Keelung Cultural Center, Taiwan
October 7, 2017
Now in their 27th year, which makes them one of the longest continuously operating dance companies in Taiwan, Capital Ballet Taipei (台北首督芭蕾舞團) present two faces of ballet in their Scènes de Ballet (芭蕾景緻) programme: the out and out classical, and the decidedly modern and quirky, with even a dash of Abba. And what an enjoyable evening of contrasts it is.
Founder and choreographer Hsu Chin-feng (徐進豐) admits to being a bit of a romanticist. His Serenade (小夜曲), to Dvořák’s Serenade for Strings in E major and Bellini’s La Sonnanbula, is certainly dreamy. It opens with seven women upstage right in flowing romantic dresses. I don’t know if Hsu is an admirer of Balanchine’s ballet of the same title, but it’s one of a number of nods in its direction, others including the famous pose, the dancer with the back of her hand against her forehead. I think I saw one let her hair down as she fell to the floor too.
Hsu, though pitches his dance against a beautiful sunset rather than in the moonlight. Serenade is generally at its best in the ensemble sections where Hsu’s dance is at its most musical and his patterning pleasing. In the opening section there’s also some interesting and unexpected partnering where a woman takes the role usually reserved for a man.
The appearance of Yu Che-yu (余哲宇) in only the shortest of shorts adds some male interest. His slightly impish, puckish dance is a contrast to that of the women, and his presence allows for some lifts and stronger supports. It’s just unfortunate that one of those lifts, one with the woman’s legs splayed in a wide second straight on to the audience, repeated several times, presents a somewhat unfortunate view of his partner.
Four other sections follow. While the theme here is about people chasing love, it’s also about it being a bit like chasing the moon; just when you think you have it, it disappears over the horizon. Sure enough, there is a long pas de deux under the moon between Yu and guest dancer Yeh Li-chuan (葉麗娟). It holds the interest well and includes a number of more testing lifts. The only times things looked less than smooth were when he slid her along the floor.
Maybe nothing is for ever, though, and maybe Yu is on a fool’s errand, because in the unexpected ending of the final section, ‘The Kiss of Luna’, the women suddenly become strongest, and he appears to die, before they disappear, victorious.
Is Serenade all a bit self-indulgent? A little too long? Maybe. But it’s such a lovely watch, I can forgive that.
Then, as they say, for something completely different. Guest choreographer Lily Cheng (鄭莉莉) resides in France. Her occasionally ironic, occasionally goofy, very much tongue-in-cheek La Rencontre (相遇) is not so much an interesting take on the art form, as seven interesting and fun takes on what might happen when dancers, fans and dance styles meet.
The opening ‘When Ballet Lovers Meet’ is delightfully simple. Eight dancers and Hsu, in dark jacket and his trademark cap, change pose repeatedly around three chairs formed up as a sofa, as if someone is taking photographs. Initially deathly serious, as it starts to speed up and break down, it becomes increasingly amusing. How Hsu keeps a straight face (he’s the only one who never moves), I have no idea.
Six more encounters follow. Cheng explores what might happen when a modern dancer meets a ballet dancer, and when ballroom meets ballet, the latter the cue for a very funny ballet lesson for Yu as the starry ballroom guy who fancies himself as a bit of a hunk. The humour is obvious, but it’s also well done, and some of the looks Yu gets from Shih Ya-ling (時雅玲) especially are gems.
Ever wondered what classical ballet might look like to Abba’s Dancing Queen? Watch La Rencontre and you’ll find out. It’s one of the highlights of the piece. It not only works a treat but, in a neat twist, the first part of it is given over to a male solo from Yu.
I found the comedy in ‘When a Superstar Meets Fans’ (Yu again central as the superstar) rather overstretched, although it has to be said the rest of the audience roared with laughter. How nice to see so many youngsters present, by the way. It finishes on a high, though, with everyone having the chance to show off a little before Cheng brings it all together in ‘When All of These Encounter the Audience.’
All told, proof that classical ballet can be just as innovative and entertaining as any modern or contemporary dance. La Rencontre is actually more so than a fair chunk of the latter I’ve seen), if ever that was really needed.
With money very tight and dancers of the standard needed increasingly difficult to find, partly a consequence of ballet’s place towards the bottom of dance’s pecking order, it’s a wonder in some ways that Capital Ballet Taipei survives. But Hsu and his company (and one or two others) continue to show that ballet does have a place in Taiwan, and that it doesn’t have to be the crusty old art form some would have you believe. Dance in Taiwan would be much the poorer without them.