Awakening the inner child: Hong Kong Ballet’s Nutcracker

Hong Kong Cultural Centre
December 20, 2016

Joy Wang X.Y.

In its own whimsical way, Nutcracker encapsulates a beautiful promise: that an inner child lives in each of us and that we can prolong that state of wide eyed wonder every time we choose to suspend disbelief. Nutcracker doesn’t have to come addled with Freudian complications to convince us of its seriousness.

At Hong Kong Ballet (香港芭蕾舞團), Terence Kohler’s production, a traditional retelling of an old narrative, recognises that adulthood, kinship and life’s natural rites of passage are themes complex enough. The canon spurts sparkle and glitter, the mice have Star Wars eyes. Perhaps that’s why the tortured angst of Clara and Fritz’s Act 1 duet (she thinks the Nutcracker is dead) feels a tad misplaced. And a few of the lifts seem to come straight out of Manon’s swamp scene.

Hong Kong Ballet in The Nutcracker(foreground dancers here: Chung-long Leung, Wei Wei)Photo Conrad Dy-Liacco
Hong Kong Ballet in The Nutcracker
(foreground dancers here: Chung-long Leung, Wei Wei)
Photo Conrad Dy-Liacco

Here, Clara’s adventure begins when, in search of her kidnapped brother, she enters the doll house, which, it turns out, has a life of its own. If you think about it, the doll house the mantelpiece of a child’s unformed, shape shifting imagination is the logical meeting place for realism and fantasy. A ‘halfway house’, it marks an intermediary point, the moment when the child is capable of fantasy but still capable too of believing in that fantasy.

I admire too the idea that there are other things, other rubicons (apart from romantic love) that once crossed are equally central to selfhood. Clara and Fritz dance a platonic pas de deux and though she helps save the Nutcracker, it is only to return him to the embrace of another. It works that Jie Shen (沈杰) and Dong Rui-xue (董瑞雪) have a nice freedom, a chaste complicity in their duets. He makes for a likeable and convincing Fritz while Dong is a lyrical Clara whose petulance quickly transforms into resourceful determination.

Because the ballet takes a European family as its imaginative centre, Act 2’s romp through colonial hinterlands can so easily go wrong. There are nice touches. Clara plays a game of blind man’s bluff to decide the order in which the different dolls appear. Kohler has the Chinese dolls executing martial arts tumbles and flips, the Mirlitons resembling Cinderella’s stepsisters, the Spanish, strongly danced by Ye Fei-fei (葉飛飛), sauntering with sultry pleasure. The Egyptian dolls, however, still have an awful lot of bending and very little clothes.

Hong Kong Ballet in The Nutcracker by Terence KohlerPhoto Conrad Dy-Liacco
Hong Kong Ballet in The Nutcracker by Terence Kohler
Photo Conrad Dy-Liacco

At the heart of doll land, is a pas de deux for the reunited Ballerina (Kohler’s equivalent of the Sugar Plum Fairy) and Nutcracker. There is nothing that resembles child’s play about the herculean lifts that Yao Jin (金瑶) and Ryo Kato are tasked to performed. If their pas de deux lacked that vital sense of epiphany, of clear eyed nostalgia, there was still much to celebrate.

While there are dancers in this company with purer lines and more pristine technique there are not many, I think, who can draw up into fifth, chest lifting towards her partner, head adoringly titled and find so much rapture. And so, where Yao’s lines end seems less important than how it begins, from the heart and reaching deep into the music’s belly. The flicks of the wrist that begin the ballerina solo, often merely decorative, are stylish. Repeatedly Kohler has the ballerina drawing little circles, small ronds de jambe, with a swivelling motion. In one particular set, Yao conveyed a sense of tender suspense, as if surreptitiously sweeping herself off balance and restoring herself simultaneously. A pity then that much of that solo is taken up by some combination of Italian fouettés pulling into more turns. Ivanov’s original with the ballerina shimmeringly light on her toes had a special celestial grace

As for Kato, his technical ability is beyond doubt. He could afford to be have more princely manners but his dancing is quite remarkable. The double tours en l’air are lofty and soundless. The pirouettes, architecturally sound, are exciting and ambitious. The double assemblés are gorgeously inclined. Everything ends in beautiful fifths, everything is effortless. Somewhere in the middle of the coda he runs out of space but not of steam. He is so very, very promising.

As always, the ballet company was ably supported by the Hong Kong Sinfonietta, led this time, by Andrew Mogrella.