Yao Jin’s Marguerite charms: Hong Kong Ballet in Lady of the Camellias

Hong Kong Cultural Centre
Nov 4, 2016 (Yao Jin, Lucas Jerkander)
Nov 6, 2016 (Liu Yu-yao, Wei Wei)

Joy Wang X. Y.

With its sensual angst and tormented passion, Lady of the Camellias (茶花女) makes for a perfect ballet. In theory. In reality, though John Neumeir and Frederick Ashton have both tried their hand at it, the perfect Lady of the Camellias remains an elusive pursuit.

Val Caniporoli’s 1994 take trains its narrative glance firmly on the story’s triptych of relationships, a sort of three-way narrative tension between Marguerite, Armand and the Baron. Having done away with an enormous cast, Caniporoli wastes little time with setting up characters or establishing context. Marguerite makes her entrance with little fanfare. The onus is on the dancer to draw us in. She runs however into a few quagmires.

Yao Jin (Marguerite) and Lucas Jerkander (Armand) in Lady of the CamelliasPhoto Conrad Dy-Liacco
Yao Jin (Marguerite) and Lucas Jerkander (Armand) in Lady of the Camellias
Photo Keith Hiro

Chopin’s score, like running nectar, is sugary, smoothly enchanting. When the choreography tries to wrap the music’s prettiness around its coiling lyricism the effect is rather too literal. The duets and their cartwheeling lifts are lovely to look at but as the ballet wears on the choreography wears thin. Some of it resembles a more contemporary lexicon but its choices particularly in the more emotionally trenchant scenes comes across as simultaneously generic and representative; a ’stand in’ vocabulary that might point to something beyond itself but in itself is rather empty. Yet when it tries, as it does in Act 2, to introduce a stentorian, baritone voice the operatic aside feels overblown. It is a valiant attempt to inject drama but I’m not sure that pushing the ballet from sentimentalism to melodrama and then attempting to move it back into realism – the pas de deux de gives way to a confrontation between the three protagonists and Marguerite’s rather abrupt declamatory reaction – is the best solution.

Yet the ballet moved on opening night because of the touching simplicity of Yao Jin’s (金瑶) Marguerite. Yao is celebrating her 20th anniversary this season, thirteen of which she has spent with the Hong Kong Ballet (香港芭蕾舞團; the first seven was with the National Ballet of China). Director Madeleine Onne says this ballet was acquired with her in mind. It is easy to see why.

Hong Kong Ballet in Lady of the CamelliasPhoto Conrad Dy-Liacco
Hong Kong Ballet in Lady of the Camellias
Photo Conrad Dy-Liacco

Both dreamer and charmer, Yao’s Marguerite charms us and even more charmingly seems to charm herself. That Lucas Jerkander’s Armand, a fresh faced dreamer, tends to disappear in the pas de deux des doesn’t quite matter because with her quiet unaffected beauty, Yao appears to respond to something deep within herself. Cresting on the pearly washes of Chopin’s score, she seems to float in an ether; arms tracing gentle curves while waltzing through space, shoulders twisting with fragrant breeziness. Yao’s sentient lyricism keeps the steps fresh and pulls the ballet back from excess. And when she stiffens her shoulder and her face darkens it is clear that tragedy is also within her grasp.

Orbiting around her, the supporting cast seemed to be straining to find their best selves; they were either too much or too little. Ge Gao (高歌) danced Olympe with a rather childish bellicosity, an unthinking sort of harshness while Dong Rui-xue’s  (董瑞雪) Nichette was too slight. On Sunday afternoon (6th) Dong found a better fit as Marguerite’s vision.

Yao Jin (Marguerite) and Wei Wei (Baron de Varville) in Lady of the CamelliasPhoto Conrad Dy-Liacco
Yao Jin (Marguerite) and Wei Wei (Armand) in Lady of the Camellias
Photo Conrad Dy-Liacco

On Sunday too Yang Rui-qi (楊睿琦) imbued Olympe with leering adult purpose. Her technicolour ambition rather overwhelmed Liu Yu-yao’s (劉昱瑶) Marguerite’s attempts at gentle persuasion. Already queen of her court, Olympe’s eventual triumph felt inevitable. It was that afternoon’s dominant performance. For strutting she was matched by Ryo Kato’s Gaston and for conviction by Jun Xia’s (夏俊) Gustave.

Liu who never seemed quite comfortable at playing the courtesan, largely subsumes herself into Armand’s vision. While that sense of an uneasy artifice is a valid play on Marguerite’s private and public selves, Liu’s reticence (in terms of a lack of narrative agency or urgency) extends into more intimate moments. And while she shares a tender rapport with Wei Wei (魏巍), who shows of her fragile lyricism with expert partnering, we never really get a sense of Marguerite beyond the beautiful shapes Liu makes. It means that Armand becomes the ballet’s driving force. But although Wei captures that puppyish combination of eagerness and disbelief the ballet is skewed towards Marguerite. Armand returns only as a vision. Alexandre Dumas’s metaphors of redemption can be twofold but here the ballet’s focus is on her tragedy (and salvation) and not his bildungsroman.

On the whole, the dancers, the men, at least were quite wonderful. If their commitment was more to step than to character, the latter no doubt will come. They were accompanied beautifully by the Hong Kong Sinfonietta (under the baton of Benjamin Pope) and pianist Colleen Lee.