Ballet and dance

HK Ballet: Don Quixote

Date: August 26 and 27, 2017
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Choreography by Marius Petipa and Alexander Gorsky, with additional choreography by Nina Ananiashvili

Kitri/Dulcinea: Iana Salenko
Basilio: Shen Jie (26), Wei Wei (27)
Mercedes: Yang Ruiqi
Espada: Li Lin
Don Quixote: Lucas Jerkander
Sancho Panza: Luis Cabrera
Lorenzo: Ricky Hu
Gamache: Jonathan Spigner
Kitri’s friends: Dong Ruixue, Naomi Yuzawa
Queen of the Dryads: Chen Zhiyao
Gypsy Baron/Tavern Keeper: Yuh Egami
Cupid: Law Lok Huen Tirion
Act III Bolero dancers: Shunsuke Arimizu, Lai Nok Sze Vanessa
Act III variations: Nana Sakai, Chaelee Kim

Hong Kong Ballet

Hong Kong Sinfonietta (orchestra)
Benjamin Pope (conductor)

Hong Kong Ballet opens its 2017/18 season with Petipa’s Don Quixote. With its unambiguous optimism and feel-good pleasantries, the ballet helps to ring in the company’s new era under its new Artistic Director Septime Webre. Much of the choreography is unmistakably Petipa’s and Gorsky’s, but Ananiashvili, who at Bolshoi was once an iconic Kitri herself, streamlines the storytelling by shaving away a great deal of original choreography, including much of Espada’s and a good deal of corps dances in the dream scene. Remaining faithful to Cervantes, Ananiashvili has left in place some non-dancing theatrical elements, such as Don Quixote’s unfortunate entanglement with the windmill or Sancho’s food stealing episode. The end result is a Don Quixote that offers a flowing storyline with the essential colorings of Petipa/Gorsky. The truncations, however, offer less opportunities for the corps to show off their goods, especially pointe work during the dream scene.

Leading both evenings as Kitri was Iana Salenko, a guest artist from Berlin. Salenko’s Kitri is fiery, fun and playful. Barely over five feet tall, Salenko’s small body frame allows her to move with seemingly no effort. Her great sense of musicality allowed her développés to unveil naturally, eventually reaching perfect alignments on beat. Her turns set ablaze the stage with intensity and focus, and her finishing steps were not only clean but well attuned to the corresponding melody. The only blemish on the August 26 performance was that she fell off pointe after her first few fouettés in the evening’s climax, but to her credit, even when the conductor did not seem willing to bend to her reduced velocity, she picked up speed out of sheer will and executed the rest of them admirably, if not, given the circumstances, flawlessly. In the August 27 performance, her ending pièce de résistance, packed with many doubles a few triples, was visually more stunning to watch, though as a whole she was more in form and gave more in the first performance than in the second.

Shen Jie on August 26 offered a mischievous Basilio, whose fake death prompted a delirium in the auditorium. His chaîné turns were swift and weightless, while his sautés found great reach and clean finish. He was a dependable lifter, and his single-armed lifts of Salenko prompted perhaps the loudest mid-ballet applauses in both evenings. Wei Wei on August 27 was not as outwardly dramatic. As a late replacement for Shen, who was originally scheduled to dance both evenings, Wei was seen moving slightly off the pace of Salenko when dancing with mirroring steps. Nevertheless, he has shown to be a reliable partner with good lifts and solid support, and, as the evening progressed, Salenko seemed more and more willing to entrust him to get the job done.

Li Lin’s Espada and Yang Ruiqi’s Mercedes had the right attitudes for their roles, but did not have nearly enough steps to allow the company soloist and coryphée, respectively, to fully shine. Lucas Jerkander’s Don was appropriately stolid throughout, while Luis Cabrera’s Sancho was comical without being whimsical. Jonathan Spigner showed superb comedic talents as Gamache, and could be seen applauding profusely after each of the variations in the wedding scene. He was enjoying the moment as much as the rest of us in the auditorium did. Chen Zhiyao’s Queen had shaky moments, especially at the beginning of her variation on August 26, but performed much better, and with more of the Queen’s lyrical classicism, a day later. Shunsuke Arimizu and Vanessa Lai showed a well-rehearsed pair of Bolero dancers, and provided the perfect evidence that even dance numbers that are frivolous to storytelling could be essential enhancements to the buffet galore that is Don Quixote. Nana Sakai and Chaelee Kim provided variety and additional flavorings during the grand pas, albeit with imperfections. Sakai was a bit rigid in her first evening, but seemed more relaxed in her second. Kim looked nervous and lacked jump height in both evenings, but arguably executed more cleanly in her second outing. As Kitri’s friends, the dedicated pair of Don Ruixue and Naomi Yuzawa, by having fine evenings deserving commendation, showed depth in the company corps. They had a full work load as they also danced the second act gypsy dances. Tirion Law offered a sunny and chirpy characterization of Cupid. Her arm alignments were elegant and natural, and her smile intoxicating. While she had some problems synchronizing her still alignments with her music’s rest beats, her solo performance as a whole was easily the most memorable, if not the best, among the corps.

The staging was minimal but had some interesting moments, including the opening scene where cartoon silhouettes depicting Don Quixote and Sancho were projected, as if they were readying a journey. Some stage direction should also be thought over: in the wedding scene, an extra showed up awkwardly at upstage right, right in the middle of the wedding group dance. For a while I was expecting something from her. Also, some props were placed so close to the center that they could easily chop off Basilio’s flights. The costumes were, for the most part, unattractive and forgettable. Hong Kong Sinfonietta was in the pit, led by guest conductor Benjamin Pope. The orchestra sounded well-balanced and lyrical: its surprisingly refined phrasings and buttery intonations were, alas, more Straussian (Johann) than Minkus. At times, the orchestra sounded like they were dabbling in some sappy music of Richard Heuberger, rather than the energetic vigor that is Minkus. Sparks did not fly. The rudder does not navigate itself; any such curious coloration (or lack thereof) must point to the navigator, i.e. Pope. To Pope’s credit, he moved the drama flowingly, perhaps in deference to the modified choreography, but on few occasions, the music would pick up abruptly, with the dancers barely finishing their bows and being rushed awkwardly offstage.

Don Quixote. Photo credit: Conrad Dy-Liacco/HK Ballet.

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Ballet and dance

HK Ballet: 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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