Musings on International Women’s Day

Today is International Women’s Day. While ballet has very much developed into an art form in which the dancers are predominantly women, there is still a big gender disparity in terms of those in the decision-making positions, such as artistic directors of ballet companies as well as choreographers.

A prominent female figure in the ballet world today is English National Ballet Director and Principal Dancer Tamara Rojo. She is a heroine in my eyes, my role model of a perfect ballerina embodying superb strengthen and grace, and above all, a strong woman with just the perfect balance between chutzpah and femininity.
Tamara Rojo

In an interview with Dance Tab last year, she said that “the way that art, that everything, is seen in life, has different angles depending on the people that do it. And that in dance, very often, choreography is created by men, so it has that perspective. And it would be good if we could have it more often created by women.”

To that end, she has commissioned a new triple bill, “She Said,” featuring new works by world-class female choreographers: Aszure Barton, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and Yabin Wang, which will be staged next month by English National Ballet. It will be a truly exciting event.

Despite their small number, women are starting to make inroads into the top echelon of world-class ballet companies around the world.

For just over 10 years, Karen Kain has been the Artistic Director of The National Ballet of Canada and taken the company to a new level of international recognition.

Madeleine Onne, former Artistic Director of the Royal Swedish Ballet, has been the Artistic Director of the Hong Kong Ballet for over six years now. While I wouldn’t consider HKB “world-class” (yet), the fact that she is a female—and foreign—director of this artistic institution should be recognized, considering the challenges she faces in this conservative society.

Aurélie DupontAurélie Dupont, the darling of the Paris Opera Ballet, who spent her entire 32-year career there and retired last May, will take over the helm of the world’s oldest ballet company after Benjamin Millepied’s one-year tenure.

Julie Kent as Juliet

Julie Kent, one of the most celebrated American ballerinas of her generation, and who retired from the stage last summer after a 29-year career at American Ballet Theatre, has just been appointed the Washington Ballet’s new artistic director.

Both women had previously expressed their strong wishes to live a more carefree life and spend more time with their children and families. However, they changed their minds. I am sure that they have received tremendous support from the men in their lives and the communities around them. Just as successful men often have supportive women behind them, women—especially those who have children—could use a ton of support if they want to fulfill their highest dreams and potentials.

These new appointments are truly good news that we should celebrate. I hope we’ll hear more of such appointments and, with much anticipation, I hope the leadership by experienced female dancers like these will change the ballet world in a way that will truly reflect the balance of genders and different perspectives.

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.

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

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