The Hong Kong Ballet Group (HKBG) celebrated its 55th anniversary in style, with a performance bringing together over 150 local students from numerous ballet schools for a Bournonville programme. Staged in masterly fashion by Vivi Flindt, former principal and ballet mistress of the Royal Danish Ballet and featuring two of the company’s dancers, this was a golden opportunity for local ballet students and audiences to experience the unique qualities of the pure Bournonville school, all too rarely seen outside Denmark.
Founded in 1964 by some of Hong Kong’s most influential ballet teachers - Joan Campbell, Pearl Chan, Stephen Kwok, Raymond Liao and Jean Wong - HKBG has played a key role in the development of ballet and dance in Hong Kong.
In its mission to promote ballet education and nurture local talent, the non-profit organisation has staged more than 40 productions and 13 editions of its annual ballet competition, the Stars Award, not to mention offering any number of masterclasses and other activities for teachers and students. When you talk to people in the local dance sector, it’s significant how many of them worked with the group early in their careers. The loyalty and affection it inspires in its alumni shows how exceptional the organisation is and how important a contribution it has made.
When HKBG began, its shows were the only opportunity for local ballet students or dancers to appear on stage – the Hong Kong Ballet company, essentially an offshoot of HKBG, only came into being in 1979. Today Hong Kong has a thriving professional dance sector, a multitude of ballet schools, each with its own annual show, and a tertiary training institute for aspiring professionals, the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts. Given the number of performance opportunities now available, combined with its limited funds, in recent years HKBG has focused on fostering local talent through the Stars Award and its associated scholarships rather than staging full-scale productions. Nonetheless, if fewer than before, its productions are always special occasions and continue to offer a welcome space for students from different schools to perform together.
Le Conservatoire: All students on stage for the finale; Photo: Tony Luk
One of the world’s oldest companies, founded in 1748, the Royal Danish Ballet was little known outside Denmark until the latter half of the 20th century and even now tours abroad less than other major troupes. This relative isolation has helped to preserve the school and repertoire developed by Auguste Bournonville (1805-1879), giving 21st century audiences a fascinating insight into the technique and style of Romantic ballet as it existed in the mid-19th century.
Born in Copenhagen, in his youth Bournonville trained in Paris under the legendary dancer Auguste Vestris and danced with Marie Taglioni before returning to Denmark where he became ballet master and choreographer of the Royal Danish Ballet from 1830 onwards. Bournonville’s work is distinguished by fast, ultra-precise footwork, light, vertical jumps and a plethora of beats for both male and female dancers, and partnering is minimal, with the man supporting but not lifting the ballerina.
The subtlety and finesse of this approach can be confusing for audiences used to the more ostentatious style, with its big lifts, huge leaps and multiple fouettés, to be seen in today’s productions of the 19th century Petipa repertoire. In fact, much of what we assume to be “authentic” 19th century choreography has been transformed over the years by layer upon layer of additions and alterations, often introduced to showcase the increased athleticism of later generations of dancers. It’s telling that reconstructions of Petipa’s original work by the likes of Alexei Ratmansky have revealed strong similarities of technique between his choreography and Bournonville’s – the two men were contemporaries and Petipa too trained with Vestris – although it’s only in Petipa’s version of the Romantic era Giselle that these similarities are usually apparent.
The HKBG performance began with Flindt introducing a succession of extracts from the Royal Danish Ballet’s daily classes – each day of the week from Monday to Saturday has its own class, based on those Bournonville himself participated in during his studies in Paris in the 1820s. Performed by students from a range of age groups, this was something to savour for anyone with a serious interest in ballet - the exercises gave an intriguing illustration of the methods used to develop Bournonville technique and how they differ from those of other major schools, as well as a glimpse of how dancers were trained 200 years ago.
La Sylphide: Jón Axel Fransson as James and Natalie Lu as Effie, Act 1 ; Photo: Conrado Dy-Liacco
This opening section was followed by a full-length performance of Bournonville’s masterpiece, La Sylphide. The dancing of the guest artists from Denmark brought the preceding class demonstrations to immediate, thrilling life, showing how training translates into performance and conveying the sheer exuberance and joyousness which is Bournonville’s greatest gift to dance.
Recently promoted to principal, Jón Axel Fransson was a superb, dramatically convincing James, giving a dazzling display of the intricate beats, buoyant jumps and speed of light footwork which are the hallmarks of Danish dancing at its best. Just 19 years old, corps de ballet member Ditte Stoltenborg Baltzer made an impressive debut in the title role. If understandably a little nervous at first, she soon revealed herself as an exquisite dancer with a radiant presence who promises to blossom into an exceptional artist. I was especially taken by the way her detailed, natural acting caught the Sylphide’s innocent, childlike quality and the pathos she brought to the ending.
The home team held its own in commendable style, a tribute to the work done by Flindt and HKBG’s artistic staff. The student ensemble danced like professionals with verve and precision. Natalie Lu’s warm personality and ability to connect with the audience made her touching Effie a standout and Wong King Hei, currently studying at the Cranko School in Stuttgart, produced some fine jumps and beats as Gurn. It was a special pleasure to see two veteran Hong Kong stars return to the stage – Sylvia Wu as Effie’s mother and Cliff Lui, magnificently malevolent as the witch Madge.
is the dance critic of the South China Morning Post and the Hong Kong correspondent of international dance magazine Dancing Times. She is a member of the Executive Committee of the Hong Kong Dance Alliance and a recipient of the Hong Kong Dance Award for Services to Dance.
La Sylphide & Le Conservatoire
Choreographer: Vivi Flindt
Performance: 30 August 2019 19:30 Kwai Tsing Theatre Auditorium