The Hong Kong Ballet kicked off its 2014/15 season with the crowd-pleasing “Don Quixote” in the last two weekends of August. Just how the company chose the timing of the new season boggles my mind. Perhaps it was to coincide with the end of the summer and to provide some climatic excitement for families with kids just before the busy school term was about to start!
Along with the idiosyncratic timing of the new season, my mixed feelings about the previous Hong Kong Ballet gala put me in a kind of non-anticipatory mood when I was kindly given free tickets by a friend to see the performance. Why not? I thought. I hadn’t seen a ballet for a few months. Perhaps it would be good for me to leave the countryside once in a blue moon and head to town for a cultural event. But wait! When I found out that the famed former prima ballerina of the Bolshoi and the American Ballet Theater, Nina Ananiashvili, would be staging and doing additional choreography for the Hong Kong Ballet, my enthusiasm level shot right up!
Nina—as I’d fondly call her, partly because I find it almost impossible to pronounce her Georgian family name—is a ballerina whom I respect a great deal, not only for her artistry but for her idealism and her humility. In the Spring of 2009, I watched one of her last performances with the ABT. She danced Medora in Le Cosaire and received a standing ovation that seemingly lasted for eternity. The strong emotional bond between her and the audience was phenomenal.
About a year or two later, an American journalist friend of mine told me how he “fell in love” with this tiny, sweet and beautiful dancer with a touch of other-worldliness when he paid a visit to the Georgian National Ballet to write some travelogues for the Washington Post. At that time he had very little idea what ballet was, let alone who Nina was, and the great fame that she had enjoyed throughout her luminous career. But he was humbled when Nina personally came to greet him during her busy rehearsal in the studio and sat next to him in the audience to explain, very patiently and in a meek voice, the history of the theater and the story behind the ballet she was directing that evening. My friend also remembers a very tall, burly man standing near Nina, who turned out to be her husband. Needless to say, my friend was extremely jealous of this lucky man!
Well, back to the Hong Kong Ballet performance yesterday. Despite the fact that Nina was going to stage it, I wasn’t expecting too much of the dancers, having seen the lackluster performance in the last show. Even if she was staging the show, I thought, how could she turn the quality around so swiftly, especially given the fact that the Principal Dancer Jin Yao is currently pregnant and wouldn’t be able to dance the lead role, Kitri. Besides, I was going to the last performance and would be missing the performance of the guest artists as such Anna Tsygankova from the Dutch National Ballet and Matthew Golding from The Royal Ballet. So, I came into the theater with a relaxed attitude, not expecting too much.
Boy, was I in for a pleasant surprise! First off, the set in the opening scene was delightfully designed and the costumes “spoke” loudly on stage with saturated, solid and bright colors. The set and costume designer is Thomas Mika, a German designer who has collaborated with many ballet companies around the world. I’m not adept in the vocabulary of the fashion world, but to me, the costumes have a touch of the uber-modern, minimalistic clean look, with solid colors accentuated by dark or bright-colored trimmings. Very refreshing compared with the standard Don Q (old) fashion! The pace was extremely quick. Kitri appeared only a minute or so after the curtain rose, preceded by a short prelude with an animation projected on the curtain depicting Don Quixote and Sancho riding toward Barcelona.
The reduction of the three acts into two was Nina’s idea of creating a compact version that suits the taste and pace of the local audience. She is absolutely right in saying that the Hong Kong audience is used to a fast-paced life and tend to be generally impatient. So it was quite clever of her to cut all the “nonsense” and get to the heart of the ballet by introducing the main roles very quickly. In the matinee I went to, half of the audience members were little aspiring ballerinas sitting next to their moms or dads. The gasps and wows told me they were immediately hooked and impressed by the visual stunts performed by the dancers.
The ballerina playing the role of Kitri was Zhang Si-yuan, Soloist of the company, and the one dancing Basilio was Li Jia-bo, newly minted as Principal Dancer. I have seen them in supporting roles before but it was the first time to see them cast in lead roles. Zhang certainly made a strong entrance with her proud expression and big smile. Her balance in arabesques was especially impressive, and she executed all her jumps and pirouettes beautifully. Though a far cry from what Baryshnikov was able to offer—he being the best Basilio ever in my opinion—Li Jia-bo was solid in his technique and did pretty well in his expressions, considering most of the lead male dancers in this company I have seen recently to be rather awkward and stiff in this regard. A side note: Li reminds me of a Chinese movie megastar of my youth, Tony Leung Ka-Fai—he does have a pretty handsome, angular face with high cheek bones. What pleased me a great deal is the good stage chemistry the two dancers projected… the flirtations were especially well played out and the pas de deux exuded tender and joyous love. While the dancing was not as explosive as some of the best-paired Kitri and Basilio in ballet history, such as Cynthia Harvey and Baryshnikov and more recently, Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev, I wouldn’t complain about Zhang and Li’s performance. The same ballet was once performed on this stage at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre by the Bolshoi a few years ago, but I must say that I was rather disappointed with that one—a performance that did not truly live up to the big name. By contrast, the Hong Kong Ballet show this time was as good as it could get in terms of context and proportion.
Another side note on the Soloist Zhang herself. I was particularly pleased to see her acting skills. Her face is a delight to watch, with her big beaming eyes and round cheeks that symbolize the innocence of youth. She didn’t show any sense of doubt in her dancing. Rather, all I saw was an aura of confidence—a sign that she is ready to step up to the lead role when the opportunity arises. I can see great potential in her future. What also pleased me is her body shape, being well balanced and not paper thin and frail, which may be a body type more suitable for the role of a wilis, or Giselle. There was an article published in the local Chinese press giving compliments to her, comparing her more “desirable” body shape to those “sickeningly thin” ballerina types. The Hong Kong Ballet posted this critique on its Facebook page for a few hours when the article came out, but later deleted the second part. I suspect that the management felt it was not politically correct to include the negative remarks about thin ballerinas because there are plenty of them in the company and in the entire ballet world. For me, it is refreshing to hear the opposite of the kind of remarks once dumped on ex-ballerina of the New York City Ballet Jenifer Ringer, saying that she ate one sugar plum too many during her performance as the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker.
The supporting role Mercedes was danced by the native Hong Konger Sarah Yeung, a Corps member, and Espada was danced by the Dutch Coryphée member, Frank van Tongeren. Yeung gave a nice performance in this soloist role and exuded reasonably strong stage presence—not bad for someone who joined the company just four years ago. Van Tongeren did some flashy cape-twirling and jumps and was convincing as a torero with a great sense of pride.
What came off as the most surprising factor was the excellent teamwork among the corp members and the sense of joy and passion expressed in unison—a major departure from what I saw in the gala back in May. I can see a definite rise in the quality of their dance technique, musicality and artistry. Everyone was fully present and engaged, and was determined to give it their best. Here is where I can feel the artistic direction, the strict discipline and the care for details emanating from Nina.
There were a few things that I wasn’t quite satisfied with though. The compacted story line made it sometimes impossible for the drama to unfold in a natural pace, with leaps of logic in some of the critical moments, such as when Basilio feigned death, (too) shortly followed by the wedding scene, with Kitri’s father Lorenzo turning his angry disposition into a beaming face in a split of a second without a proper transition. The acting in these critical junctures was thus underdeveloped.
The use of castanets in two of Kitri’s variations and of tambourine in one was perhaps unnecessary. It would have been so much more exciting with the right use of those instruments, but alas, it wasn’t the case. Better skip them and let the orchestra do the real work instead. While they look simple, these two instruments are actually very tricky to perform with, especially when the dancer has to execute extremely demanding dance movements simultaneously.
The Queen of the Dryads scene was the most disappointing one. Corps member Gao Ge danced the Queen role and had a horribly stiff and nervous look on her face. There was absolutely no sense of joy in her dancing. Perhaps she was suffering from some sort of pain… any slight smile that was squeezed out felt strained. Cupid was danced by the Japanese Corps member Naomi Yuzawa. She was tiny and cute as Cupid, light in her footwork, but I noticed her supporting leg was not straight when she was doing the multiple piqué turns—a flaw that didn’t escape even this amateur dancer’s eyes.
The last thing I wish was a little different was the coda. It was a bit too long-winded in my opinion. If the ballet was to live up to Nina’s vision, it should have ended with the Grand Pas de Deux. What came afterwards was a bravura that gave a chance to everyone to show off their skills a few more times—most likely the original intent of Marius Petipa—but it just felt like the ballet was dragging on a bit too long in the context of this compacted format.
Nonetheless, I came out of the show feeling rejoiced. With many new bloods joining the Hong Kong Ballet this season, I think we’re going to see a company at the cusp of a real transformation. Hope the dancers can take Nina’s coaching and inspiration with them and keep up the good work.
Ballerina Nina Ananiashvili brings her vision of Don Quixote to Hong Kong (SCMP)
A Swan Takes Flight, Interview of Nina and Gregory by Paul Lieberman (L. A. Times Magazine)