Dancers: Marcelo Gomes, Jin Yao; Photo: Conrado Dy-Liacco
In their quest to make the 19th-century tale of the ghost of a Bavarian peasant maiden who saves a worthless aristocrat from a gruesome death feel relevant, stagers grappling with Giselle often fuss too much. Unless they’re Hong Kong Ballet. This season, Septime Webre and Charla Genn had the nerve and good taste to offer us a wholly traditional Giselle minus the excessive dramatics, tedious sideshows, and pointless elaborations that bedevil many contemporary stagings.
With legend-in-his-own-time Julio Bocca on hand to coach the dancers, and vibrant new choreography around the edges for the village ensemble in Act I and ghostly Wilis in Act II, the company danced with vitality and refinement. And the stylistic unity emanating from their unusually diverse ranks offered an indisputable rebuke to reactionaries who maintain that ballet requires a body type and ‘look’ originally defined by white Europeans.
Just under half of the company hail from the mainland, the rest from Hong Kong and 11 other countries. Yet they’ve evidently all been schooled to deploy arms, hands, wrists and fingers in a restrained yet artful manner, which makes an alluring hallmark.
In this production, pacing, narrative emphasis, and acting provide a convincing through-line from the realism of Act I to the unearthly dream world of Act II, perfumed with memory and regret. Beyond an expression of the French Romantic preoccupation with the supernatural powers of women (which seems rather silly today), this Giselle is an urgent and timeless moral tale of betrayal and salvation.
In the role of Giselle on opening night, Jin Yao made a persuasive connection between the impulsive young woman in Act I and her ghostly spirit in Act II. Giselle waltzes to express her joy at being in love, heedless of a heart condition. Jin executed these dances with crisp precision and a daring that underscored the risk Giselle was taking. In her terrifying ‘mad’ scene, despair and anger were born of fragility and betrayal. Once dead, her despair morphed into sorrow, anger channeled into a hell-bent determination to get her faithless lover out of the clutches of the vengeful Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis. While Jin possesses the fleetness of foot, delicacy of gesture, and steely poise required to pull off the difficult adagio and allegro work in Act II, she steered away from an entirely ethereal interpretation, giving this Giselle a bit more fire and earthiness.
She was supported tenderly and magnificently by guest artist Marcelo Gomes in the role of Count Albrecht. Disguised as a common peasant in order to woo Giselle, Gomes as Albrecht was an ardent flirt in Act I though not an out-and-out cad. He seduced without showiness, through panther-like jumps that landed in luxurious backbends, and fluid pirouettes. In mini-epic clashes, he and Li Jiabo (very fine in the role of the game-keeper Hilarion, also smitten with Giselle) made fools of themselves in front of her. Not merely a hotheaded bumpkin, Li gave Hilarion real character depth. As did Ricky Hu in the normally thankless role of the Count’s squire. Lindzay Chan, too, shone as Giselle’s mother. She projected genuine warmth through her twinkling eyes and generous smile, but put Gomes in his place with an icy gaze – and was not over-awed by the aristocratic hunting party that showed up at her doorstep.
As Albrecht’s duplicity was exposed, we watched Gomes rocked by embarrassment and horror, unable to shed the nobleman’s sense of entitlement. In Act II, however, remorse overwhelmed him as he sought out Giselle’s gravesite in the ghostly woods; in his encounters with Giselle’s ghostly form, Jin had to scrape him up off the ground repeatedly and will him to dance, to stave off the death sentence imposed by the Wilis. His bursts of virtuosic jumping signaled increasing desperation.
After 14 years with the company, Jin retired from the stage with this series of performances as Giselle – a dynamite leave-taking.
Hong Kong Ballet didn’t just get the big things right with this production; they have preserved some small vital details that many contemporary stagings dispense with. Like the aristocratic hunting dog (in this case, a splendid greyhound). And the bridal veils that are magically whisked off the heads of the Wilis when they first appear en masse – a stark reminder that these are the ghosts of jilted brides.
On opening night, Ye Feifei in the role of Myrtha, the proto-feminist leader of this ghostly pack, danced with an impressive austerity of manner. She conveyed her strength of purpose through knife-like piqués, windswept jumps, and quicksilver footwork, her eyes like mysterious dark pools. Her lieutenants Ayano Haneishi and Dong Ruixue gave equally bulletproof performances, upper bodies singing, limbs flashing like swords. The troop of Wilis acquitted themselves with great style (though I was hoping they’d actually fling the ill-fated Hilarion into the lake rather than nudge him to make the big leap.)
Conductor Andrew Mogrelia did not always keep up with the ballerinas – though this didn’t seem to faze them. All was forgiven, however, as Act II progressed and the Hong Kong Sinfonietta spun poetry from Adolphe Adam’s prosaic score.
writes about dance in Hong Kong, London, both coasts of the United States and the oft-forgotten cities in between where dance is thriving. Her writing is published on various sites including KQED Arts, the Huffington Post, Bachtrack, and Ballet to the People. Carla trained as a ballet and modern dancer with Ballet Philippines and at Yale University.
Original Choreography: Jean Coralli, Jules Perrot
Additional Choreography and Staging: Septime Webre, Charla Genn
Performance: 27 October 20:00 Grand Theatre, Hong Kong Cultural Centre