Hong Kong Ballet: five(by)six

March 18, 2021

David Mead

Kicking off Hong Kong Ballet’s (香港芭蕾舞團) turn(it)out festival (盡演(芭蕾)藝術節), co-presented by Freespace at the West Kowloon Cultural District (西九文化區) and streaming for free from March 18 to April 4, five(by)six (六人五作) features five contemporary ballets by six international dance-makers.

The programme gets off to a fine start with the world premiere of Handelwerk by Netherlands-based American choreographer Stephen Shropshire, who has recently started a three-year artistic residency with Hong Kong Ballet. The title is a play on words. It is performed to Handel’s Keyboard Suite no.7 in G Minor, HWV 432, but as Shropshire explains in his introduction, Dutch for ‘trade’ or ‘craft’ is ‘handel’, “so, it’s a craft work.” A ballet that’s really just about movement to music, it’s certainly that. It’s also always pleasing, always musical, and beautifully classical.

Jonathan Spigner and Ye Feifei in Handelwerk by Stephen ShropshirePhoto Conrad Dy-Liacco
Jonathan Spigner and Ye Feifei in Handelwerk
by Stephen Shropshire
Photo Conrad Dy-Liacco

Shropshire follows the music closely. The heart of the ballet are its most appealing parts. The Andante sees a pleasing duet for Henry Seldon and Albert Gordon but it’s with the Allegro that things really take off. The choreography is as playful as the music, dancer Amber Lewis clearly having fun with the solo’s complex series of turns and small jumps.

The choreography of the pas de deux to the following Sarabande is as harmonic as the music. There’s a suggestion of a relationship as Ye Feifei (葉飛飛) and Jonathan Spigner dance with a dignified tenderness. All the time, the elegance of the music is matched by their warmth and flow. Ye has gorgeous lingering, reaching lines and a sense of yearning, while Spigner’s partnering is caring and gentlemanly.

The closing Passacaille is bright, the choreography a pleasing set of variations on sequences that march remorselessly on, becoming increasingly virtuosic. It’s just unfortunate that much of the sense of patterning and positioning of dancers on the stage is lost by the camera so often appearing to film from the side of the stage, sometimes peering over the shoulders of the pianist (the excellent Rachel Cheung, 張緯晴).

(l-r) Yang Ruiqi, Forrest Rain Oliveros, Gao Ge and Leung Chunlong in Beyond The Line by Nguyen Ngoc AnhPhoto Conrad Dy-Liacco.
(l-r) Yang Ruiqi, Forrest Rain Oliveros, Gao Ge and Leung Chunlong in Beyond The Line by Nguyen Ngoc Anh
Photo Conrad Dy-Liacco.

In his intro, artistic director Septime Webre explains that his new Second Movement (第二樂章), to the Second Movement of Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik, depicts a ballerina (Chen Zhiyao, 陳稚瑶) and the end of life, looking back but also looking forward to what awaits her in the world beyond. The man (Garry Corpuz) is a dark angel of sorts, come to escort her there. While the pleasing pas de deux has a certain wistfulness about it at times, it is far from as dark as the subject might suggest. Indeed, there are moments when it’s playful.

I just wish the camera could have been kept still for a while. It is constantly on the move, more often than not swirling round the dancers. It is like being on a theme park ride and does the dance and the viewing no favours at all.

It is difficult to decipher much from the excerpts shown of Nguyen Ngoc Anh’s Beyond The Line (越‧界). Premiered in 2013 at the Ho Chi Minh Opera House and danced inside a set of bamboo-coloured tapes that fan out from the top of the flies, East meets West in a sometimes slightly uncomfortable collage of styles from classical ballet to the contemporary movement favoured by likes of Wayne McGregor. There’s even what amounts to stylised wrestling. The music, Duong xa van dam (The Road to Infinity) by Quoc Trung, is a mix too.

Nana Sakai and Shen Jie in Galatea & Pygmalion by Justyne Li and Wong Tan-kiPhoto Conrad Dy-Liacco
Nana Sakai and Shen Jie in Galatea & Pygmalion by Justyne Li and Wong Tan-ki
Photo Conrad Dy-Liacco

While I didn’t get much sense of the work symbolising strength and resilience to overcome personal challenges as suggested by the programme note (that probably comes through better in the full work), I do wonder if its fusion of influences somehow reflects Nguyen’s homeland that has had Chinese, French and American cultural influences layered on its own Vietnamese.

The opening of Galatea & Pygmalion by Justyne Li Sze-yeung ( 李思颺) and Wong Tan-ki (王丹琦) is rather too literal for my liking as the sculptor Pygmalion chips away as he creates what is to be the statue of Galatea. But I’ll forgive that, because once she comes to life, the dance is absolutely riveting.

Set to the second movement of Philip Glass’ driving Tirol Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, the Hong Kong choreographic duo retell the classic Greek myth, exploring the relationship between creator and creation.

The always clean and precise Nana Sakai (酒井那奈) as Galatea and Shen Jie (沈杰) as Pygmalion have a remarkable chemistry. The choreography in the duets is incredibly inventive with plenty of unusual lifts and supports. As the relationship develops, there’s just a hint of provocativeness from her that pulls him along. Both also reach out brilliantly across the digital divide in their solos. I also very much liked the revolving clockface projected onto the floor that represents the passing of time, and on which they dance. It’s easy to see why the work has won awards. Galatea & Pygmalion is quite, quite superb, and for all the other excellent pieces, the undoubted highlight of five(by)six.

Hong Kong Ballet in Sombrerisimo by Annabelle Lopez OchoaPhoto Conrad Dy-Liacco
Hong Kong Ballet in Sombrerisimo by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa
Photo Conrad Dy-Liacco

The streaming rounds off with another award-winner, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Sombrerisimo (極端黑暗), originally made for Ballet Hispanico of New York City in 2013. As the programme note suggests, the ballet does make reference to the paintings of René Magritte in that it does feature six men in bowler hats (it can be danced by an all-female cast too), but that’s about as far as that goes. What it really is, is a fun ballet, colourful and Latin-edged, that highlights manliness and male virility. Again, I could have done with a little less busy camerawork and editing, though.

Hong Kong Ballet’s five(by)six can be watched on YouTube.

For details of the rest of the turn(it)out season, visit www.hkballet.com.