Ballet and dance

HK Ballet: Swan Lake

Date: October 25, 2019
Company: Hong Kong Ballet
Choreography: John Meehan, after Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Siegfried: Chan Chun Wai
Queen: Wang Qingxin
Act 1 pas de quatre: Gao Ge, Kim Eunsil, Li Lin, Shen Jie
Von Rothbart: Garry Corpuz
Odette/Odile: Ye Feifei
Big Swans: Jessica Burrows, Gao Ge, Wang Qingxin, Zhang Xuening
Little Swans: Kim Eunsil, Peggy Lai, Amber Lewis, Yang Ruiqi
Russian Princess: Vanessa Lai
Neapolitan Princess: Kim Eunsil
Escort of Neapolitan Princess: Shen Jie
Hungarian Princess: Jessica Burrows
Spanish Princess: Zhang Xuening

Hong Kong Sinfonietta
Faycal Karoui, conductor

 

Hong Kong Ballet’s 19/20 season continues with ballet’s ultimate romantic classic, Swan Lake, in a choreography by John Meehan. Chan Chun Wai, a Guangdong-born principal at The Houston Ballet, guest starred as the Prince, while Ye Feifei, Hong Kong Ballet’s principal, starred as Odette/Odile. Chan’s incredible lower body strength, primed for gorgeous fouettés, enabled the gyroscopic madness that he unleashed towards the end of Act 3. Technically, Chan is a master of his trade: his jetés were springy and swift, with airborne time maximized at the split and landing as soft as feather touching the ground. His acting, which by no means is faulty or inadequate, could benefit a great deal more by shaping his arms (and fingers!) with more artistic acumen. Ye Feifei was more expressively convincing as Odile than as Odette – her black swan was fiery, almost cunning, while her white swan seemed more ready to feign than to ooze pain and suffering. Technically, Ye Feifei was masterful, with full control of the repertory steps, and was mindful of her lines in front of the audience. Disaster loomed when her Act 3 pirouettes started slowly – and certainly not helped by the doubles that she planned to do and did anyway – but she willed her way to the rest of them, accelerating with great core strength and, perhaps more critically, even greater mental determination. Her feat was wildly applauded, and deservedly so.

Shen Jie began the evening horrendously in the Act 1 pas de quatre – a set piece not particularly difficult for either of the men, but one that, if Meehan’s concoction was to be visibly pleasing, required synchronization of the both of them, especially when both were doing tours. Shen Jie landed nearly all of his tours late, with *horrors* slanting shoulders, and he seemed visibly dazed at the end of the pas de quatre sequence. His performance as the escort of Kim Eunsil’s Neapolitan Princess in Act 3 was much more artistically pleasing, flanked and assisted by Kim’s flowing body lines and picture-perfect turns – so much so that the stage chemistry between the escort and princess overshadowed, and perhaps even violated, the story line of a princess attempting to woo a disinterested prince, not a princess smitten all over her escort. Amidst all that obfuscation of the story line, and a choreography that felt rather deflated and uninspired when juxtaposed against the combustible trumpets in the pit, Kim stood out as a dancer equipped with both technical prowess and artistic sensibility, and ready for greater roles to come.

The little swans quartet of Kim Eunsil, Peggy Lai, Amber Lewis, Yang Ruiqi was probably the luxury casting – and highlight – of the evening, with each of them absolutely focused, and all of them moving as one body. Synchronized neck bends, balancés in simple harmony – no minute details were left unattended. Vanessa Lai, as Russian princess, gave a fine performance that was, alas, obscured by her escorts who were busy turning and jumping themselves all around her. The number as a whole felt under-rehearsed, with the male escorts lacking both full awareness of their spatial relationships with each other and commitment in their steps. Jessica Burrows, returning to the Company in a prominent role after a short sabbatical, was a fine, passionate Hungarian princess. Zhang Xuening, as Spanish princess, hinted ever so slightly, with her crowd-pleasing performance, that she was mature enough as a dancer to carry the Company as Kitri.

The Hong Kong Sinfonietta gave a mixed performance. The violin solos were fantastic, as was the trumpet’s crisp double-tonguing lunacy in the Neapolitan dance. But overall, the pit felt sleepy for much of Act 1, and when rhythms and energy finally picked up thereafter, the orchestra sounded under-motivated.

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Ballet and dance

HK Ballet: Wheeldon, Ratmansky, McIntyre

Date: June 2, 2018
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Ratmansky – Le Carnaval des Animaux
Wheeldon – Rush
McIntyre – A Day in the Life

The penultimate performance of the Hong Kong Ballet’s 17/18 season, in the evening of June 2, was notable more for a teary-eyed video tribute to Liang Jing, the Company’s retiring senior ballet master, than for the dancing. That was not to say the dancing was sub-par – on the contrary, much joy could be culled from tidbits of individual performances throughout the evening. On the whole, however, the evening’s triple bill of modern choreography labored steadfastly forward like a transcontinental train without generating the sort of blood-boiling excitement one would find in a roller coaster. Both the Ratmansky and the Wheeldon were previously staged by the Company; only McIntyre was newly premiered. In the Ratmansky, Liu Miaomiao sported with precision and rampage as Elephant, while Li Lin and Jonathan Spigner, as Horses, approached their steps with rhythmic clarity. But Gao Ge’s Swan, while technically faultless, did not sway the audience with emotional impact. In Wheeldon’s Rush, last-minute substitutes Chen Zhiyao and Wei Wei danced gloriously in perfect partnership. Chen’s still lines brimmed with elegance, while Wei Wei’s supporting work was rock solid. Their pas de deux would have been perfect had Wei Wei been more conscientious of his stance, which tended to turn-in like an ugly duckling. A Day in the Life offered perhaps what would be the emotional high water mark of the evening. Set against 13 Beatles songs, McIntyre’s choreography adhered to the rhythmic and melodic tendencies, rather than the lyrical meaning of the music. Eight dancers shared duties more or less equally, but highlights belonged to Li Jiabo and Xia Jun. To the music of Mother Nature’s Son, Li Jiabo swamped the stage with energy, generated chiefly from the strength of his core and leg work. Xia Jun danced to Wild Honey Pie, an experimental piece by McCartney that lasted barely over a minute. But what a minute that was. Xia Jun unleashed a voracious tornado of power through powerful limb work, especially his arms. Swift movements that brought his arms from a stretched position to over his chest and back punched with rhythmic sensation. The volume of the soundtrack was either amplified slightly to match Xia’s solo fervor, or his tremendous effort was perceived to have amplified the ambient track. Xia’s performance in this evening alone should guarantee his place as a premier dancer of the Company. The rest of the cast was also good: Chen Zhiyao and Liu Miaomiao showed their more chirpy side dancing to the snappy Beatles tunes, while Yang Ruiqi danced with the sort of White Cat-like spirit that enlivened the auditorium. But the evening as a whole lacked intricate choreography worthy of lasting imprint in the memory; nor was there a long build-up that would mirror the grand pas in the classical repertory (Balanchine’s Stars and Stripes, as an example, would have offered that sort of climactic bookend). In the end, that grand pas finale belonged to Liang Jing, who would depart after more than two decades of service – as dancer and as ballet master – to the Company. Four former and current artistic directors, as well as many dancers, lavished their praises in the video tribute, but the most personal tribute came from Madeleine Onne. Her voice, nearly cracking with poignant melancholy, expressed her gratitude to Liang with sincerity and sensitivity. As she sang the praises of Liang’s devotion, plenty in the audience nodded in agreement. That was perhaps that singular oomph moment missing in the programming.

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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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