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