Anna Karenina; Choreographer: Christian Spuck; Photo: Gregory Batardon
This year’s Hong Kong Arts Festival again opened with a ballet program. The company was the Zurich Ballet, which made a welcome return to the Festival after more than a decade. In 2004 this small-sized Swiss company gave two memorable pure dance programs choreographed by its then artistic director Heinz Spoerli. The company’s present artistic director is Christian Spuck.
Hong Kong Ballet has danced a comic duet by this German choreographer before. His 2014 dramatic work Anna Karenina was the opening presentation of this festival. Local audiences had already seen during LCSD’s World Cultures Festival in 2013 a magnificent version of Anna Karenina choreographed by Boris Eifman for his Eifman Ballet from Russia. This two-act Spuck version, though lasting just over two hours, feels terribly long and repetitive. The problem is that Spuck is too ambitious in cramming too much of the story into the ballet. A careful reading of the synopsis in the program would be advisable before the curtain rises.
Set to an odd mélange of Rachmaninov and other contemporary composers, Spuck’s ballet opens with a prologue set in the Moscow train station, which is echoed by the ending in which the whole cast also assembles at the train station after Anna’s tragic suicide.
Act 1 has as many as ten different scenes, while Act 2 has six scenes. It feels like a perfunctory cramming in of as many strands of Tolsty’s novel. The secondary couple of Kitty and the wealthy landowner Levin is given more prominence here than in other productions. No surprise that Act 1 feels interminable. It’s not helped by Spuck whose narrative isn’t all that clear. The focus is diffused in the beginning of Act 1 until the ballroom scene. The duet with Anna and her lover Vronsky is the best scene in Act 1. At the end he takes off his shirt to have sex with Anna.
The horse-racing scene, which expresses the jealousy of Anna’s husband Karenin, is theatrical. However, in the next haymaking scene featuring the landowner Levin, the ensemble dances are too long and repetitive. Also suffering from longueur is the trio for Anna, her husband Karenin, and Vronsky at the end of Act 1.
Act 2 is much grimmer. And it has so many duets it made one feel breathless. The final suicide scene is economically presented by means of video and isn’t overly melodramatic.
Fortunately, the opening night cast’s excellence redeemed the unevenness of Spuck’s production. Viktorina Kapitonova, who danced Anna in the 2014 première, was superb, conveying every nuance of Anna’s contradiction and unhappiness. As her suffering husband, Filipe Portugal was sympathetic. Tars Vandebeek danced brightly as the landowner Levin. But William Moore lacked charisma as Vronsky.
Spuck’s choreography is generally serviceable but lacking variety and originality. The costume designs by Emma Ryott are excellent, while the backdrops are simple but effective. Overall, this production of Anna Karenina cannot match the ecstasy and passion of the Eifman Ballet’s production. A second mixed program would also have been welcome, to better reflect the Zurich Ballet’s artistic range. The company was
stronger on its last visit under Spoerli.
Pas de deux for Toes and Fingers
Fortunately, another dance program presented by the festival a few days later lifted the spirits. Bolshoi Ballet star Svetlana Zakharova, returning to the festival, joined her husband, the famous violinist Vadim Repin in a short gala programme Pas de deux for Toes and Fingers. There were ten numbers, five of which featured Zakharova. They provided a good variety displaying the unique artistry of this great Russian ballerina.
Zakharova won the biggest applause for her performance of the famous solo Dying Swan. Her flexibility and pliancy was also shown to good dramatic effect in the mournful solo Revelations choreographed by Japanese choreographer Motoko Hirayama. At the end of this piece she balanced herself precariously on a chair.
In the opening duet from Raymonda, Asami’s choreography for Zakharova and Mikhail Lobukhin was just conventional. In Russian choreographer Vladimir Varnava’s short piece, Plus.Minus.Zero, the mood was relentlessly gloomy. And the choreography was pretty average, and didn’t match the expressiveness of Arvo Part’s music.
But fortunately, the final comic piece La ronde des lutins choreographed by Johan Kobborg provided an upbeat finale for the evening. More of such big star gala programs please in future festivals!
Choreographer: Christian Spuck
Performance: 23 February 2018 19:30 Grand Theatre, Hong Kong Cultural Centre
Pas de deux for Toes and Fingers
Dancer: Svetlana Zakharova
Violinist: Vadim Repin
Performance: 27 February 2018 19:30 Grand Theatre, Hong Kong Cultural Centre
started reviewing dance in 1997. He has contributed to many publications including The Financial Times, Wall Street Journal Asia, Hong Kong Economic Journal, South China Morning Post, Time Out Hong Kong, Moscow Times, Ballet Review (USA), and Ballet 2000 (Italy).