karalli, formerly of Ballets Russes, took over as ballet mistress and instilled its free-flowing vocabulary into Romania. La Bayadere is not a product of Ballets Russes, but the dancing reveals some of those roots. Bianca Fota seemed occasionally troubled by the precise steps of Nikiya, especially the difficult pique turns and multiple pirouettes. But her dancing was sensual and free-flowing, and when she arched back, as if to receive the sky, her body would curve like a silk scarf flying in mid-air. Gigel Ungureanu’s steps were confident and brisk, but neither the lascivious body curvatures of Fota nor the sweet smiles of Mihaela Soare’s Gamzatti seemed to engage him dramatically. In general, the ballerinas outshined the male dancers, as is the case for Romania’s another prized asset: gymnastics. The showcase triplets executed with good rhythm and smooth finish, but one wonders why the entire country of Romania, with its endless streams of fine gymnastic Olympians, had to rely on a Japanese trio of Rin Okuno, Sena Hidaka and Maki Shirase, good and dependable as they may be, to stage a ballet as quotidian as La Bayadere.

La Bayadere, Bucharest

La Bayadere, Bucharest.

La Bayadere

Date: April 5, 2013
Company: Royal Ballet
Choreography: Natalia Makarova, after Marius Petipa
Location: Covent Garden, London.

The Royal Ballet opens its spring season with La Bayadere, Marius Petipa’s Indian-themed gem. Alina Cojocaru, originally headlined as Nikiya, was forced to withdraw due to an unspecified injury. In her replacement was Roberta Marquez, the Company’s principal who appeared with a hint of nervous hesitation and the unease of a school child in her maiden school bus ride alone. Her physical body exposed more of that unpreparedness, especially when she was going from double to single pointe during the basket dance. But her sensual expressiveness saved her, and whatever the physical imperfections might suggest, her face seemed genuinely ready to receive Solor with an uninhibited abandon. As the evening wore on, the liberty with which Marquez afforded her body movements was in striking contrast to the picture-perfect but emotionally more subdued lines that Cojocaru is known to achieve. Opposite Marquez was Federico Bonelli, who attained exceptional forward speed in elevation without compromising the fluidity of his movements. As Solor, Bonelli seemed smarter and more calculated than the sort of man who schizophrenically flip-flopped between his two love interests. That leads to Marianela Núñez’s Gamzetti. Núñez was an incredible dancing wonder, who let loose her swelling stage influence with fiery pirouettes and confident jetes. Yet it was her sweet and radiant smile that won over the audiences, never mind any inkling of her as a potential steward of malice. The drum routine filled with energy, and showcased just how good the male corps at the Royal Ballet can be. The 24-strong shades moved gracefully and in unison, though as the evening moved to a perfect close, one wonders what if the Royal Ballet followed Bolshoi’s lead to file 32 dancers in an even more  luxurious rendition of the shades?

Roberta Marquez, in Royal Ballet's La Bayadere

Roberta Marquez, in Royal Ballet’s La Bayadere.