"Never Standing Still" says the slogan at the end of Hong Kong Ballet's latest colourful and vibrant brand video. That also summed up the company's International Gala of Stars 2019, a generally thoughtful rather than explosive evening of dance interspersed with video- and photo-montages that looked back at its 40 years of history. The range of repertory in the films was striking but it was disappointing that little from that past was brought back for the occasion.
A sedate start came courtesy of Chen Zhiyao, Gao Ge, Yang Ruiqi and Ye Feifei, as serene as you could wish for in Vaganova's Pas de Quatre. That may not have set the pulses racing but things picked up with the pas de deux from Bells by Yuri Possokhov performed by Tan Yuan Yuan and Vitor Luiz, two of several guest artists flown in for the event. There's no emotional torrent in what is a lean, deeply expressive dance but the couple gave a performance as soulful and subtle as the accompanying Rachmaninov Piano Sonata No.2. They would later delight again in Edwaard Liang's The Infinite Ocean, a graceful dance of entwining bodies and delicious lifts set in front of an orange sun on a red sky.
Of the world premieres, and looking ahead, most interesting and deeply considered was an excerpt from Between the Emotion and the Response by Ricky Hu Song Wei. Inspired by T.S. Eliot's poem The Hollow Men and its messages about the modern world, men, and hope, it will debut in full in February 2020. In the snippet shown, Ye was a vision in white; a metaphor for the star brightening the inner hearts of the poet's hollow men, although it was very much an ensemble excerpt, full of beautiful images, with the dark mood added to by Olivier Cong's music and Jane Ng Kong Wah 's black tunic costumes. The full ballet promises to be a real treat.
Excerpt from Between the Emotion and the Response; Dancers: (from top) Ye Feifei, Li Lin; Photo: Conrad Dy-Liacco (Photo provided by Hong Kong Ballet)
Two new short solos left little impression. In Adura by Maria González, a loose-limbed and free-flowing Osiel Gouneo give very much a sense of dancing for himself to evocative music by Le Trio Joubran. YIXI by Yuh Egami had Matthew Golding dancing with a chair to Jerry Jeff Walker's 'Mr Bojangles'. "He'd dance for you" go the lyrics, and Golding does, but as a piece of choreography it said little.
There was a lot of Swan Lake, probably too much, especially as it was being performed in full either side of the gala. Best were the excerpts from Act II in which the creamily smooth Dorothée Gilbert was coolly detached and almost otherworldly to Marcelo Gomes' Siegfried.
Laughs came with the perennial gala favourite, Christian Spuck's Le Grand Pas de Deux. Chen Zhiyao was near perfect as the ballerina with thick-rimmed glasses and handbag, balancing on the edge but never taking the humour over the top. Also enjoyable was a suite of dances from Septime Webre's The Great Gatsby, the highlight of which was He May Be Your Man in which Chen was lifted, held and passed between five men in any number of ways. She was to get a big surprise at the end of the evening when Webre interrupted the curtain calls to promote her to principal dancer.
Thrills finally came in grand style with the Diana and Acteon pas de deux from La Esmeralda. Ako Kondo was full of strength and delicacy. Her leaps soared; her pinpoint fouettés rightly brought cheers. Gouneo also let rip with an equally fine series of turns.
Diane and Acteon pas de deux from La Esmeralda; Dancers: (from left) Ako Kondo, Osiel Gouneo; Photo: Conrad Dy-Liacco (Photo provided by Hong Kong Ballet)
There is much that is right about Hong Kong Ballet's complete Swan Lake. If it is true that the strength of a company is measured by that of its corps, Hong Kong Ballet is in fine shape. The Act I dances were full of brightness and energy, those of the princesses and entourages in Act III sparkled, and the swans were uniformly impressive.
In the afternoon on 2 November, Wang Qingxin's Odette was nicely fragile and, as at the gala where she performed the Black Swan pas de deux, while her Odile was bright and sparky. As Siegfried, Li Jiabo struggled for any sort of princely gravitas. He looked not so much introspective as totally disinterested in the preparations for his coming of age celebration. There was not even a reaction when the superb Conrad Dy-Liacco's by now somewhat inebriated tutor tried to dance with the ladies and got put firmly in his place.
That evening, Ye Feifei and Wei Wei were altogether more absorbing. She has a beautifully pliant and expressive back. As Odette, her arms are flowing and graceful yet ooze sadness. She melted into her partner's firm arms. Always thoughtful and attentive, whatever Wei does, he exudes that so important quality of presence. Not only is Ye's technique assured but she finds an incredible amount of time in the music. One unsupported balance in arabesque seemed to go on for ever. In the Black Swan pas de deux, she was delightfully wicked, , drawing Wei in, then gleefully playing him before closing the trap.
If there is a weak spot in Hong Kong Ballet's Swan Lake, it's Von Rothbart. The character is greatly lacking in strength and stature, due in large part to the costume with its lightweight wings that, when spread, reveal no more than a man in a body suit. Things do improve at Siegfried's coming-of-age party, where Li Lin in particular did a very nice job of entering as if he already owned the place. When the dancing started, all Siegfried's potential marriage partners shone although I was especially taken by Yang Ruiqi's sunny Spanish Princess, and Amber Lewis' light and airy Neapolitan.
Swan Lake; Dancers: (from left) Wei Wei, Ye Feifei; Photo: Tony Luk (Photo provide by Hong Kong Ballet)
is a British choreographer and writer working largely in the UK and Taiwan. He is editor of SeeingDance.com and writes for a number of other international publications including regularly for Dancing Times (UK). David has also contributed to several books, most recently Ballet: The Definitive Illustrated History (2018).
International Gala of Stars 2019
Choreographers: after Jules Perrot, Yuri Possokhov, Maria González, Marius Petipa & Lev Ivanov, Yuh Egami, Hu Song Wei Ricky, John Meehan after Marius Petipa, Christian Spuck, Nicholas Palmquist, Edwaard Liang, Septime Webre, after Agrippina Vaganova
Performance: 31 October 2019 19:30 Grand Theatre, Hong Kong Cultural Centre
Original Choreographers: Marius Petipa & Lev Ivanov; Additional Choreographers: John Meehan, Carlo Pacis & Selina Chau
Performances: 2 November 2019 14:30; 19:30 Grand Theatre, Hong Kong Cultural Centre