Grand Theatre, Hong Kong Cultural Centre
October 31, 2019
Hong Kong Ballet (香港芭蕾舞團) began life with just five dancers in 1979. How things change! It soon grew into Asia’s leading ballet company, this year’s International Gala of Stars 2019 (國際芭蕾巨星匯) celebrating its 40th birthday in a programme that mixed classic masterpieces with new contemporary works with a host of special guest dancers from around the world.
Through the evening, four photo-montages presented a visual journey of the company’s history. The range of repertory was striking. It was also very noticeable how much Stephen Jeffries did for the company while artistic director. Although disappointing that nothing from that past was restaged, with new works and a preview dotted among the more familiar this was more an occasion for looking forward than back. “Never Standing Still,” as the slogan says at the end of Hong Kong Ballet’s latest colourful and vibrant brand video.
Galas don’t usually start with fireworks, but a look back to the Romantic era in the shape of Jules Perrot’s well-known Pas de Quatre, staged by Tang Min (唐敏), made for a particularly sedate beginning. In tutus a rather deeper pink than usual, Chen Zhiyao (陳稚瑶), Gao Ge (高歌), Yang Ruiqi (楊睿琦) and Ye Feifei (葉飛飛) were perfectly formal and serene.
The intensity was ramped up considerably in the following pas de deux from Bells by Yuri Possokhov, performed by San Francisco Ballet’s Tan Yuan Yuan (譚元元) and Vitor Luiz. Possokhov is known for his visceral and expressive dance, and this certainly fits the bill. There’s no emotional torrent, more a gently flowing but very deep stream. It’s lean and sleek, the mood helped along by the accompanying Rachmaninov Piano Sonata No.2. There’s more than a hint of conversation about it with a particular motif seeing one put a hand over the other’s mouth in a ‘Don’t say it’ sort of gesture.
The couple delighted again later in Edwaard Liang’s The Infinite Ocean, a graceful dance of entwining bodies and delicious lifts set in front of an orange sun on a red sky. Soulful and subtle, it too suited Tan and Luiz perfectly.
The first two world premieres, both male solos, were pleasant enough but struggled for impact. Adura by Maria González Muñoz started with Osiel Gouneo of the Bayerische Staatsoper Ballet in a pool of light. The choreography very much has sense of early evening heat, although again the evocative music, by Palestinian oud group Le Trio Joubran Masar, again helps a lot. Increasingly free-flowing there was very much a sense of Gouneo lost in a world of his own, very much dancing for himself.
YIXI (一席) by Yuh Egami (江上悠), performed by Matthew Golding, now guest principal at Ballet Dortmund also starts in soft pool of light, although this time with a chair. “He’d dance for you” go the lyrics of Jerry Jeff Walker’s Mr Bojangles, and Golding does, but the choreography never hints at the context of the song and says little.
Altogether more interesting and thoughtful was an excerpt from Between the Emotion and the Response (情感與反應之間) by Hu Song Wei Ricky (胡頌威), Hong Kong Ballet’s first full-time choreographer-in-residence, which will premiere in full as part of Hong Kong Cool in February 2020. The programme wasn’t giving anything away but Hu later confirmed that it is inspired by TS Eliot’s poem The Hollow Men and its messages about the modern world, men, and hope; and references to the power of redemption and belief in rebirth.
The snippet shown drew you in immediately. Eliot’s poem talks about “This is the way the world ends.” A tableau of dark figures on a dark background certainly hints at that with Shen Jie (沈杰) a metaphor for the inner heart of the hollow men. Into the blackness runs Ye Feifei, a vision in white, she is the star brightening their inner hearts, while a pas de deux for her and Li Lin (李林) and her pas de deux represents the stars in the dark night. It’s a real creative coming together, the mood very much added to by Olivier Cong’s (江逸天) music and Ng Kong Wah Jane’s (吳江樺) black tunic costumes for the ensemble. The full ballet promises to be something to look forward to.
Swan Lake put in several appearances during the evening. While it was an easy choice, given the company were performing the classic Swan Lake immediately before and after the gala, I wonder if it was the best choice. Excerpts from Act II, including the pas de deux were nicely danced by the Paris Opera Ballet’s Dorothée Gilbert, and Marcelo Gomes. As smooth as cream and beautifully otherworldly, she was a dream Odette in all senses. The backing projection, with the lake gently rippling in the moonlight, was perfect too.
A dash of regular gala fizz arrived just before the interval with the Act III pas de deux. Sparks flew as the spiky Wang Qingxin (汪慶欣) led Li Jiabo (李嘉博) on, although she did take a bit of a wander on the fouettés. Struggling to find princely gravitas, Li was less convincing with unsteady ends to most of his turns. After the break, Li Lin and Shen Jie flew with ease through the men’s variation from the Act I pas de quatre.
It always raises laughs from the audience, but while appreciating the comedy, I’ve never been a particular fan of Christian Spuck’s Le Grand Pas de Deux. Right from her entering through the audience, pausing for the odd word, then climbing clumsily onto the stage, Chen Zhiyao was a delight, however. With thick-rimmed glasses on and handbag never far away, she judged everything to perfection; just enough but never so much that it was too much. How partner Wei Wei (魏巍) kept a straight face, I don’t know.
September Song by Nicholas Palmquist, danced by Gomes, put in a late appearance in place of the big pas de deux from Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon. Yet another male solo, the choreography builds nicely, and has an unusually strong, almost old-fashioned relationship with the music.
Also very enjoyable was a suite of dances from Septime Webre’s The Great Gatsby, his dance version of F Scott Fitzgerald’s classic take on the grand American dream. Helped along by Tim Yip’s (葉錦添) costumes and Billy Novick’s music, it’s very period in spirit, look, tempo, movement and sound.
After In The Valley of Ashes, a strong male ensemble piece led by the light Shen Jie, and Gastby’s Shadow, danced by Matthew Golding, came the highlight. He May Be Your Man is an innovative dance for six in which five men (led by Garry Corpuz) lift, hold and pass between themselves in any number of innovative ways, a woman in red (Chen Zhiyao). She spends as much time off the floor than on it. The excerpts were rounded off with the Daisy and Gatsby pas de deux with Ye Feifei and Golding.
The main part of the evening was rounded off in grand style with the Diane and Acteon pas de deux from La Esmeralda, danced by Ako Kondo of the Australian Ballet and Osiel Gouneo. She was full of strength and delicacy. He let rip, bringing the house to cheers with a fine series of pirouettes and turns.
But more was to come. After a showing of Hong Kong Ballet’s spectacular new brand video that has members of the company pas de deux across basketball courts and dance across pedestrian crossings, on the Star Ferry and Avenue of Stars, swarms of vividly dressed dancers brought the film to life on stage. After a bow by many former dancers of the company, one last surprise came with an on-stage promotion to principal dancer for the startled Chen Zhibao, who only graduated from the Beijing Dance Academy four years ago.