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 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.


Embracing Fear

Photo by Jordan Matter

The photos of Jordan Matter, New York-based portrait and dance photographer, are well known within the dance community. Recently I purchased his newly published collection of dance photography, “Dancers Among Us” and am really enjoying the stunning images, each one being meticulously choreographed and executed with great patience and skill. But what surprised me most was not the unusual visuals. It was the little stories about the photographer’s family life preceding each chapter that presented me with an element of philosophical delight.

For example, in the section of “Exploring,” Matter wrote about his young son Hudson’s experience of fear when he was faced with the prospect of a baby sister being born as his mother went into labor. “I’m a little scared,” Hudson said.

And the author’s response?

I had no idea how to alleviate a fear that I couldn’t comprehend. I picked him up and held him in my lap, and we sat in silence. He’s never been one to like cuddling very much, but that morning he wrapped his arms around my neck and gripped me for dear life.

After spending a few days with his new sister, the cloud lifted. Hudson was excited. Buoyant. Relieved. Out of nowhere, he looked up at me and said, “I am not sacred anymore. I thought that when my sister came, I would have to be a big boy. But I’m not a big boy; I’m just a big brother.”

He had been faced with a new reality for which he felt unprepared, and the mystery had frightened him. This may be one of life’s greatest struggles. Often we fear the unknown’s when we could be anticipating its rewards.

The last sentence really tells the essence of what fear is about. It is when we take the plunge and step into the unknown—embrace the uneasiness and the feeling that we might possibly fail, fall or die—that the greatest irony might be awaiting us on the other side, the irony of sweet rewards.

What’s All the Fuss about that ‘Free People’ Ballet Ad?

Recently, an ad by fashion company Free People has generated a sleuth of attacks from the ballet world regarding the use of a model who apparently has not had proper ballet training.

Free-People-Model“Why the outrage?” Some folks outside of the dance community have asked. To the untrained eye, the model looks totally pretty—slim and flexible—an image that fits that of a ballet dancer. However, it doesn’t take much for a ballet dancer—or a ballet student who has undergone any meaningful training, to be able to tell that this model has had no proper ballet training at all. Her technique is weak and incorrect, and her lines are neither clean nor classical. For trained dancers—and even serious “recreational” ballet students, this is an insult to the art form. Many feel that it makes light of the years and years of training—with blood and sweat, no less—that yield the proper aesthetics of ballet dancing, which this ad is anything but.

Perhaps it would not be so outrageous if the voice-over had not mentioned that she had been dancing since she was three. Granted, in the advertising world, most of what we see is just make-belief. Still, if the marketers were to do a more convincing job, at least they would have made a more careful choice of picking the model among real ballet dancers during the casting process. In fact, a growing number of commercials have employed trained ballet dancers, including some world-renown dancers such as Diana Vishneva, Tamaro Rojo, Polina Semionova, Yuan Yuan Tan and Misty Copeland. Even if their budget is limited, it would not be that difficult or expensive to find a real ballet dancer who would have done the job a million times better.

A main argument against the ad is that having the model dance en pointe posed a serious danger to her as obviously she does not have the required strength to dance properly en pointe. Her ankles are sickled, weak and wobbly. Many of the dancers who expressed their outrage were concerned about the model’s safety.

From a philosophical viewpoint, I think the debate has gotten so heated because dancers are defending their art with their life and passion. They have spent decades training for an art form that demands not only supreme athleticism but perfection that comes from within—an artistry that cannot exist without input from the soul. In my opinion, this is where the world of advertising and marketing diverge from art.

The commercial world has put a strong emphasis on superficial beauty and appeal to consumers through attempts of mood-making. Ballet is not just about external beauty—the costumes, the make-up, the body. Sure, it is about those and so much more. The inner strength, the dedication and tenacity, the expression of human emotions and the transcendence of the soul—these are the qualities that actually move and touch the audience.

My lament over the superficial focus in the commercial world does not stop here. It concerns also how yoga, a spiritual practice that centers around the soul, has been reduced to a physical exercise by adoptees in the Western world. But that’s a discussion that does not belong to this ballet blog and so let me not go there.


Saving grace: Free People was quick enough to have teamed up with Ballet Zaida to do a new series of photo shoot with professional dancers. I think they should simply take down the original ad and product images and replace them with the new ones.



Related links:

Dancers’ comments on Free People’s Facebook page:

A Huffington Post article on the subject:

AdWeek’s article:

Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo Catalog

Ballets Russes Catalog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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