From 20 to 22 November 2015, Hong Kong Ballet revived renowned Dutch choreographer Rudi van Dantzig’s 1967 Romeo and Juliet based on Shakespeare’s play. With a limited run of five performances accompanied by Hong Kong Sinfonietta, Hong Kong Ballet presented this two-and-a-half-hour classic love story with a cast of 38 dancers on the Grand Theatre stage of Hong Kong Cultural Centre.
This version by van Dantzig, who passed away in 2012, stays faithful to Shakespeare and the traditional costuming and masterful stage design by Toer van Schayk take audiences back to 16th Century Italy and the beautiful city of Verona. The ballet begins with a clash between Capulets and Montagues, progresses to the young lovers meeting at a grand ball, and moves on to the sealing of the lovers’ fates in the unforgettable balcony scene. Their love becomes central, as events and destiny lead toward the tragic yet romantic ending. Throughout the ballet there is a sense of sadness and a strong foreshadowing of death. A giant death figure appears in the town square and moves diagonally downstage through the crowds. Its passage is repeated three times - a symbol of the city’s fate.
In Act One Scene I, van Dantzig draws contrasts between the crowds of common townspeople and the two feuding families. He also makes a distinction between the interaction of the influential families and the townspeople. The Capulets look down on the common folk of Verona, while the Montagues are friendly and sympathetic towards them. The score by Sergei Prokofiev successfully enhances the ballet’s mood and emotions. The fighting scene illustrating the feud between Capulets and Montagues fully demonstrates the expressive and dramatic power of the music. The music changes to convey a sense of innocence and playfulness when Juliet appears in Act One Scene II. Juliet teases her nurse, plays hide-and-seek behind a curtain. The key melody and the movement motif are repeated a few times, instilling them in the minds of the audience.
Liu Miao-miao, who performed Juliet at the première, played the role with the energy, softness, and innocence of a child; she jumps onto the thigh of her nurse like a little girl. True to Shakespeare’s conceit of using the hands as metaphors in the lovers’ dialogue at their first meeting, Liu uses her hands expressively and filled with emotions. She sends Romeo her kisses with her hands. She beautifully extends her arms as if opening her heart to him. Later she performs amazing backward footwork expressive of the inner torment and indecision about taking the sleep potion, her parents, and her fate. Among the many solos, Liu Miao-miao stood out with her wonderful performance.
Romantic love is as intrinsic to the pas de deux as it is to the sonnet. Liu Miao-miao was partnered by Wei Wei, whose physicality was unconvincing in the role. In the balcony scene and the bedroom duet, the lovers had difficulty showing their blossoming love and passion. They have the technique but there was sadly little chemistry in their performance. Even Wei Wei’s powerful leaps were not enough to show the passion and emotion demanded of the role. The partnering also lacked emotion and as a result, the romantic pas de deux was quite disappointing. The choreography actually requires more figurative imagery between the lovers. This Romeo and Juliet should have invested more effort in bringing this heartbreaking classic to life by showing their teenage love with more emotion – more passion at the beginning and more sorrow at the end of the story.
1. Romeo and Juliet in the bedroom duet. Dancers: Liu Yu-yao and Li Jia-bo Photographer: Conrad Dy-Liacco
2. The most tragic part of the story between the lovers. Dancers: Liu Yu-yao and Li Jia-bo Photographer: Conrad Dy-Liacco
Although some of sound effects were out of sync with the movements in the première (such as the strumming of a guitar and the clash of a sword), Hong Kong Ballet is to be praised for this production that successfully creates a smooth narrative of this timeless tale. The fight scenes with swords and the festive street dances (such as the dance of a couple in orange-colored costumes) made a strong impression on the audience. The death scenes were stunning, as were the hate and revenge expressed by Romeo's friend, Mercutio, and Juliet's cousin, Tybalt. Xia Jun danced Mercutio's extended death scene well with its shifts in mood and tempo. Elizabeth Ferrell, as the nurse, demonstrated strong theatrical technique, using body language to convey her story. Tybalt and Mercutio as ghosts in Act Three were particularly effective as was the use of lighting, face-paint, costume, and change of mood.
The production’s use of space distracted at times and was overcrowded. The set is huge and occupies too much space, especially in Act Two when there are more dancers on stage. The work would have been more successful with a more appropriate balance in the use of the stage space.
*This review was written by a participant of Dance Enhance 2015.
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Fiona SY Kwok
has a degree in Mass Communications. She has a keen interest in different forms of art, including music, dance, and photography.
Date: 20 November 2016
Venue: Grand Theatre, Hong Kong Cultural Centre