Balanchine, Forsythe and Foniadakis in Hong Kong Ballet’s The Rule Breakers

Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts
March 22, 2024

The latest offering from Hong Kong Ballet (香港芭蕾舞團), The Rule Breakers, was a triple-bill of two modern classics and a world premiere: George Balanchine’s Serenade, William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, and the new Strangelove by the Greek choreographer Andonis Foniadakis.

It is a puzzle to me what rule Balanchine broke in Serenade. Hong Kong Ballet last danced this early masterpiece by the greatest of 20th-century choreographers eight years ago. So this was a timely revival of the work, staged this season by Darla Hoover.

Serenade celebrates feminine beauty and the art of ballet itself. It is an emotional work, deeply moving in places, not least when a dancer falls on the stage in the first movement, and towards the end when the ‘Waltz ballerina’ is borne aloft and led towards a higher level of existence, followed by a small retinue of her companions.

Ye Feifei (葉飛飛), the top ballerina in the company at present, was expressive in the Waltz. Jessica Burrows was musical as the ‘Russian’ ballerina, while the lead male role was impressively danced by Gian Carlo Perez, a guest from Houston Ballet. And the corps de ballet danced this revival with more vibrancy and musicality than eight years ago.

Balanchine’s masterworks have been somewhat neglected by the current director Septime Webre since the company premiered Jewels three years ago. But on the basis of the success of Serenade, other Balanchine works danced by the company in the past such as Theme and Variations and Allegro Brillante should also be revived.

Garry Corpuz and Ye Feifei in William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated
Photo Conrad Dy-Liacco

The middle work, appropriately, was Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, perhaps his most famous ballet, here danced for the first time by Hong Kong Ballet, the company premiere being staged by Thierry Guiderdoni. The only Forsythe work the company has danced before is Steptext.

The theme of ‘In the Middle’ is a relentless tension and disequilibrium, enhanced by a striking soundtrack by Thom Willems, Forsythe’s frequent collaborator. Though firmly rooted in the classical tradition, Forsythe’s choreography challenges the dancers further by demanding that they cope with a much faster rhythm that usual, and yet finish each phrase dead sharp.

The ballet has an unusual multiple instead of a central focus. Dancers sometimes face upstage instead of the audience, who see their backs. A duet can take place simultaneously with a solo on the other side of the stage, danced by another dancer observing the couple. In an ensemble dance, dancers may perform different steps instead of being a uniform whole at certain points.

The company coped better than expected with Forsythe’s style. Ye Feifei was again outstanding, partnered by Garry Corpuz in the final pas de deux. Wang Qingxin (汪慶欣) danced her solos powerfully. Albert Gordon dazzled in his, and was exciting in a duet with Jessica Burrows. Indeed, the whole cast was excellent. ‘In the Middle’ is certainly a welcome and worthwhile addition to the company’s repertory. It still seems avant-garde more than 30 years after its premiere.

Hong Kong Ballet in Strangelove by Adonis Fondiakis
Photo Tony Luk

The Rule Breakers closed with Strangelove, a world premiere by Foniadakis, set to songs by British electronic music band Depeche Mode. The décor is minimal, consisting only of two rows of white lights, with the dancers in unitards of different colours.

A useful addition to the repertory, it certainly provides a lot of technically challenging dancing for the dancers. The allegro style is not dissimilar to the Forsythe work preceding it. But it is all one-keyed without any slower section as a contrast. A duet would also have been welcome. And since Foniadakis’ vocabulary is pretty narrow in range and repetitive, the work becomes tedious after a while.

Actually, and despite being new, Strangelove seems less avant-garde than the Forsythe masterpiece from several decades earlier, its impact surely dulled by watching it immediately after In the Middle.