Strong themes, emotion and narrative in the Hong Kong Ballet Choreographers’ Showcase

Studio Theatre, Hong Kong Culture Centre
September 16, 2017

David Mead

While talented choreographers can be found among the dancers of most dance companies, time and other pressures mean they don’t always get the opportunity to show what they can do. Thankfully, that’s not the case at Hong Kong Ballet (香港芭蕾舞團), where the annual Choreographers’ Showcase (編舞家巡禮) has become a welcome regular fixture in the calendar.

Most of the works in the 2017 edition draw on powerful themes, and it was good to see some excellent attempts at narrative, not easy in the mere ten minutes or so that the choreographers had. How pleasing too that most of the dance-makers rooted their choreography in classical technique; not always the case in such programmes.

New artistic director, Septime Webre, is keen that audiences should feel a stronger connection with the company and its dancers. To that end, each choreographer was invited to speak briefly about their work, although I can’t help feeling that short, informal, one-to-one conversations before each work would be more illuminating that the ‘one after the other’ brief statements approach that was adopted. The introductory videos were excellent, though.

Lucas Jerkander (left) and Chen Zhiyao in Demons by Hu Song Wei RickyPhoto Conrad Di-Liacco
Lucas Jerkander (left) and Chen Zhiyao in Demons by Hu Song Wei Ricky
Photo Conrad Di-Liacco

Given the brief rehearsal period, it’s often better to view ballets in such evenings as works in progress, sketches from which a later, larger artwork might grow. Even so, two works stood out as already being something special.

It was a tight call, but best was Demons (魅) by Hu Song Wei (Ricky, 胡頌威), a seven-minute duet performed about desire and its dangers. Chen Zhiyao (陳稚瑶) first appears with the upper half of her body concealed by what looks like a huge red bloom, or maybe it’s a or a strange long-legged bird, or a lantern even. When the ‘petals’ fall, they transform into a swirling skirt, Chen’s head adorned with a 1.4m long pheasant feather that bobs with every move, and that she uses to great effect, drawing it deliciously and erotically across Lucas Jerkander’s chest. It was quite riveting. Beware what you desire, though, because it’s not long before he’s prone on the floor being circled by her. She has her prey, it seems.

Hong Kong Ballet in Infinity Awaits by He Chaoya and Li JiaboPhoto Conrad Di-Liacco
Hong Kong Ballet in Infinity Awaits by He Chaoya and Li Jiabo
Photo Conrad Di-Liacco

Close behind was the opening Infinity Awaits (餘花迷蝶) by He Chaoya (何超亞), a guest from the Hong Kong Dance Company (香港舞蹈團), and Li Jiabo (李嘉博), notable for its strong narrative and seamless bringing together of ballet and Chinese dance, albeit with the emphasis towards the latter, despite the pointework. He and Li take us back to old Shanghai and a woman waiting forever for her long-lost lover; the past and what happened to him being presented cleverly in flashback. Ye Feifei (葉飛飛) gave a heartfelt depiction of the lady whose love disappeared many years ago. Flipping back a few decades, a group of women led by Liao Miaomiao (劉苗苗) as her younger self were the epitome of grace in Jenny Chui’s (徐燕婷) most attractive cheongsam-style costumes. The fight between Li Lin (李林), the lover who’s not returning, and the gangsters hr runs across was suitably athletic and brimming with energy.

Li Lin (in open jacket) and ensemble in Infinity Awaits by He Chaoya and Li JiaboPhoto Conrad Di-Liacco
Li Lin (in open jacket) and ensemble in Infinity Awaits by He Chaoya and Li Jiabo
Photo Conrad Di-Liacco

Infinity Awaits has a lot of story for a short work, and huge potential for further development and fleshing out. I could quite easily see it turning into a two-act ballet. It’s also just the sort of subject matter that is likely to be highly appealing to presenters and audiences alike should Hong Kong Ballet tour to Europe or America.

There was another cracking duet in With-IN by Luis Cabrera, which draws on the theme of the Holocaust, and which he describes as an examination of the raw emotions of fear, loss and longing. A powerful opening section to the driving Yeroushalaim Chel Zahav (from Schindler’s List) features three men and a woman in constantly switching partnerships. It was remarkably together and incorporates well the recurring motifs of a hand in front of the mouth and in front of the eyes (say nothing, see nothing). But then comes the pas de deux, to the theme from the film. The opening sight of Liu Miaomiao (劉苗苗) dancing with a stained white shirt is powerful enough, but Cabrera ramps it up even more when Li Jiabo (李嘉博), clearly representing someone lost or disappeared, appears. The dance that follows is very much all about her, and her feelings. As Li carries, supports and lifts Liu in any number of inventive ways, her face said everything. Emotion was writ large. It oozed from every pore. Wonderful.

Liu Miaomiao in With-IN by Luis CabreraPhoto Conrad Di-Liacco
Liu Miaomiao in With-IN by Luis Cabrera
Photo Conrad Di-Liacco

The biggest emotional impact of the Showcase, however, came in Lucas Jerkander’s Same Old Joe, a tribute to friend and dancer Joseph Bunn, who died of leukaemia last summer aged just 32. Jerkander’s use of film of Bunn (the close-up of his face felt so revealing) and his voice proved deeply moving. The accompanying dance that illustrates the words is neatly constructed but not surprisingly never gets close to the text.

There’s no narrative in BubbleGoose by Jonathan Spigner, a raw piece that’s unashamedly about music and movement. While the choreography has a bit of an urban feel about it, for me it wasn’t edgy enough and didn’t quite come off.

Also abstract is The Bow (弓) by Li Lin (李林). At attempt to draw on two ideas, the bow as a flexible instrument and the bow as a Chinese character, it’s certainly full of ideas, but is confused as Li tries to do too much.

Hong Kong Ballet in Same Old Joe by Lucas JerkanderPhoto Conrad Di-Liacco
Hong Kong Ballet in Same Old Joe by Lucas Jerkander
Photo Conrad Di-Liacco

I also struggled with A Rebel At Heart (存心叛逆) by Yang Ruiqi (楊睿琦), the only female choreographer presenting work. Yang’s dance slightly edgy, angular dance for her sextet of women, or Suhyeon Ahn in a black lacy dressing gown, her more slinky movement the antithesis of the ensemble, could be seen as rebellious. Or both. But neither got close for me.

Closing the evening, L’espoir (盼) by Leung Chunlong (梁晉朗) was a complex three-part work. A pleasing opening duet full of feeling by Leung Chunlong (梁晉朗) and Lai Pui Ki (Peggy, 黎珮琪) is cleverly backed by Dong Yuxin (董雨昕), who is apparently reaching for something she cannot quite attain. I’m unsure what a backing quartet was there for, though. They just detracted from the main focus. The idea of something unattainable returns later in a beautiful moment when a woman reaches out, grabs something in her hand, but when she opens it again, there is nothing there. While the third section is a powerful ensemble part for nine dancers, individuals and small groups emerging effectively from the larger group, in mood, music and style it felt like a completely different work.