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?
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.
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?
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,” 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.