Last week I treated myself to two performances of “Onegin” by the American Ballet Theatre. Never have I seen the same ballet back to back like this, and I wouldn’t have done so if it wasn’t for the super stellar … Continue reading
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
I love it when things fall into place without too much strain in the planning department and it feels as if the Universe is conjuring magic using the tiny rockets of desire that you send out while daydreaming. Last week … Continue reading
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.
The 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.
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!
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 golden 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.
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.
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. The 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.
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:
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.
Male ballet dancers in Asia are a rare species. Not that they don’t exist. But generally speaking, parents do not encourage their sons to pursue the path of becoming a professional dancer because dancing is still very much considered a feminine activity and thus a dancing boy would be seen as a “sissy.” In addition, in Chinese societies, especially in places like Hong Kong and Taiwan, where there is scanty government funding for the arts, dance is not regarded as a prestigious profession, as being a dancer does not equate a big salary and a “stable” future.
Against these odds, there are a few young male dancers who have followed a non-traditional path and carved a niche for themselves. By defying the skepticism around them, these young men have become a source of inspiration for many aspiring dancers.
Mickael Jou (周楷), an American-born Taiwanese dancer and self-taught photographer, has wowed the world with a series of selfies showing himself dancing and jumping around the world. His photos have recently been published in the Huffington Post (http://huff.to/1GEPiAZ) and the Daily Mail (http://dailym.ai/1IlaDER), in which he is described as “the man who defies gravity.” The Chinese-language Apple Daily newspaper has even met up with him in Berlin and done a video interview after observing the painstaking process of him taking self portraits (http://bit.ly/1LQc27y)
When you look at Jou’s “selfies,” it is hard to tell that he is not a professional dancer. What surprised me the most is that he actually did not start to take ballet lessons until he was 18. He studied business in university and started working in sales. His adventurous spirit brought him from the United States to Paris, France and later to Berlin, Germany, where he is now working with photography. His passion of dance+photography has taken him around the world doing crazy jumps amid wide-eyed and head-scratching crowds. He is a perfect example of someone who lives outside the traditional box—a box that is perpetuated among Chinese families. He is a true inspiration of creativity for us Chinese people!
Another young Taiwanese man, Meng Ting (孟霆）, grew up in his mother’s ballet studio and eventually pursued ballet studies at Taipei National University of the Arts. But after graduation, he has chosen to join the army’s Honor Guard. The Taiwanese media published a report on this (http://bit.ly/1eCjDJG). Why has he chosen this career path? “The main consideration was the practical side,” he answered, hinting at the uncertainties of pursuing the ballet profession in Taiwan. He said he did not audition for a ballet company after graduation. But he still practices and performs in his mother’s studio’s yearly school performance, and finds tremendous satisfaction in that.
In the video posted by Taiwan’s Security Department as a recruitment ad (above), Meng said that he has chosen to work in the Honor Guard as there is a chance for him to perform on stage and he finds a parallel between the work there and ballet dancing. Both have very specific and detailed demands for each movement and require a strict discipline. At the same time, there is a constant need to come up with new choreography for the Honor Guard, so it is just as challenging as dancing ballet. The “selling point” used by the Taiwanese military is that a man who can execute graceful movements can also be suitable for work in the military—a perfect harmony between the soft and the hard sides of masculinity. Meng told me that the job suits him because he can find the perfect balance between financial stability and an outlet to make use of his dancing talents, applying the spirit of ballet in his military work.
Back in Hong Kong, my home turf, we have a “miracle” created by Kelvin Mak (麥卓鴻), who started learning ballet at the age of 16 and has successfully become a professional dancer three years later. The 21-year-old started off learning hip hop and fell in love with performing arts, moving on to ballet and contemporary dance. He graduated from the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts, majoring in modern dance, and in 2013, joined the City Contemporary Dance Company (CCDC), the most prominent contemporary dance company in Hong Kong, as a professional dancer. Why did he pursue dance? His answer: “I believe that dance has chosen me.”
Like so many Chinese mothers out there, Kelvin’s moother has never really supported his choice of becoming a dancer. But Kelvin dances on, in the hope that one day he will earn her support through his success. Among his numerous achievements so far is winning the third prize in the Classical Pas de Deux category at The American Dance Competition in 2013. Watch him dance in the YouTube links below.
Besides dancing for CCDC, Mak is also a dancer with the newly established Beyond Dance Theater (舞界限舞蹈團), founded by his ballet teacher Linus Kwok. When asked how dance has inspired his life, he said, “Although ‘impractical,’ dance gives me a strong sense of living in the moment…. The process is not painful at all, but rather, very joyful. Dance definitely brings me a kind of spiritual enjoyment. It gives me a channel to express my emotions.” When asked about his advice for students who are looking to develop a dance career, he said, “Be truthful to who you are at any given moment. Although you may be ‘imperfect,” you need to enjoy the imperfection, too. As a dancer, there is a bright spot in every step. Take in every moment carefully, and you will never regret the rest of your life!”
In yesterday’s post, I featured a few disabled dancers who have shown the resilience of the human spirit. Today, I want to feature a few more courageous souls who inspire me beyond imagination.
Adrianne Haslet-Davis, a 33-year-old ballroom dancer, lost part of her left leg during the tragic bombing of the Boston Marathon in 2013. But after having visited her in the hospital, MIT professor Hugh Herr decided to build her a high-tech prosthetic leg, known as a bionic limb, to allow her to dance again. Around the first anniversary of the bombing, Haslet-Davis went on stage again and performed a dance with Christian Lightner at the 2014 TED Conference in Vancouver. Read more about the story here, or watch the entire TED Talk by Prof. Herr, which climaxed at the end with the highly emotionally charged performance by Haslet-Davis and her partner, here. Below is a short clip with some snapshots of the dancer’s performance:
These days, Noah Galloway has become America’s household name and superhero for his amazing performances of chacha, samba and more on the TV series “Dancing with the Stars.” This Alabama Army veteran lost part of his two left limbs during a 2005 bomb blast in Iraq. He did not only survive but thrived after getting a bionic prosthetic leg. In the past 10 years he trained himself in all kinds of athletic activities—running marathons, climbing mountains, conquering obstacle courses and even parachuting from airplanes. Now he has even picked up latin dance with the help of his partner Sharna Burgess. Watch one of his performances below and stay on to hear the judges’ touching comments too!
In China, there is a dancing couple who do not have the help of high-tech prosthetic limbs but they dance beautifully nonetheless. They were the first disabled dancers I ever saw performing in a professional manner. Their stories are both tragic and inspirational. Ma Li was trained as a professional dancer and joined an art troupe when she turned 18, but later on she lost her whole arm in a car accident. Having danced almost her whole life, she couldn’t imagine how she could carry on living. But with the help of her mother as well as a program for disabled people that encouraged her to get back into dance, she rebuilt her life and started training and performing on stage. As for her partner, Zhai Xiaowei, he lost his left leg at the age of four while playing and then falling from on a heavy truck. He trained as a paraplegic cyclist but one fateful day he met Ma Li in the rehabilitation center. She introduced him to the world of dance and invited him to learn dancing from her. Eventually he gave up cycling and took up dance with her. The rest is, as they say, history. Since then, they have been dancing on stage and in TV shows, wowing the audience in China (Today, they are married with a child). Here is a video showing their award-winning dance, “Holding Hands”:
Simona Atzori is an Italian visual artist and dancer born without arms. Thanks to the strong support of her mother and her own determination, she started painting at the age of 4 and dancing at the age of 6—against all odds. Later on, she even pursued a university education in visual arts in Canada, combining her passion for both painting and dance. She has been exhibiting her paintings around the world and performing dance on stage. I am so impressed by the expressiveness of her legs and feet, as well as the strength of her core! In the following video, you can watch her perform at the Paralympic Games in Turin:
I would like to wrap this post up with the same closing remark I made yesterday in case you have not read that post.
These dancers are so inspiring because they are not born with the “right” body or have the “right” conditions. They are great despite lacking those.
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.
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.
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.