Hong Kong Ballet’s Pinocchio Exceeds Expectation

Pinocchio curtain call

The performance of Pinocchio by the Hong Kong Ballet earned enthusiastic applause from the audience.

Last Saturday I had a most enjoyable afternoon watching “Pinocchio,” a brand new production by the Hong Kong Ballet that marked both the start of the company’s 2015 fall season and the world première of the ballet itself. I almost didn’t go, as the previous couple of programs by the company made me close to lose faith in its future productions. Luckily, a review by art critique Carla Escoda in Backtrack and her personal recommendation with a simple urge, “Go!” made me change my mind. I am so glad I did purchase the tickets after all, as the production was anything but a disappointment. In fact, the highly creative elements—the engaging acting, the beautiful dancing, the fitting and grand musical score, the wonderful orchestral performance and the sophisticated and expensive costumes, lighting and set design—combined to give me an impression that this production was top-notch and meticulously put together, resulting in a strong emotional impact disguised in a child’s play. Instead of finding myself noticing flaws and yawning from time to time, my senses were delighted and I found myself pleasantly surprised again and again during the entire performance.

HKBallet_Pinocchio_PromoPhotoThe ballet started with a good pace, with a quick introduction by the Cricket (danced by Dong Ruixue) to the opening scene. The lack of a prelude as in other classical story ballets is a plus for today’s impatient audience, especially since an important target audience of this ballet are children. The lighthearted score by Italian composer Ottorino Respighi blends extremely well with the storytelling, putting the audience right into the mood for a series of intriguing adventures to unfold.

I laughed when a three-year-old seated next to me screamed to her mother, “I’m scared, let’s go home!” when the piece of pine wood from which Pinocchio would emerge arrived at the home of Geppetto (danced by Li Lin). Isn’t this ballet supposed to be made for children? Oh wait! Very soon, the kid calmed down and was engaged by the storytelling. The entrance of Pinocchio, danced by Hong Kong Ballet’s new soloist from Italy, Vittorio Galloro, who made his début with the company in this matinee performance, made a strong impression on me as his clumsy and stiff movements convincingly resembled that of a wooden puppet and the costume was masterfully designed to give the illusion of bulkiness and inflexibility.

Gradually, Pinocchio learned to move in a smoother fashion and then picked up a few dance steps. I don’t know how many others in the audience felt the way I did, but I could actually relate to this as I reminisce on how I initially picked up ballet steps when I started to take lessons as an adult!

Almost too quickly though, Pinocchio was given a book by Geppetto to head to school, and the audience most likely did not catch the transition well enough to make out the emotional development between the boy and his “father.” But given the fact that the complex original story had to be told in two acts with 20 different scenes, some of the nuances in transitions were sacrificed.

Jessica Burrows as Columbina, Xia Jun as Arlecchino, Hong Kong Ballet Dancers as Marionettes | Photographer: Tony Luk  Shen Jie as Pinocchio, Hong Kong Ballet Dancers as Marionettes | Photographer: Tony Luk

The next scene depicts a fantastically executed commedia dell’arte scene as observed by the wide-eyed Pinocchio at a marionette theater. The neo-Baroque music beautifully threads together the movements of the masked marionettes, with a clearly defined plot featuring the classical characters of the Arlecchino (Shen Jie), Arlecchina (Arianne Lafita Gonzalvez, also a new soloist of the company this season), Columbina (Jessica Burrows) and Pietro (Gong Yi Wen). At the end of the theatrical performance, Pinocchio went to join the puppets and released their hands from the ropes that tied them. To me, this act took on a profound philosophical tone. I am not sure if it was intended or not by the Swedish choreographer Pär Isberg. What came to my mind was the liberation of the slaves from their semi-conscious/zombie state, and Pinocchio suddenly became the hero as the puppets became aware of their freedom and independence! According to the story line, he took part in the performance, which earned him some gold coins from the theater director. Here I find a lapse in logic as Pinocchio is supposed to have done something naughty (selling his book to buy the theater ticket and forgetting the purpose of going to school). But I find him all the more likable for his heroic deed!

Li Lin as Fox, Shen Jie as Pinocchio and Liu Miao-miao as Cat | Photographer: Tony Luk

The next scene, featuring the Blind Cat (Vanessa Lai) and the Fox (Xia Jun), contains my favorite solo numbers. I was particularly impressed with the performance of Hong Kong-born Vanessa Lai, whose talent is obviously appreciated despite having only been in the company for two years (as apprentice and then as corps member). Her nimble movements reflect that of a cat so very well, with a tinge of sensuality and humor. Her pas de deux with Xia Jun was seamless and entertaining. And I really loved the backdrop showing the trees with Photographer: Tony Lukgolden coins! Kudos to the incredibly talented painter Jordi Castells from Spain. The plot of this scene was clearly played out, leaving no doubt in the audience’s mind with regards to what was happening. One can’t  help but feel pity for the wooden boy for being duped by these two cunning characters.

Starting from the next scene on, I had difficulty making out what happened that eventually led Pinocchio into such agony that called for the rescue of the kind-hearted Blue Fairy (Liu Maio-miao). In fact, the whole rationale behind the elongation of Pinocchio’s nose was not clearly expressed. It is understandable that certain details of the story do not lend themselves well to expression by dance movements, but even so, here is where I found the weakest part of the ballet. The transition was contrived and confusing, to say the least. The role of the Blue Fairy is not very strong either. Fortunately, the character was saved by the graceful dancing of Dong Ruixue, who exerted a calming energy throughout.

Shen Jie as Pinocchio and Hong Kong Ballet Dancers as Schoolmates | Photographer: Tony Luk  Shen Jie as Pinocchio, Jonathan Spigner as Lampwick, Ricky Hu as The Coach Man and Hong Kong Ballet Dancers as Schoolmates | Photographer: Conrad Dy-Liacco

The Land of Candy and Play scene made me laugh so much as the slim and muscular dancers suddenly appeared with gigantic stomachs at the verge of explosion! That was the result of ingesting too many giant-sized candies, another thing that triggered my laughter. How perfectly this Felliniesque scene depicts our time—the mindless addiction to all things sugary, until everybody goes into a trance without realizing the harmful effects on the mind and body. Of course, this is also my own interpretation,  a social commentary that wasn’t perhaps intended? Who knows! Something to ponder upon after the giggles.

Shen Jie as Pinocchio and Hong Kong Ballet Dancers as sea creatures | Photographer: Kitmin Lee

The underwater scene in the second act was the highlight in terms of the set design. Kudos to Bo-Ruben Hedwall, a set designer with extensive experience working for Swedish Television. It was so sophisticated that at times, it boggled the mind how the scenes were produced. For adults and children alike, the characters of all the sea animals—jelly fish, turtles, starfish, seahorses and little fishes—were all lovable. Liu Yu-yao as Cricket and Hong Kong Ballet Dancers | Photographer: Tony LukThe costume design by Jérôme Kaplan really excelled in this scene, although it is equally sophisticated and flamboyant in the other characters, especially the Cricket. Later on when Pinocchio found himself in the ocean waves looking for his lost father, the beautiful flowing blue fabrics weaved together a marvelous sight to behold. It gave me yet another Felliniesque flashback—one from the powerful, risqué and odd tale of Casanova.

The final scene with the score from Respighi’s  “The Pines of Rome” was nothing short of dramatic, and rightly so as we witnessed Pinocchio’s transformation into a human being after having learned the earthly lessons of what it means to be human—through being “naughty” and experiencing everything from deception, gluttony to betrayal, his triumph in rescuing and reconciling with his father ultimately made the audience’s hearts melt.

What I love about this ballet is that any bravura steps were not executed simply to impress. For example, when Pinocchio made his high jumps, he did them deliberately with a lack of precision sometimes to show that he was still mastering his movements in his adaptation to a human body. In a way, this takes the pressure off the dancer from the stereotypical demand for perfection and puts the focus on the storytelling itself.

Vittorio Galloro was tremendously engaging as a dancer and actor. Congratulations to him for a brilliant début! I certainly look forward to more of his performance with the company in the future.

I think the captivating power of the Pinocchio ballet lies in the emotional message in it—not so much the moralistic rendition of the Disney version of the tale, that telling lies leads to punishments and regrets, and a good child must be honest; but more about our ability to transcend and grow into our fullest potentials.

Like Pinocchio, every one of us goes through life with all its fascinating, gratifying, ecstatic, fearful, unpleasant and dark moments, yet we are not stuck in one state or another. Life keeps moving, and as long as we keep on exploring for ourselves and learn the lessons along the way, we will grow into who we are truly meant to be. The transformation of Pinocchio into a full-fledged human gives us a glimpse of that non-dying hope for humanity.

Hong Ballet's "Pinocchio" - Backdrop Painting by Jordi Castells

Backdrop Painting by Jordi Castells

Having led the Hong Kong Ballet for six years, Artistic Director Madeleine Onne from Sweden has finally created an original ballet that Hong Kong can be proud of. Sure, one can argue that it is a largely Swedish production with a strong Italian theme. But with the participation of local talents, such as Ava Mok working on props and Billy Chan working on lighting, as well as dancers from Hong Kong, mainland China and around the world, this production represents the international spirit of the city in its best light. I hope Pinocchio is not a one-time affair but have a chance to tour overseas and surprise the world what a high-calibre ballet company Hong Kong possesses. Rather than keep on producing the same-old, same-old classical ballets, why not devote more time to creating something original like this? Of course, a production like Pinocchio probably costs millions of dollars to create. But this is certainly a step in the right direction if the company is to do something worthwhile—something that will make a strong artistic imprint in the world.

Media articles on Pinocchio:

Hong Kong Ballet unveils a sumptuous and sophisticated Pinocchio (Bachtrack)

Hong Kong Ballet reinvents classic fairy tale Pinocchio (Preview by SCMP)

Interview: Choreographer Pär Isberg – Pinocchio (Time Out HK)

Review: Hong Kong Ballet’s Pinocchio has great dancing, costumes and sets, but is let down by score (Review by SCMP)

Photo credits: Except for the top and bottom photos, all are by Hong Kong Ballet’s commissioned photographers, Tony Luk, Conrad Dy-Liacco and Kitmin Lee.

Les Sylphides and More by Hong Kong Ballet

The Hong Kong Ballet ended its season with a mixed bill in the past three days. On the program was its Guest Principal Dancer Tan Yuan Yuan, whom I just couldn’t resist seeing. She had two numbers on the program, both being contemporary pas de deux with her long-time partner Damian Smith, who has recently retired from his principal role at San Francisco Ballet.

Dancer: Hong Kong Ballet Soloist, Liu Yu-yao; Photography: Chi Wai & Keith Hiro

Dancer: Hong Kong Ballet Soloist, Liu Yu-yao; Photography: Chi Wai & Keith Hiro

First, an assessment of the title program, “Les Sylphides.” Choreographed by Michel Fokine and originally staged in 1909, the ballet features a collection of Chopin’s most known piano pieces.  This was the only number that had live music. Daniel Chan, a nine-year-old local piano prodigy, accompanied the ballet on the first two shows, whereas the Sunday matinée one was accompanied by Nicholas Lau. His piano playing was not bad, but definitely not to be compared with Lang Lang… or my favorite, Vladimir Horowitz 😉 OK, OK, perhaps I’m not being fair there. Anyway, let’s turn to the dancers of this particular show. The main dancers of the pas de deux were soloists Liu Yu-yao and Li Jia-bo. I have always liked Liu Yi-yao for her poetic movement and how she covers space despite her extremely lanky physique. I think she was a good choice for this role, light, ethereal, an emblem of Romantic beauty. However, I don’t like the performance of her partner Li Jia-bo at all. His jumps did not have good ballon. His facial expression was strained, as if it was a constant struggle for him to “get her.” As a partner, his musicality is just a tad off, so that he often caught his partner’s waist a fraction of a second too late, leaving her to catch up with the music in the next moves. For me, they just didn’t work well as a pair on stage.

Overall, the piece was beautiful, as it was set out to be, but lacking in dramatic elements. The corps de ballet provided a beautiful ambiance with their formations, but I could see that most of them looked a bit bored staying in the same position or repeating the same port de bras. An apprentice, who will move on to the corps de ballet next season, Vanessa Lai, caught my eye though. Not only because she was in the same ballet studio where I studied a few years ago but also because I could see how hard she worked even in supposedly “boring” steps. Her épaulement and head positions were more interesting than many others in the corps. Definitely a young ballerina worth watching in the upcoming seasons.

The gems of the program appeared like meteors after the first intermission—so bright yet so fleeting! Tan Yuan Yuan came on stage next to Damian Smith against a dark backdrop and mists in the air. The piece is called “Finding Light,” chreographed by Edwaard Liang with music by Vivaldi (Concerto in B Major). This piece really showcased the mature dance partnership between the two seasoned dancers to the max. Moving like fluid, the two seemed to be groping in the dark, seeking light—just as the title implies. Sometimes the male partner would be moving in front of the female, who became totally obscured—something you’d never see in classical ballet. A lot of times they would be moving side by side. There wasn’t a single pause in the movements and there wasn’t time to breathe either. Every inch of their bodies expressed the emotions of yearning and seeking. When I watched Tan, her tiny body and long limbs were talking so loud without a word, moving as smoothly as a snake yet you could almost feel her soul trembling with exertion. I would’ve held my breath a bit longer but the dance was over too soon.

Tan-Yuan-Yuan_Damian-Smith

Tan Yuan Yuan and Damian Smith in “Finding Light” Photographer: Erik Tomasson

Next on the program was the pas de deux from “Le Corsaire” Act II. The dancers, Jordan-Elizabeth Long (from the United States) and Adilijiang Abudureheman (from China), were invited from the Royal Swedish Ballet, where Hong Kong Ballet’s Artistic Director Madeleine Onne was a principal for many years. Well, I think the choice of this number—being such a well-known one, with footages by the world’s best dancers all over YouTube—was a wrong one. It would be hard-pressed to find any surprise element and I was right. The dancing and costume of Long was utterly boring, despite the frozen smile constantly glued to her face. She also was not in the music. There was a lack of attack and passion in her entire approach. Abudureheman was a bit more interesting to watch. His jumps and leaps were powerful, his pirouettes not quite so—he did not finish using all the music for the  turns at the end. I was glad when the variation was over, as I couldn’t wait to see Tan and Smith again in the next number, “Five Movements, Three Repeats” pas de deux.

The piece was created by British choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, set to the music of Max Richter, “This Bitter Earth,” sung by Dinah Washington. This was a very dark piece, almost depressive, as you hear the repeating lyrics with a sad voice:

This bitter earth
What fruit it bears
What good is love
That no one shares
And if my life is like the dust
That hides the glow of a rose
What good am I
Heaven only knows

This bitter Earth
Can be so cold
Today you’re young
Too soon you’re old
But while a voice
Within me cries
I’m sure someone
May answer my call
And this bitter earth
May not be so bitter after all

Tan and Smith appropriately expressed the depth of bitterness and despair with their body language. It was almost too sad to bear. Personally I do not like ballet set to songs with lyrics, so this was a minus for me. But the dancing and partnership of the two dancers redeemed this “fault” and again, the dance was too short to satisfy my desire to see Tan dance. But all beautiful things must come to an end, and I was glad that I went to see her despite the pain I had to endure traveling to the theater with my post-op body.

Tan is a goddess of ballet in my eyes. At 37, she is still dancing at her prime, and I hope to be able to see her perform live a lot more times. We are lucky to have her as Hong Kong Ballet’s Guest Principal Dancer.

The last on the program was a surprise. It was the world premiere of “Shape of Glow,” choreographed by Finnish choreographer Jorma Elo. A neo-classical piece set to the marvelous music of Mozart and Beethoven, “Shape of Glow” reminded me a lot of American Ballet Theater’s “Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2” choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky. Except for a much smaller stage and the lack of a theater set, “Shape of Glow” was every bit as interesting. Okay, I still prefer the dancing and the costumes in Concerto No. 2, but the music chosen makes the ballet surprisingly exciting to watch—Symphony No. 28 in C Major and Piano Concerto No. 27 in B Flat Major by Mozart; ending with a heroic “Consecration of the House Overture” by Beethoven.

The movements beautifully reflect the complexity of the musical structure, the partnership was fluid and fun to watch, and so were the futuristic-looking costumes—turquoise and black leotards that look like Star Trek costumes and female dancers going tights-free, showing their strong muscles. Credits go to Yumiko Takeshima—of Yumiko dancewear fame—for these costumes. I wish I could show you a picture but I can’t find one on the Internet.

In this show one can see what a melting pot the Hong Kong Ballet has become—as opposed to the homogeneous look in some other elite ballet companies. I think it is a good and stimulating development, and so is the collaboration with quality choreographers like Jorma Elo. Going forward, I hope our local dance company will put out shows of more consistent quality and try to tap into the local talent besides the international dancers and guest stars it has attracted in recent years.

ABT’s Nutcracker: a Pleasant Surprise

Nutcracker with Gelsey Kirkland and Mikhail Baryshnikov

After watching the Mariinsky version of “The Nutcracker” on Christmas Eve, I stumbled upon the ABT version, filmed in 1977, choreographed by Vasily Vainonen and starring Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland. I must say that I prefer the latter by a large degree after studying both.

I had no idea that the same ballet could be that different. The story line is similar in broad strokes but boy, how ingenious is the ABT version in terms of transitions in the plot, rendering the whole ballet actually a story that makes sense, instead of a mishmash of numerous pretty scenes put together with a very loose thread that can only be justified as a “dream sequence.” Surely the ABT version is a dream sequence, too. But as it is explained in the very beginning, the gift that Clara is about to receive on this Christmas night is the gift of a dream—it is intended by Uncle Drosselmeyer, who is a kind of wizard himself, instead of having the various dances in the Land of the Sweets just happening by chance.

This gift of a dream is actually the birth of a romantic dream in adolescence, represented by the character of Clara. It is a rite of passage, a coming of age, very beautifully portrayed by the ethereal Gelsey Kirkland. I was literally in tears watching her every movement, which simply melded with the beautiful Tchaikovsky music. There is absolutely no jarring steps. One scene leads to another in a seamless way, and Kirkland’s delicate footwork and expressive upper body are really unsurpassed. She is totally convincing playing a teenager, and her “growth” throughout the ballet is gradual and subtle, unlike the awkward switch from a teenager to a full-grown adult princess in the other versions.

Her acting is also superb. There is not a drop of doubt that she is completely smitten by the prince, played by Baryshnikov, and her whole body language exudes the excitement and slight nervousness of a girl who falls in love for the first time.

Baryshnikov is marvelous in his technique and actually not so bad in his acting, either! Very convincing as a prince in love with the young girl and ready to show her the world.

I also like the relative simplicity and smaller cast of the ABT version. Every detail is well thought out and nothing is superfluous, whereas the Mariinsky version seems to be a dozen cup cakes too many!

The only regrettable part of the ABT version is the costume of Clara. It looks as if she was wearing a night gown throughout the ballet. Perhaps that was the original intention, as she is in her dream anyway. But imagine how much more enjoyable if she was wearing a more flattering costume!

I will save the details now and not spoil the fun any further. Enjoy the ballet!

Nuts about Nutcracker

Come December, ballet dancers and spectators alike are all nuts about the Nutcracker. There are so many versions of the ballet. Which one(s) have you seen and do you prefer?

I have only seen the ballet once in a live performance by the New York City Ballet. At that time I hadn’t become a balletomane or a ballet student yet, so my memory is faint and I can’t really say much more than just being mesmerized for a moment by the snow flakes floating down on the stage!

It wasn’t until much later did I realize that what I saw was the version created by Balanchine in 1954, which popularized the ballet and established it as an annual Christmas tradition—a tradition that has since been used by ballet companies all over the world as—eh um—a “cash cow.” The very first performance of The Nutcracker was staged at the Mariinsky Theater in 1892 (see modern staging by Mariinsky above), but it wasn’t an instant success. It only became popular after American ballet companies staged it, the very first being the San Francisco Opera Ballet, in 1944. Balanchine changed a few characters and made it a highly popular ballet ever since.

Recently I have finished reading the biography of Rudolph Nureyev by Julie Kavanagh, in which Nureyev’s work on the Nutcrackers is detailed. I’m glad to have come across an article on Culture Kiosque that reviews different versions of the Nutcracker, with the verdict that Nureyev’s version is the best. It would not be hard to see that Nureyev has made the Prince an exceptionally interesting character to watch. His dancing rivals that of the female lead role. In fact, it was his idea to turn around Marius Petipa’s original choreography so that the male dancer would no longer play the “porter” role. I think he had succeeded big time!

Below you can see the footage of Nureyev himself dancing the pas de deux with Royal Ballet dancer Merle Park in the 1968 production, which he staged with the Royal Swedish Ballet:

And here you can see a modern version of Nureyev’s choreography performed by the Paris Opera Ballet: