“Jewels” at Lincoln Center Festival : A Joyous and Innovative Celebration of Balanchine’s Ingenuity

"Jewels" at Lincoln Center Festival 2017 - Curtain Call - Balletomanehk.com

It took me two days to calm down from the excitement of having watched the opening performance of “Jewels” at this year’s Lincoln Center Festival in New York. In celebration of the ballet’s 50th anniversary, three of the world’s top … Continue reading

‘The Sleeping Beauty’ by Mikhailovsky Ballet

Mikhailovsky Ballet: "The Sleeping-Beauty" - www.balletomanehk.com
This year, the Hong Kong Arts Festival presented “The Sleeping Beauty” by Mikhailovsky Ballet of Russia. Like winning the lottery, I happened to have bought the tickets for the show with Polina Semionova and Leonid Sarafanov in the leading roles.

Prior to the performance, my biggest expectation was to see Polina and Leonid flaunting their extraordinary technique on stage, but the show turned out to give me so much more. I didn’t realize that the choreography is by Nacho Duato, a Spanish choreographer known for his European contemporary style. The changes from the “traditional version” with Petipa’s choreography and staged by the Mariinsky Theater, along with the brilliant costumes and sets designed by  Agnelina Atlagic, kept me wide awake the whole evening.

One refreshing change in Duato’s choreography is the absence of mimes. “I try to show the characters and their replationships through dance,” he said in an interview published in the playbill, adding that the mime scenes were a device in the old days for the principal dancers to take some time to rest in between, but due to the improved techniques and stronger dancers today, such a device is unnecessary.

With this change, the music becomes more alive with continuous dance movements without much slowing down of the momentum. Even the King and the Queen were seen dancing (the Queen visibly more), making them characters that are more vibrant.

When it comes to the movement style, the non-classical use of the arms and the head and  the sometimes exaggerated extension of the torso reminds me of William Forsythe–but dressed in Baroque costumes! To the traditionalists, this may look very jarring. But when this style was used by the fairies, it exudes a kind of oddity that is quite acceptable and amusing to me. After all, these are fairies with non-human qualities, and such movements add humor to the piece.

While many of Petipa’s classical steps have been altered, the overall feeling I got while watching the show was that the emphasis on the inner emotions of the characters trumps the flaunting of bravura techniques and high extensions. Many a high arabesque has given way to a more subdued line such as a lot of moderate back attitudes and low arabesques. There seems to be a more natural progression of the story line, with more subtle emotions conveyed as the number of exciting “tricks” was reduced.

Speaking of inner emotions, I really enjoyed the brilliant interpretations of Polina and Leonid in their respective roles. Polina was the perfectly convincing 16-year-old when she first appeared, innocent, wide-eyed, coquettish. When she was pricked by the huge needle given to her by Carabosse, you can literally see her energy diminish, as if her soul actually left her body on stage. I especially like the scene where she woke up after being kissed by the Prince and stumbled in a frail body before being able to walk again. The transition between a 100-year-old sleep wasn’t so abrupt as some of the other versions I have seen, where Aurora just perked up in a split of a second, ready to stand upright en pointe! (I later heard from my teacher, who was sitting very close to the stage, that Polina actually stumbled by mistake and made a thump, but it was a detail that I missed, being seated in the top circle).

Leonid also played his role as Prince Désiré extremely well, expressing a big contrast between how disinterested he felt about the women in the hunting scene and how he was enchanted by the Lilac Fairy and was later completely love-struck by the appearance of Aurora in a vision.

Without the miming, there was enough time for the characters to express their emotions more fully, and this was the biggest satisfaction that I got from Duato’s version.

Ekaterina Borchenko danced the Lilac Fairy and put up a strong performance. Her character played a heavier role than Petipa’s version, tying the various pieces of the plot with a red thread (or purple thread for that matter!). Some remarked though that the role should’ve been danced by a more experienced dancer who can hold down the ford.

The portraits of the fairies were a bit disappointing as the individual differences were not pronounced enough, neither through the choreography nor the music.

The Garland Waltz at the beginning of the ballet were danced by young adults instead of the usual children dancers in the original version, and the peach-green costumes really made the dancers look as if they were flowers swaying in the breeze.

I love the sets and the costumes. The contrasting lighting and colors of the sets between the scenes was a clever device to contrast the good with the evil, with black being the predominant color with every appearance of Carabosse, the evil fairy, whose costume and character play was outstanding.

As for the costumes, the ornamental Baroque style done in a restrained, minimalist way was a feast for the eyes. The colors were luxurious and harmonious. No wonder these costumes were worthy of a catwalk (see video below):

Now, let’s talk about the Rose Adagio, the highlight of every “Sleeping Beauty” production. I don’t recall seeing any actual roses received by Aurora during the scene. The four princes were given more frequent rounds to approach the Princess and so it appeared that each of them was given relatively less importance than in the traditional version. While Polina’s technique was impeccable, the focus of the dance, so tightly arranged, seemed to steer the audience in the direction of feeling the frustration of the Princess in having to choose among the four uninteresting princes rather than gasping at her technique alone. This subtle difference gives this adagio a refreshing feel.

The final wedding scene was wonderful and not too drawn out. I love the pussy cat scene a lot more than the Blue Bird, which did not show enough exuberance in my view. The solos and pas de deux by Polina and Leonid were the true highlights of the evening. Polina’s beauty and talent shined as brightly as her glittery tutu, while Leonid’s superior ballon and jumps were a show-stopper. There was a very sweet chemistry between the two.

All in all it was a very enjoyable performance, and it was a dream come true to see the two superstars of today’s ballet world up close!

Balletomanehk with Leonid Sarafanov at the Cultural Centre - www.balletomanehk.com

Yours truly with Leonid Sarafanov at the Cultural Centre–Alas! The picture is so blurry due to my cheap smartphone, but still happy to have taken a snapshot with him. Wasn’t lucky enough to take a picture with Polina though.

Flexibility at the Expense of Grace

Browsing the social media for dance pictures can become a mind-numbing habit, so much as that certain traits start to become a main theme that they are being taken for granted as the “must-have’s” if one is to become a great dancer. One of such traits is flexibility.

I don’t know about you, but some oversplits just look downright ugly to me.

Have a look at this Instagram account Godatu Dance (https://www.instagram.com/godatu.dance). While many of the photos show beautiful poses, the majority of the dancers featured are flauting how flexible they are. I can’t help but lament the overemphasis of this quality. True, flexibility does give dance a certain “wow” factor. It is a show stopper. But it is not the only thing that counts when it comes to dance quality. I’m afraid so much of today’s training focus has been put on flexibility, such as the ability to do the oversplit, that the element of grace is being compromised, not to mention that many young dancers have actually sustained severe injuries to their hips or back that would have a detrimental effect on their future career.

Have a look at dance physiotherapist Lisa Howell’s article on this subject:

Oversplits in Second — What are the Risks?

Here is another very good article about oversplits. Are they necessary? Are they desirable? Have a look.

Oversplits — Overdoing It?

Because of the overemphasis on flexibility, an occasional sighting of a ballet pose with a low extension done with grace has become extra refreshing. Have a look at this one:

Dancer: Rachel Richardson, corps de ballet at American Ballet Theatre. Photo: Luis Pons Photography.

Dancer: Rachel Richardson, corps de ballet at American Ballet Theatre. Photo: Luis Pons Photography.

Fredrik Ashton’s choreography is a great example of how ballet can be extraordinarily beautiful and entertaining without the high extensions. Enjoy this delightful Rhapsody pas de deux.

Actually, ballets like Ashton’s are inspiring for us adult ballet students as not all of us can achieve the kind of flexibility and high extensions that are considered ideal. But what we can do is to try and achieve a beautiful line by extending our body to cover as much space as possible. Working with the upperbody using épaulement is a good way to achieve a beautiful line.

Balletomanehk.com

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.