Hong Kong Ballet’s fine Swan Lake

Grand Theatre, Hong Kong Cultural Centre
November 2, 2019

David Mead

After Hong Kong Ballet’s (香港芭蕾舞團) International Gala of Stars (國際芭蕾巨星匯), which included several excerpts from Swan Lake, the company’s full staging of the classic resumed at the Cultural Centre. There is much right about John Meehan’s production, which never drags. The story is told cleanly and clearly; the ensemble dances and variations are all pleasing; Peter Farmer’s set, which unsurprisingly looks very similar to his designs for English National Ballet, works well; and just one relatively short interval means that it’s all done and dusted well inside two and a half hours.

The guest stars having departed, it was back to Hong Kong Ballet’s own dancers to take the lead roles. Of the two casts I saw, the evening pairing of Ye Feifei (葉飛飛) and Wei Wei (魏巍) took the honours. A well-matched pairing, they were totally absorbing, holding you firmly in their grip.

Ye has a beautifully pliant and expressive back, particularly noticeable as Odette. Always graceful, her arms rippled as they stretched skywards; flight, escape, freedom forever denied. Like the dark like the lake beyond, her whole body oozed sadness as she melted into the thoughtful and attentive Wei’s firm arms.

Ye Feifei, Wei Wei and Hong Kong Ballet in Swan LakePhoto Tony Luk
Ye Feifei, Wei Wei and Hong Kong Ballet in Swan Lake
Photo Tony Luk

In the Black Swan pas de deux, she was wickedly delightful, drawing Wei in, then gleefully playing him before closing the trap. Little things count for a lot. There were all the little looks back to her master and then to Siegfried to make sure he was following but best was one lovely moment when she gently but firmly removed his hand from her hip. You knew she now had him snared but just to be sure, she was going to play and tease him just a little longer before snapping the trap shut.

Not only is Ye’s technique assured but she has that knack of being able to find time that extra little bit of time in the music. One unsupported balance in arabesque seemed to go on for ever. There was a fine set of fouettés too.

Wei is a fine Siegfried, able to put his own stamp on what is not the easiest character. Whatever he does, he has the big plus of princely bearing and exudes that so important quality of presence. At the Act I preparations for his coming of age ball, he was animated, chatting to his tutor and acknowledging everything that was going on. His reaction to his mother’s decision that it was time for him to marry wasn’t so much an unenthusiastic ‘Do I have to’ as a downright rebellious ‘No way! You must be joking’.

Hong Kong Ballet in Swan LakePhoto Keith Hiro
Hong Kong Ballet in Swan Lake
Photo Keith Hiro

Scrolling back to the afternoon, Wang Qingxin’s (汪慶欣) Odette was nicely fragile if a little lacking in depth of passion. As Odile, she blossomed. Bright, confident and sparky, like Ye later, she left everyone in no doubt she knew just what she was doing.

As Siegfried, Li Jiabo (李嘉博) was keen but lacked stature, and in Act I also looked totally disinterested. While that’s a reasonable attitude for Siegfried to adopt, it can be taken too far. Not only Li’s face but his whole body drew a blank. Watching the peasants dance may have been a poor second to hunting with his friends (his face did light up when given his birthday present bow), but even so. There was not even much reaction when the fine Conrad Dy-Liacco, who by now clearly had one too many goblets of wine, maybe several, tried to dance with the ladies and got firmly put in his place. Things picked up when he danced, but while he leapt and turned easily, a number of finishes were marred neither clean nor accurate.

At the ball, all Siegfried’s potential marriage partners shone although I was especially taken by Yang Ruiqi’s (楊睿琦) sunny and vibrant Spanish Princess in the afternoon, and Amber Lewis’ airy Neapolitan in the evening. Lewis’ escort, Shen Jie (沈杰) also made everything look equally effortless, although if I have a gripe about those dances, it’s that sometimes we see more of the accompanying dancers than we do of the princess herself. Also, whipping the veils off each of the prospective brides does look rather like a waiter taking the lids off tureens for prospective diners. Actually, maybe there’s not that much difference.

Amber Lewis as the Neapolitan Princess with Shen Jie in Swan Lake Photo Keith Hiro
Amber Lewis as the Neapolitan Princess with Shen Jie in Swan Lake
Photo Keith Hiro

The principals and soloists were superbly supported by the ensemble. If it is true that the overall strength of a company is measured by the standard of its corps, Hong Kong Ballet is in fine shape. In Act I, the dances were full of brightness and energy; the two pas de quatre casts sparkled (in the evening especially), both featuring light but high leaps from the men; and the swans moved as one.

Most ballets have a weak spot somewhere, and in Hong Kong Ballet’s Swan Lake it is Von Rothbart. At the lakeside in particular, the character lacks almost anything in strength and stature, due in large part to the costume and it’s ineffectual, lightweight wings that when spread reveal no more than a man in a body suit. One swipe with one of his swan’s wings and he would be dispatched for ever, you feel.

But that’s a relatively small quibble. Hong Kong Ballet’s Swan Lake is a fine production from a fine company, guaranteed to send you home happy.