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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hong Kong Ballet’s 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.

Attention Ballet Studio Owners: 5 Things You Need to Know about Adult Students

SJBallet_Library_View
Recently I was invited to a press conference of a new ballet studio in town. Unlike most studios in Hong Kong, this one, SJ Ballet Des Arts, is relatively large in size (two 600+ sq. ft. studios), with an exceptional sea view to boot, and located in a porsche tourist district where the rent is predictably high.

SJBallet_Studio2

I had the chance to sit down with the founder of the studio, Song Hai Feng, who has just retired as a coryphée of The Hong Kong Ballet. Song emphasized that his school will focus on nurturing students’ artistry and spiritual fulfilment through a holistic approach—ballet books and music will be available in the library corner, and lectures will be provided to parents in the art of ballet, nutrition and safety, so that they can become a source of support for their children’s artistic development. Song’s wife, Jin Yao, currently a principal dancer of The Hong Kong Ballet, explained the goal of the school is to build a solid foundation for ballet students based on correct methodology from Day One. She said that she has seen innumerable young ballet students who went on auditions for Hong Kong Ballet’s annual Nutcracker, and was surprised to find that most did not exhibit the basic techniques correctly.

It all sounds wonderful—not many ballet studios in this over-commercialized city would have this kind of lofty approach. It remains to be seen how these goals will be accomplished.

SJBallet_Studio2b

SJ Ballet Des Arts is going to offer two types of adult ballet classes on top of its elite pre-professional track, one-on-one coaching, toddler classes with parents and Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) track for young hobbyists. One type of adult class is for beginners who have zero experience in ballet. The marketing angle is “Beauty and Slimming,” and the content of the course is a combination of Pilates mat exercises, stretching and some basic ballet movements. The other type is for those who have some experience of ballet. While I think that it is a great idea to require absolute beginners to do stretching and floorwork—which are usually omitted in Hong Kong’s adult ballet courses, the marketing concept of “Beauty and Slimming” is geared toward a clientele who may not be seriously interested in ballet as an art form. And the fee of HK$350 per lesson (students must pay three months’ fee in advance) is really prohibitive for many. Perhaps I’m wrong about it and perhaps there are plenty of wealthy ladies out there who don’t mind parting with what is equivalent to about US$45 for each session. But I definitely cannot afford to do this. In terms of class structure, I would rather that the school offers adult classes divided into different levels, with Level 1 consisting of floor barre and stretching on top of the basic movements, and then progressing to higher levels thereafter.

According to the studio founder Song, the plan is to introduce ballet basics through this class, and those interested in taking serious ballet lessons can move on to the regular adult class. Well, over the past few years, we  have seen the growth of interest in adult ballet around the world as a result of non-traditional classes geared toward those who want to keep fit and achieve a beautiful body shape (such as Ballet Beautiful, Xtend Barre and Sleek Technique). So maybe this will create a similar effect. We’ll see!

When I introduced myself to Song, he asked me what the challenges for adult students are. One of the things I told him about was that adult students often get injured as most of us do not receive core strength training in class, and some of us are not taught the right placement and technique from the start. Instead, we are often just asked to copy the teacher’s or other students’ movements, without understanding how to use the muscles in a correct manner. He was very surprised to hear that adults could get injured in ballet class! He told me that children in China who receive professional training almost never experience injury until quite late in their training or during their career, when they over-exert themselves.

I realized that for experienced ballet dancers and new studio owners, there may be specific aspects of adult ballet training that they may not be aware of, given their professional background and their relatively young age. So I decided to jot down a list of things for them to take into consideration when designing course content for the mature group:

1) Adult students come in vastly different body types and physical conditions that may include serious muscle imbalances, inflexibility and even deformity or diseases that affect the body’s alignment or stamina. It would be helpful to observe and check our body conditions, talk individually about our needs and make some effort to give us exercises that cater to our specific conditions. Treating everyone equally—or worse, treating us as if we were kids or teenagers—would not necessarily yield the best result.

2) Adult students come with baggages in life. We may be parents with tons of obligations. Or office workers who have to put in long hours or overtime regularly. We may have to go on business trips from time to time. Or we may have illnesses or diseases that prevent us from attending class regularly. Heck, some of us may even have dramatic family or life situations that cast a shadow in our minds, making us a little less capable of focusing and fulfilling the demands in class. These are some of the things that a young ballet student would not normally have to contend with. So beware of adult students’ erratic schedules and the impossibility to attend classes regularly. Try to pace the classes in a way that allows for us to make up for our lost progress. Many of us adult students wish to do well in class so badly, that missing a class itself is a source of stress. And the more stressed up we are, the more easily we get injured. So putting adult students’ mind at ease by offering some make-up classes or words of encouragement would be highly beneficial.

3) As I mentioned above, most ballet studios in Hong Kong do not offer core and flexibility training as a preparation for ballet training. At the same time, most adult students in Hong Kong are impatient and want to learn those “stylish” and “tricky” movements right away—and ballet teachers would give it to their “customers” without hesitation. Unfortunately, skipping this crucial preparatory stage could lead to bad habits/wrong muscle usage down the road, setting the body up for injuries or even repeated injuries. A serious studio would insist on this kind of foundation training for beginners before they are allowed to proceed to the next level. In addition, even though we all know that warm-ups and cool downs are necessary routines before and after a class, how many of us really know which movements are safe and helpful to do? (Read this article about warm-up frustrations.) We need explicit guidance, so it would be a good idea to build those into the class time—and that may mean lengthening the class by another 20-30 minutes. Some teachers or adult students may appall at the extra time they have to put into class time (there are those who habitually show up in class after the plié and leave the classroom as quickly as the reverence was finished), but this is about changing the mindset and creating the right routine for serious and safe training.

4) Adult students can be serious about technique and artistry too! So don’t assume that we are in the studio just to pass some time, have some some fun or get some exercise done to lose weight. Yes, those are some of the common motives. But many of us really want to learn to do ballet properly,  seriously and beautifully. So correct us properly and don’t be stingy about it. Yes, some of us may be a bit sensitive about criticism. But only giving compliments would not help us improve. Instead, make it part of the education process to let adults know that constructive criticism is part of ballet training and necessary for progress. On the other hand, do give confirmations or compliments whenever they are due. I know some teachers who never openly give praises for fear that certain students may get jealous. Well, if you give compliments to individual students for the improvements they have made over time—whether obvious or small, and take turn in giving each student some attention and correction from time to time, I don’t see why there would be an issue.

5) This last point is as much for the studio owner/teachers as for adult ballet students. Interesting enough, many adult students in Hong Kong wish to take RAD class. Their goal is to obtain certificates to prove that they have achieved a certain level of technical ability and artistry. Based on my observation over the years, I have come to understand that some adult students take the exams so seriously that they would risk all kind of injuries to get enough preparatory training for the exams. And in some rare cases, angry birds might surface when their scores come out and they don’t get what they expected or if they get lower scores than their classmates! Perhaps due to the fact that Hong Kong is a former British colony, most ballet schools’ syllabi is based on the RAD system and would enroll their students—even adults—in exams. The system is also an easy way for studios to maintain profitability because students enrolled in the exams are told they would be required to take X number of classes per week to achieve the right amount of training for their respective levels. Of course adult students are easy targets because many of them are willing to splurge on a hobby that they were often denied of in childhood, now that they are earning money as adults. So, enrolling adult students in exam classes is a sure-fire way to maintain a steady stream of income. And many new adult students are so impressionable, that RAD exam classes are the only way of taking class that they know of. The truth is, not every adult does well in an exam-oriented environment. While some claim that they won’t be motivated to take class if it wasn’t for the exams, some thrive without the constant pressure in the back of their minds. Others really just want to take class and do well. Still some others want to have an opportunity to eventually dance en pointe or/and perform on stage. Regardless, it is important to provide a friendly environment to adult students in which they would not feel pressured to follow the exam track.

Oh, one more thing: As women age and go into the peri-menopausal, pre-menopausal or menopausal stage, some of us have to deal with hormonal changes, which affect us both emotionally (e.g. mood swings, depression, etc.) and physically (weight gain, loss of bone density,  hot flashes, etc.). These are things that most young teachers would have not experienced themselves. As more and more adults start to take ballet classes, and some of them do fall into the age groups that experience these symptoms (the onset of peri-menopause could be as early as in the late 20s but is most common after the mid-30s), there is a whole new area of knowledge that ballet teachers need to equip themselves with. When teaching those of us who are going through these stages of our lives, please try to add a little extra sensitivity and gentleness.

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.