Ballet and dance

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.

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Ballet and dance

Geneva Ballet: Romeo and Juliet

Date: July 21, 2013
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Choreography by Joëlle Bouvier

Geneva Ballet

The story of Romeo and Juliet has been retold in different contexts, perhaps unusually daringly, if not also effectively, in Baz Luhrmann’s Hollywood flick featuring Leo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. But Luhrmann sets the romance in contemporary New York. In Geneva’s version, the scenery and costumes remain unattributed to any time and space, in stark contrast to Kenneth MacMillan’s formal realism seen a few months back on the same stage. The set, built by Rémi Nicolas and Jacqueline Bosson, includes almost nothing but a curved ramp, spanning the entire width of the stage, that reveals neither a time in history nor a specific location. When Juliet ascends back to her balcony, she would tiptoe nervously up the ramp like a cat climbing up a creaky plank. Towards the end of the ballet, Romeo is seen pulling Juliet repeatedly up the ramp, as if to steal her away from the devil, only to then see her body haplessly rolling back to the bottom and into a deadly still. The ramp effectively serves as an agnostic stand-in for anything that requires elevation, whether physical (the balcony) or metaphorical (the distance between life and death). Romeo fails to pull Juliet’s body repeatedly, in a seemingly Sisyphean task — in the midst of Prokofiev’s tomb music — only to reinforce the brutality of the inevitable awaiting the pair. One could almost hear children in the audience gasping in sorrow, as if ready to implore the protagonist to wait a few more minutes.

Joëlle Bouvier’s choreography is modern ballet, where dancers keep their point shoes in the locker. Sara Shigenari’s Juliet moved with bare feet and never on pointe, while Armando Gonzalez’s Romeo didn’t tour jete into a stately arabesque. The unconventional lifts and rapid motions in Bouvier’s choreography are not strictly speaking classical ballet material, but Bouvier’s lavish use of muscular movements to alternately depict physical strength and emotional fragility ultimately is, perhaps more. By stripping the technical formalities of classical ballet as well as the formal aesthetics of period sets and costumes, Bouvier asserts the use of muscular energy and curving body lines as not only the ultimate expressive medium but her preferred means of responding to Prokofiev’s magnificent score, prerecorded and played over loudspeaker. In the balcony pas de deux, the bodies of Shingenari and Gonzalez slowly accordion-ed from distance to embrace, ultimately curving into each other with youthful passion but never overt eroticism. Vladimir Ippolitov was sincere and playful as Mercutio, though his great fight scene with Tybalt was irritatingly mismatched with Juliet’s decidedly unprovocative mandolin music. Loris Bonani’s Tybalt set ablaze the stage with a volcano of fiery anger, and his unconventional duel with Romeo, bare-fisted and without swords, was like two bulls locked in a tight horn fight: it was surely not the chosen method of settling scores between the two noble houses, but the armor-less fight punched with real energy and emotion, not unlike the bloody, chilling parallel in Luhrmann’s efficient version. In the end, Bouvier’s vision remains faithful to the man from Avon. Equally importantly, it was every bit as faithful to the designs of love, violence and death as love, violence and death have ever been.

Geneva Ballet in Hong Kong

Geneva Ballet in Hong Kong.

Geneva Ballet in Hong Kong

Geneva Ballet in Hong Kong.

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Ballet and dance

ABT: Romeo and Juliet

Date: February 27 to March 3, 2013
Location: The Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

February 27: Roberto Bolle and Hee Seo
February 28: Marcelo Gomes and Polina Semionova
March 1: Cory Stearns and Paloma Herrera
March 2 (matinee): Roberto Bolle and Polina Semionova
March 2: Herman Cornejo and Xiomara Reyes
March 3 (matinee): Alexandre Hammoudi and Hee Seo
March 3: Cory Stearns and Paloma Herrera

American Ballet Theatre

Hong Kong Sinfonietta (orchestra)
Charles Barker (all dates except February 28), David LaMarche (February 28) (conductors)

ABT has presented Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet for what seems like an eternity. Despite its age, Nicholas Georgiadis’s scenery and costumes remain pictorially perfect, like a fresh Canaletto townscape. While this realism leaves little for the imagination, this Romeo and Juliet aims to shock and awe through scenes after scenes of impressionable visual beauty.

On close up, the props and scenery show signs of age. Visually, the traveling set seems slightly smaller than the one used at the Met, especially in the upstage balcony areas. The stage width also seems slightly narrower than the one at the Met, making the ballroom scene feel a little squeezed, though ABT’s dancers moved, kicked and spun about with no signs of spatial congestion. The costumes, some of which dated back to ABT’s original premiere at the Kennedy Center some three decades ago, do not look its age, thanks in part to ABT’s current program to replace some of these dated wear, but mostly due to the expertise and meticulous upbringing of the Bruce Horowitz-led wardrobe department.

This MacMillan/Georgiadis endeavor focuses as much on dance as it does on acting. Choreography here becomes not just an art of coordinating dance movements but also a craft of managing a monstrous flow of non-ballet dancing actors. In the Act I and II market scenes, characters weave in and out of the stage in a complex array of motion, with traffic always nearby but never in the way of others. In the fight scenes, real épées whisk about in quick fury, with a hovering danger of actually hurting someone. In one evening, Sascha Radetsky, as Tybalt, was bloodied in his Act II fight scene, and, on more than one occasion, the épée simply snapped on stage. In big dance routines, coordination with Prokofiev’s orchestral moments remains paramount. When Prokofiev suggests death and the person is still lingering alive on stage, something becomes disconnected. The intricate tapestry of motion and action is the hallmark of this production. There may be occasional aberrations, but for much of the past thirty years this has been the same, day in and day out, thanks much to the in-house ballet masters and mistresses. ABT’s seven performances in Hong Kong were mostly identical in style and tone, differing only in sentimentality as the two principals offered their own renditions within MacMillan’s interpretative framework.

Five Romeos and four Juliets shared duties over seven performances. In the opening performance, Hee Seo was not even supposed to be there: she replaced Julie Kent, who was injured. Seo’s pinch-hit was remarkable because she just a few nights ago danced the demanding lead role, twice, in The Leaves Are Fading. Seo’s Juliet (Feb. 27; Mar. 3 mat) brimmed with a fountain of youth, whether making music for her friends during the mandolin dance or clowning around with her nurse. Her carefully placed emotions – from an Act I Juliet still reeling from the fresh taste of love to an Act III Juliet resolute in planning her faked death – demonstrated her maturity not just as a dancer but as a serious dramatic actor. A smooth dancer, Seo moved on stage like a marble rolling in melted butter.

What made Polina Semionova a special Juliet (Feb. 28; Mar. 2 mat) was that when she danced, she also presented a master class in the artistry of lines at rest and in motion. The arching of her body was a thing of wonder; her pointe work, always rapid but modest, looked like rain droplets kissing spring meadows. As a dramatic actor, Semionova had a clear sense of where her audience was. Without directly addressing downstage, her young Juliet would frequently start opening up towards her audience, only to recoil in shy humility, as if confessing bits, rather than the entirety, of her coyness.

Paloma Herrera and Xiomara Reyes were two reliable Juliets. Herrera’s Juliet (Mar. 1 and 3) was dramatically eloquent, whether radiating a childish happiness in front of her nurse or emoting horror in front of Paris. Her eyes, full of expressiveness, suggested a Juliet with boundless imagination. Reyes was brisk in movement and measured at rest. Her Juliet (Mar. 2) was characterized with such frailty that made one want to shelter her right away.

Roberto Bolle danced two performances as Romeo (Feb. 27; Mar. 2 mat). Bolle was a strong dancer with sturdy landings; in Bolle’s muscular arms, Seo and Semionova were airy and weightless. Bolle’s Romeo retained an air of gentle innocence even as the weight of Montague nobility consumed him. When Rosaline declined his advances, he responded with a dovish smile, as though nothing so trivial could possibly unnerve him. The Bolle-Semionova pair stood out because they proved to be proficient and naturally at ease with their routines, and when their bodies contacted, they found mutual reliance. Their final pas de deux was properly desperate and committed. The high level of artistry catalyzed the rest of the cast, which responded with a heightened focus and geared-up energy levels.

Gomes started his performance (Feb. 28) with heavy landings and awkward breaths, but recovered soon enough to deliver a serviceable balcony pas de deux. He seemed more at ease from then on, though neither dazzling nor suffocating. Cory Stearns’s boyish good looks undid him: he appeared too readily flummoxed by Rosaline’s rejection, and looked more confused than vengeful in his fight with Tybalt at the end of Act II. At times, Stearns (Mar. 1 and 3) looked like he was more infatuated than in love with Juliet. Dramatics aside, Stearns was a reliable performer, with brisk turns and mind-boggling elevation. His long arms also allowed him to lift Herrera with grace and clarity. Hammoudi (Mar. 3 mat) did not look at ease from the beginning, but calmed down enough to deliver a sultry performance with Seo in their balcony scene. In their respective pas de deux, Gomes’ performance was athletic and buoyant; Stearns’ was clinical and fluid; and Hammoudi’s was beautifully asphyxiating.

Finally, there was Herman Cornejo (Mar. 2). His aerials were superb and effortless, and his steps were steady and clean. Most spectacularly, his pirouettes were always executed with stunning velocity and a crisp finish. The pairing of Cornejo and Reyes, like that of Bolle and Semionova, was a revelation. Delicate and expressive, they didn’t merely dance the steps of Romeo and Juliet, but breathed the two Veronians as if their own. The pair seemed intoxicated by each other in both pas de deux, and when they looked at each other, their eye contact seemed tender and intuitive. Any spontaneous eruption of emotion was readily received and absorbed by the other partner, like two soul-mates in an intimate conversation. These two were also most attuned to Prokofiev’s music, always in fine synchronization.

The rest of the cast was solid. Daniil Simkin nailed his Benvolio steps without breaking a sweat, but always looked like he didn’t care too much for the role. Craig Salstein played a fiendishly fun-loving Mercutio who seemed destined to be betrayed by his wit and provocations. Susan Jones was vastly impressionable as Juliet’s nurse: when Capulet rejected her plea to alleviate Juliet’s circumstances in Act III, her display of dejection and helplessness was poignant and entirely believable. With Prokofiev’s brass raging furiously, it was only appropriate that Stella Abrera, as Lady Capulet bemoaning Tybalt’s death, went dramatically overboard in that short but consequential bit at the end of Act II.

The Hong Kong Sinfonietta had little feel for Prokofiev’s score. As the ancient grudge on that fair day in Verona broke into mayhem and Prokofiev’s music was supposed to soar with an apocalyptic urgency, the Sinfonietta barely nudged an impact. Mistakes littered throughout the seven performances, sometimes repeatedly and often deadly, in crucial moments such as the soaring trumpets at Tybalt’s death, the fast trumpet articulations at the beginning of Act II, and the horns at Capulet’s tomb. The mandolin dance, lacking bite, was anemic and unpersuasive. It was understandable that some dancers, already having danced in this production for the umpteenth time, put themselves in cruise-control mode, but it was simply unconscionable that the pit could not raise their game, never mind inspire those on and off stage.

Hee Seo, in Romeo and Juliet.

Hee Seo, in Romeo and Juliet. Photo copyright: the American Ballet Theatre.

Romeo and Juliet. Photo copyright: the American Ballet Theatre.

Romeo and Juliet. Photo copyright: the American Ballet Theatre.

Romeo and Juliet. Photo copyright: the American Ballet Theatre.

Romeo and Juliet. Photo copyright: the American Ballet Theatre.

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