YAGP 2017 Gala Reignites My Passion for Ballet

YAGP Gala 2017 - Julio Bocca - Balletomanehk.com

I feel my life is complete–almost–after seeing yesterday’s YAGP gala in celebration of Julio Bocca’s life and career. Here is my review–a return of my long-lost blog. Enjoy! Continue reading

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Farewell, Carla Körbes

I never saw Carla Körbes dance live, and the first time I ever watched her perform was her last. And how lucky I am that I did, thanks to the live streaming of her farewell performance on June 7 to a worldwide audience, credits to the company she retired from, Pacific Northwest Ballet—the first American company to ever broadcast an entire evening’s performance via live stream.

The program was a mixed bill event, and Carla was not the only one who bid farewell to an extremely enthusiastic audience. Soloist Kiyon Gaines also said goodbye with warm applauds from his loyal fans. The program that evening (morning here in Hong Kong) included six ballets.

The first one was “Dirty Goods,” choreographed by Andrew Bartee, with music by Oregon band The Chromatics. I don’t like the music but apparently a lot of audience members loved it—the immediate audience feedback is a special experience thanks to the chat room feature during the live stream (which became distracting sometimes). This modern piece reminded me of Trisha Brown’s style, with dancers dressed in casual wear dancing movements that remind one of everyday movements, against a backdrop of some video clips of a person walking in the forest and another hiking, etc. Interesting but not my cup of tea.

The second one, “Calling,” was the first appearance of Carla in the program. The opening of this short piece gave a stunning effect, with the 33-year-old Brazilian dancer clad in a super long creamy white dress that draped across the center stage, making mostly upper body movements. This piece is choreography by Jessica Lang (no, not that actress you might be thinking of) with music by Trio Mediaeval. The imagery from start to finish is a singular column of white with a towering feminine energy reaching out, out, and out. I was mesmerized and transfixed by this minimalist creation, reading into it my own struggle to reach for some distant dreams—life’s calling—with the feet planted firmly on the ground. When she did make that rare move with an arabesque or the lift of one leg, it accentuated the contrast of freedom and restraint. A very deep and spiritual performance. I can’t believe I was in tears already by the middle of this four-minute performance.

Carla-Körbes-Calling

“Calling”: Stunning costume, minimalist but intense choreography, supremely touching performance bt Carla Körbes.

 

The third ballet in the program was “The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude” choreographed by William Forsythe. I had never seen the entirety of this ballet until this time, and it was simply fabulous! The live music performance was a delightful switch from the use of recorded music in the previous two pieces. Long before I got to know about this ballet, I was already in love with the Pringle tutus. This was like a huge Pringle feast for me (not that I like the actual potato chips… yuck!).

PNB_Livestream_The-Vertiginous-Thrill-of-Exactitude

Pacific Northwest Ballet performs “The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude” by William Forsythe.

 

The next ballet, “Rassemblement,” is a contemp piece choreographed by Nacho Duato and featuring Elizabeth Murphy and Kiyon Gaines, who gave his final appearance before retirement. The music was beautiful but I wasn’t paying enough attention to the dance as I was distracted by the discussions among audience members on the screen 😦 Kiyon received many bouquets and lots of applause after the performance. One can tell that he is well loved by his fans.

The fifth piece consisted of excerpts from Balanchine’s “Jewels“. It was very cleverly arranged so that only the most dynamic and exciting parts of the ballet were included. It was a good introduction to those who have not seen the piece without stretching the time. The “Emeralds” act featured a pas de deux with Laura Tisserand and Charles McCall. The “Rubies” act featured a pas de deux with Jahna Frantziskonis and Benjamin Griffiths. I have seen many version of “Rubies,” the most recent one being Bolshoi’s performance in Hong Kong, which I thought was a disappointment. By contrast, the performance by PNB dancers was a great success in my eyes.

PNB_Livestream_Rubies

“Rubies” pas de deux with Jahna Frantziskonis and Benjamin Griffiths.

 

The highlight of Jewels was the “Diamonds” pas de deux featuring Carla Körbes and Karel Cruz. Carla had a short, creamy white bell-shaped tutu, which is quite different from the large pure white pancake tutu (similar to Odette’s) spotted in other productions. She looked sweeter than a cream cake and flowed beautifully in the stream of Tchaikovsky’s score. Her dance was grace and perfection embodied.

Carla-Körbes-Diamonds3

“Diamonds” pas de deux with Carla Körbes and Karel Cruz.

Here is a video of the “Diamonds” pas de deux, posted by PNB afterwards:

https://www.facebook.com/PNBallet/videos/10153098827513952/

Then came intermission, and everyone in the virtual audience was chatting incessantly about how much they anticipated the grand finale, “Serenade.” But when we heard the music that so solemnly announced the beginning of the ballet, a black screen greeted us for what seemed like eternity! There was a technical glitch, which was finally resolved after a few minutes. As a result, the live stream audience missed seeing the most anticipated beginning. Nonetheless, some tried to calm others down by highlighting the fact that we were all extremely lucky to be able to see the live performance free at all! The whole experience itself was indeed history in the making.

PNB_Livestream_Seranade4

Carla Körbes and Karel Cruz in a pas de deux in Balanchine’s “Serenade.”

The final scene of "Serenade," when Carla was transported away from the stage with the escort of her fellow dancers.

The final scene of “Serenade,” when Carla was transported away from the stage with the escort of her fellow dancers.

 

Although the quality of the live stream was less than perfect, it was tolerable when watched without full screen. And I am actually OK with the reduced quality. My reasoning is that, if everyone can watch a live ballet performance at home at a high quality, what would entice people to go to the theater anymore? Sure, it would still be extremely difficult for someone with limited resources like me to travel to the other side of the globe to watch this performance live. But at least, to ensure the continuity of ballet as an art form, whose excitement largely hinges on the risks and uncertainties inherent in live performances, it is best to leave it alone to the exclusive experience of being personally at the theater.

Here are some scenes captured from Carla Körbes’ final curtain calls. She received so many flowers and the applause just didn’t want to stop!

Carla Körbes' curtain calls

Carla Körbes’ curtain calls

 

After her retirement, Carla will be married to Patrick Fraser, a photographer who published a photo book of her and shot this slow-motion portrait of her on video:

Best wishes to this phenomenal ballet dancer of our time, who cleverly left the stage before the stage left her.

Related Article:

DanceTabs’ interview with Carla Körbes:
http://dancetabs.com/2013/02/carla-korbes-pacific-northwest-ballet-principal/

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.

Alexei Ratmansky in Hong Kong

Alexei Ratmansky in Hong Kong

This March marked a sumptuous Russian ballet feast in our city as not only were we graced with the presence of the Bolshoi Ballet at the Hong Kong Arts Festival (which I hope to write a blog about soon), but we were also lucky enough to have the world-renowned choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, who is one of the most accomplished and probably the most prolific of all ballet choreographers of our time.

Ratmansky was rehearsing with dancers of The Hong Kong Ballet for two weeks in March on the one-act ballet he choreographed, “Le Carnival des Animaux,” with music by French Romantic composer Camille Saint-Saëns.

I was so excited when The Hong Kong Ballet announced a Meet-the-Artist session with Ratmansky. I have watched a few of his ballets both live, and on the big and small screens. I have always admired his talent in creating movements that flow so well with the most intricate music, sometimes even saving a piece of “boring” music (sorry, just my subjective opinion) through the mesmerizing quality of his dance steps.

The host of the evening was Joseph Morrissey, Director of Artistic Planning & Touring of The Hong Kong Ballet. I was impressed by his confidence and the depth of knowledge he has, coming up with well-researched questions for Ratmansky. We got a chance to see a rare video of the choreographer as a young principal dancer in Ukranian National Ballet. He danced as James in La Sylphide, and as he watched this old footage, he was smiling with a slight shake of his head, commenting on how the tempo was all “wrong.” It was how the Soviet school interpreted Bournonville, and being behind the Iron Curtain, the dancers didn’t know any better.

But he soon learned Bournonville in its authenticity when he joined the Royal Danish Ballet after he spent some years at Royal Winnipeg Ballet in Canada—the first stop in his migration to the West.

Ratmansky has a very down-to-earth and humble style—never for one second did he project an arrogant air, which one may expect from someone of his fame. For me, it was tremendously satisfying to see and listen to this choreographic genius talk about his eventful and rich life journey, and the progression of his prolific career.

I was especially intrigued by his story about how he lost the chance to choreograph the “Nutcracker” for the Mariinsky Theater Ballet, only to have found a chance to do so at the Royal Danish Ballet where he was a principal dancer (see related article below). It was also very interesting to hear that he had lived in Copenhagen for five years (just across the border when I lived for five years) before finally deciding to give up the “good life” and work for the Bolshoi. It was not an easy decision for him, as he and his wife had settled well in this Nordic country, their son being born there and even mastered Danish. But Ratmansky took the leap across the pond again, started working earnestly on choreographing new works and eventually became the Artistic Director of the Bolshoi for five years. Under his leadership, the company introduced a great number of new ballets and became a dynamic player in the world of ballet once again.

Later on, in 2009, Ratmansky joined the American Ballet Theater as an artist in residence. He told the audience how leaving the Bolshoi and joining the ABT gave him the biggest creative liberty in his career. Without having to spend half of his time working with the administrative aspects of a huge ballet company, where intrigues and complaints were inevitable, he was now free to focus on creating new works. Since then, he has been having a hell of a good time while working almost non-stop, with companies from all over the United States and around the world approaching him to commission new works.

Even on his breaks, he works hard on reconstructing Petipa and Ivanov’s classical ballets from the archive of Stepanov dance notation scores at Harvard University. The recently staged “Sleeping Beauty” of the ABT was a result of his painstaking work, done together with his wife Tatiana, who was a former ballerina at the same three ballet companies where Alexei danced. The couple would be studying the Stepanov scores, deciphering the lost language of this specific branch of dance notation, figuring out the inconsistencies and omissions… it is truly a labor of love in progress.

Ratmansky revealed that many of the steps prescribed by Petipa were a far cry from what we are seeing today. For example, he meant for the arabesque to be at a modest elevation, not higher than 90 degrees, which is the opposite of today’s penchant for extremely high elevation. He explained that when Petipa designed the steps, all of them were meant to create a certain artistic unity, which, unfortunately, has been destroyed in today’s renditions of his works through the extreme athleticism and the extra show-off steps that went way beyond what the original musical scores would allow. This is the reason why he has started to reconstruct the Petipa classics like the recent one he did for the ABT. He has a desire to continue this endeavor, which means a great many surprises and feasts for us balletomanes in the years  to come.

On a personal note, Ratmansky told us that he has not had so much time to spend with his son over the years, but whenever they had a chance to spend a holiday together, the time was enjoyably and intensely spent. His 17-year-old son was with him and his wife in Hong Kong and loved what this exotic city had to offer.

Ratmansky was joined by Madeleine Onne, the Artistic Director of The Hong Kong Ballet, after the Q&A session. They reminisced on how they met in Stockholm a long time ago and how life has brought them back together again on the current collaboration. Unfortunately, the session did not allow time for the audience members to ask questions. If I had a chance, I would ask him: How do you choose music for your ballets? In a way, he addressed the issue earlier on by expressing his love for music with depth and a certain darkness, best exemplified by the music of his favorite composer, Dmitri Shostakovich.

On social media, dancers of The Hong Kong Ballet have expressed how wonderful it was to work with Ratmansky.

In the second half of the evening, we were fortunate to see Ratmansky coach a group of dancers in an on-stage rehearsal of Le Carnival des Animaux. It was an eye-opener. Here is an excerpt of the rehearsal. Enjoy!

Related article:

Alexei Ratmansky and the New Nutcracker

Related videos:

Behind the Scenes: Alexei Ratmansky

Richard Hudson on ABT’s The Sleeping Beauty

Hong Kong Ballet’s Two-Act Don Quixote

Hong-Kong-Babllet_Don-Quixote

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.

Related articles:

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)

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.

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