Eifman Ballet’s ‘Tchaikovsky: The Mystery of Life and Death’

Eifman Ballet: Tchaikovsky: Pro et Contra--Curtain Call at New York City Center - Balletomanehk.com

What a wonderful performance of “Tchaikovsky: The Mystery of Life and Death” by Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg! The company has just concluded its tour in New York at the City Center as part of its North American tour to … Continue reading

Q&A with ABT Principal Dancer Alban Lendorf

Alban_Lendorf, Principal Dancer of ABT - Balletomanehk.com

Two days ago I had a fun evening with fellow ballet lover Jia to see the wonderful American Ballet Theater Principal Dancer Alban Lendorf in a Q&A session. It was quite enlightening as he explained to the audience how the Bournonville … Continue reading

The Ugly Side of Hong Kong Ballet that No One Wants to Talk about Publicly

It’s been a long time since I wrote my last post. I was planning to do another review on Hong Kong Ballet’s other performances, after having been motivated by the high quality of the last performance, Pinocchio. But alas! A series of events have let me down, so much so that I have now put a sanction on the company’s shows “until further notice.”

“Why so drastic?” you may ask. Well, first of all, I have made an agreement with the marketing manager of the company to give me a complimentary ticket for each of their shows so that I can write reviews without having to dip into my shallow pockets. So for their Young Choreographer’s Showcase, I requested a ticket. No reply. I followed up. No reply. I started to feel that they didn’t really care about reviews by this blogger, who happens to have quite a following among balletomanes, and in particular, ballet students and dancers in Hong Kong and even Taiwan.

But I stopped fussing about my own feeling of being offended when I got to know what the company had done later on, just prior to their Romeo and Juliet show. One day, I was alerted of the fact that the company’s newest soloists, hired with expensive sums of money from Italy and Cuba, Vittorio Galloro and Arianne Lafita Gonzalvez, had left Hong Kong after their short stint with the company. There was a great deal of disappointment that fueled their decision to leave. Despite the warm welcome by the Hong Kong public, these two accomplished artists found themselves in a strange situation in which they were not appreciated for the talents and rank that they deserved. Apparently, they were left on the sideline to idle through the rest of the season, getting corps roles at best. I couldn’t help but scratch my head: What kind of treatment is this? This beautiful dancer couple was smart enough to pull the plug as quickly as they landed, while the iron is hot—they still have an enthusiastic following in Europe and beyond.

What puzzled them is also what has infuriated many of the Hong Kong Ballet dancers who have left the company en masse during the reign of Artistic Director Madeleine Onne. I have heard, first hand, from dancers who have left the company, that the artistic director has a terrible taste in the choice of what goes into the repertoire, boring capable dancers who could have benefited from more challenging roles and more interesting ballets. Many of them felt that their talents were wasted. In addition, resources—which include the taxpayers’ money—are constantly being wasted as stand-by dancers and extras are hired to do nothing.

The main problem with the company is how it is being managed. While most other major ballet companies in the world are run mainly by their artistic directors, decision-making at Hong Kong Ballet goes to the board of governors, which consists mainly of people who have nothing to do with art—the majority are socialites that grace the glossy pages of Hong Kong Tatler. Worse still, as in the case of the Dreams of the Red Chamber incident a few years ago, political concerns had led to self-censorship in artistic expression, causing a scandal that the board tried to cover up.

And the latest marketing efforts to sell The Nutcracker tickets? Read this headline: “China Everbright Ltd. Proudly Presents: The Nutcracker.” It makes me puke to hear the association between the ballet company and the scandal-stricken trading company (formerly run by the brother of the corrupt Chinese Community Party provincial chief Bo Xilai). Also, using “hooks” like complimentary champagne and Repetto discounts just seem like a cheap marketing trick to me.

I have stayed away from grinding the axe so far but I can’t keep quiet anymore. In Chinese society one often thinks about how to “save face” for oneself and others, especially if the latter are considered hot shots. But I have absolutely no personal interest in this company—not the least those complimentary tickets. In fact, I wouldn’t miss anything if I don’t go and watch their shows or do reviews. Honestly, I am fed up with this homegrown ballet company, whose quality and management keep on going downhill. Too bad for Hong Kong, but what do you expect from a place where real art is not appreciated by the majority of the citizens?

Feel free to share your comments. We do have freedom of expression here.

Hong Kong Ballet’s ‘Paquita, Bolero, Carnival+’

Paquita, The Hong Kong Ballet

Paquita by The Hong Kong Ballet, with Jurgita Dronina and Wei Wei dancing the lead roles

This past weekend, Hong Kong Ballet concluded its Spring season with a mixed bill showcasing both a well-known classical number, Paquita, and a few contemporary pieces, two of which were world premieres. Mixed bills are usually a good way to showcase a company’s dancers’ capabilities and artistry across a broad spectrum of styles while providing high entertainment value. However, I must say that the mixed bill this time was a mishmash of dances that were not put together thoughtfully enough. Just look at the title of the show. What does it tell you?

Bolero, The Hong Kong Ballet, with Liu Yu-Yao and Lucas Jerkander dancing the lead roles

Bolero, The Hong Kong Ballet, with Liu Yu-Yao and Lucas Jerkander dancing the lead roles

OK, it may have led you to believe that the program is made up of a classical number plus two contemporary ballets set to music by impressionist composers. But in reality, Bolero turned out to be an odd one. It is a newly choreographed piece—an experimental one created by company dancers Yuh Egami and Ricky Hu, set to Ravel’s music with some additional music by Li Jia-bo and Yuh Egami. It resembles a theatrical play rather than a contemporary ballet as there isn’t too much meaningful dancing to speak of. Instead, I saw movements on a popped up platform that symbolized the hospital bed. A big part of the dance by the protagonist, performed by Liu Yu-yao, took place inside a cage that symbolized her mental prison. She was crawling on the bars like a caged animal, struggling to get out. The concept of a group of male dancers wearing devilish masks, personifying Liu’s inner demons, was interesting and drew quite a lot of appreciative gasps. But the rest of the roles—the doctor, the hospital workers and the boyfriend, were mostly boring. I’m not talking about their ability to dance, but the material they were given to dance with. While the story line would probably work well in a staged drama, I feel that it is a waste as a ballet because the choreography really does not give the dancers a good chance to fully express the story and the emotions through the language of ballet. The stage props and costumes thus became distractions—at least for those of us looking beyond gimmicks. But worst of all, the less-than-exciting choreography doesn’t do the music, which is highly rhythmic and becomes increasingly intense, any justice. The mismatch is too obvious.

HK-Ballet-Letting-Go

“Letting Go” with Edwaard Liang and Yuan Yuan Tan

The other one that I have a gripe about is, unfortunately, a world premiere and featured one of my top favorite ballerinas, Yuan Yuan Tan. It is hard for me to write this but truth be told, Letting Go is a flop in my eyes. The dance, choreographed by Edwaard Liang, is about a woman’s journey in her attempt to move on from a dead lover. Well, after watching this super short number, the impression I had was “clinging on” instead of “letting go.” There wasn’t very much stage chemistry between Tan and Liang, compared with what I have seen between Tan and her previous dance partner Damian Smith. The latter partnership gave me such an earth-shattering experience that even their breathing alone could tell a story and leave behind in the audience mind a meaningful fabric of the art they co-created. Not so with this partnership. Of course, Tan herself is sublime as she always is, but this ballet just did not give her a chance to really shine. Nevertheless,  a friend of mine, who is not as “spoiled” as me, was taken by Tan’s beauty and was greatly impressed. For first-timers, this was a wonderful experience after all. Another thing about the program, is that the pas de deux was, like a previous Hong Kong Ballet mixed bill, squeezed in between all the other numbers. And since it was so short, the experience was greatly reduced. It would have been nicer if the program either began or ended with Tan’s dancing. One more thing: The musical score, composed by Max Richter, was unbearably monotonous and without any climatic developments—just like so many ballets today that use scores that have this Philip Glassian style. I just can’t stand it.

Now, a word about Paquita, which kicked off the evening’s program. The ballet, though having performed by the company countless times, still left a lot to be desired. It is a highly technically challenging ballet and requires quick and exact footwork and musicality. But what I saw was a lot of floppy feet and movements that were chasing the music. The saving grace came when Guest Principal Artist Jurgita Dronina, former Principal Dancer of the Dutch National Ballet, entered the stage. Her musicality and ports de bras are superb. Suddenly, you start to see the music coming alive in front of your eyes. It was a pity to have Wei Wei partner her. His jumps are stiff and his proportions just not too pleasing to the eyes. But who in the company can really match her caliber, I wonder?

"Le Parc" danced by Paris Opera Ballet Principal Dancers Alice Renavand and Florian Magnenet

“Le Parc” danced by Paris Opera Ballet Principal Dancers Alice Renavand and Florian Magnenet

The best all-round performance of the evening, in my view, was “Le Parc,” danced by Alice Renavand and Florian Magnenet, both Principal Dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet. Set against the delicate Piano Concerto No. 23 by Mozart, this intimate pas de deux of a bedroom scene between a couple passionately in love is one of my top favs. The dancing was perhaps less intense than the version I have seen on YouTube, with Aurélie Dupont and Manuel Legris. Not sure if that was because they were told to scale down their intensity due to the prudishness of the Chinese audience here? 😉 But to see the kiss scene live was a wonderful experience. What diminished my enjoyment was the constant chatting and laughter of two young girls sitting behind me. I feel that mixing a ballet that has a somewhat X-rated status with another one geared toward children, “Le Carnival des Animaux,” was a wrong decision.

Le Carnival des Animaux, The Hong Kong Ballet

Le Carnival des Animaux, The Hong Kong Ballet

“Le Carnival des Animaux,” or “The Carnival of the Animals,” is choreographed by the acclaimed Russian choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, who was in Hong Kong earlier to coach the dancers. This is a teasing and fun-filled ballet, with highly creative movements and costumes of bursting colors. It was actually the first time I listened to the entirety of Saint-Saëns’ musical score in 14 movements—and how I loved it! Each movement was expressed with a different kind of animal, rapidly and fluidly succeeded by another. The frequent burlesque movements of the animals elicited laughter throughout the performance. One can tell that both the children and adults in the audience—as well as the dancers themselves—enjoyed this last piece of the evening’s program wholeheartedly. If there was something to be improved upon, it would be the costumes. While they were really beautiful to look at, with a few exceptions like the lion, the hens, the birds, the jelly fish and the swan, it wasn’t easy to discern what type of animals the dancers actually represented.

If The Hong Kong Ballet wants to keep its audience coming back in the future, I would suggest exploring a repertoire that goes beyond the typical traditional classics, while devising mixed bills with a maximum of three pieces. After all, we are not coming for a buffet, but a few quality dishes.

A Celebration of Older Dancers

Obscure Temptations, one of Jiri Kylián’s creations for NDTIII  

World-renown Czechoslovak-born dance choreographer Jiri Kylián will be celebrating his artistic creation for dancers over 40 during the Kylián Festival at the brand-new Korzo Theatre under the theme “All Ages Dance.” The festival runs from May 22 to 31, 2014.

The company, Nederlands Dans Theater III, was founded by Kylián in the early 1990s to incorporate dancers over 40—who are typically considered past their “prime.” Going against the grain, Kylián believes that we should all be able to dance “from the womb to the tomb”:

Through my long-time experience as a dancer, choreographer and artistic director, and through my encounters with East Asian cultures and the Australian aboriginal people, I have learned that we possess the ability to dance throughout our entire life and that it should be treasured and respected – Yes, we are able to dance “From the womb to the tomb”….!

What a refreshing and heart-warming message for older dancers like me, even though I am just an amateur.

Despite this encouraging development in the professional dance community, it still irks me that there are no over-40 professional dance company that showcases classical ballet—in a way that does not highlight the virtuosity of technique and great extension but emphasizes the grace and musicality of movements that are suitable for the dancer’s age and physical ability. Sure, there are individual ballet dancers who continue to dance professionally after 40. But is there a professional classical ballet company with dancers over 40 exclusively? Please enlighten me if there is!

Perhaps it is a laughable idea. The demand of classical ballet requires so much of dancers that one of the main reasons dancers retire after 40+ is that their bodies can no longer take it anymore. But what if choreographers adapt their works to suit older dancers? It’s not a matter of watering down movements, but showcasing what the dancers can express by whatever physical facility they have?

Choreographers may consider emulating what Sir Frederick Ashton had done for Margot Fonteyn toward the end of her career. He created the ballet Salut d’Amour for her to perform on her 60th birthday. It would be unfair to judge her dancing with the same kind of technique and extension expected of a 20-year-old. Yet, look at her! How expressive! What grace! What beauty!

Related articles:

Jiri Kylián on All Ages Dance

Jiri Kylian Starts a Company for Dancers Young at Heart

Here is the Kylián Festival program

Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo Catalog

Ballets Russes Catalog

In my meager vintage collection of ballet memorabilia,there is an original “Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo” playbill/catalog for the season 1938-1939. Léonide Massine was the artistic director for the company, which was run by S. Hurok at that time.

It’s interesting to see the important role ballet played in entertaining the people in that era. Ballet dancers seemed to be regarded the same way as glamorous movie stars and enjoyed the status of celebrities.  In the top right corner of the collage, you can see a picture of Alexandra Danilova sitting next to Salvador Dali; in the picture below, you can see Dali and Henri Matisse in a rehearsal, where Massine was present as well. Some of the big head shots of ballerinas look like those black-and-white portraits of actresses in the golden Hollywood era, while others look a bit like pin-up portraits.

Besides photos of dancers, paintings of costumes and set designs, and synopses of the ballets being performed during the season, there are many advertisements throughout the catalog, selling perfumes, cosmetics, department stores, restaurants, hotels and even apartments. In addition, there are smaller ads of dance schools, books and magazines.

Through the synopses of the ballets, one can discern the high level of creativity and productivity at that period–and prior to that, during the time of the original Ballets Russes of Sergei Diaghilev.

To give you a glimpse of the diversity of the repertoire, here are some of the various numbers listed in the catalog:

  • “L’Epreuve d’Amour, or the Chung-Yang and the Mandarin”, a ballet in one act designed by Andre Derain and Michel Fokine in a “chinoiserie” spirit, set against the “pseudo-Chinese” scores of Mozart (once lost but rediscovered in the 1930’s). For a Chinese, this theme is very intriguing and I would really love to see this one being performed today!
  • “St. Francis” (American premiere), choreographic legend in one act and five scenes, music by Paul Hindemith, choreography by Léonide Massine.
  • “Le Beau Danube,” music by Johann Strauss, story and choreography by Léonide Massine.
  • “Les Elfes,” ballet in one act, music by Mendelssohn, choreography by Michel Fokine.
  • “Coppelia ou La Fille Aux Yeud D’Email” (Coppelia or the Girl with the Enamel Eyes), ballet in three acts, music by Léo Delibes, choreography by Nicholas Sergueff after Ivanov and Mérante.
  • “Icare,” choreographic legend in one act, choreography by Serge Lifar, percussion arrangement by J. E. Szyfer.
  • “Don Juan,” choreographic tragi-comedy in three tableaux after G. Angiolini, music by Gluck, new version by Eric Allatini and Michel Fokine.
  • “The Seventh Symphony,” music by Beethoven, theme and choreography by Léonide Massine.

Sometimes I’d dream of living in the early 1900’s so I could watch the dancers of Les Ballets Russes perform live, and partake in the excitement of the constant creation of new works for a wide-eyed audience that was not yet blasé.