Dancers: (from left) Yang Jing-xian, Alice Ma, Kelvin Mak, Vivian Leung; Photo: HK Sinfonietta
Yuri Ng has collaborated with Hong Kong Sinfonietta since 2005. This year, for the Inspired by Schubert Series - Transfigured Night program he engaged another choreographer, Justyne Li. The program included three music pieces, Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 in B minor, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-Flat and Schönberg’s Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night). Only the last had dance and it was choreographed by Li.
Schönberg’s Verklärte Nacht is based on a poem by Richard Dehmel. In the poem, Dehmel describes a man and woman walking through a dim forest on a moonlit night. The woman shares a dark secret with her new lover: she bears the child of another man. Schönberg’s composition uses the same five-part structure of Dehmel’s poem: a scene-setting prelude; the woman's confession of her secret to the man, full of sadness and anxiety; an interlude wherein the man reflects upon the confession; the man stating his acceptance of the woman and her child; and, a bright and embracing postlude.
For her choreography, Li identifies three stages in the woman’s psychological state: worrying about the man’s response; telling the man her secret; and, being embraced by the man. She uses three female dancers in her choreography and one male dancer. Although the three female dancers do not directly correspond to the woman’s three different psychological states, they appear one after another as the woman’s psychological state builds from a solo by Alice Ma to a trio for all. In comparison, in both the poem and the music, the man’s psychological state is less well-defined. It remains ambiguous whether he embraces the woman without struggling with what she has told him. Li has the male dancer (Kelvin Mak) not just passively responding to the changes in the female dancers, but struggling inside, shown through his movements.
The primary movement quality of all four dancers springs from the struggling of the characters. The movements involve fine and precise body isolations, sudden weight shifts, and a repetitive back and forth between dancers. These movements are indeed the fundamental vocabulary developed by Li in her choreography over the years. It seems that only she is able to express the precision and sharpness of her movement vocabulary in her dancing, although Alice Ma’s performance in the Verklärte Nacht comes a bit closer to Li’s dynamics, probably because she has continuously worked with Li in several works in recent years. Each dancer’s solo attempts to shape the psychological state of the character, while duets, trios, and quartets are crucial for developing the change within and between characters. Despite their technical proficiency, the dancers have not yet developed into an ensemble. There are shortcomings in the timing of lifting and weight giving, action and reaction among dancers. And these flaws definitely affect how the characters are presented and how the strong image of ‘inner warmth’ in the poem is delivered.
Li does not merely depict the characters through movements, but also tries to show how the ambient environment or nature affects the struggle of both characters. This intention is hinted at through the blue and brown colors of the costumes that signify the sky and earth and in some movements, such as the dancers exhaling towards other dancers like a breeze. However, with the crowded stage, the intention cannot be fully realized. The orchestra takes up most of the center space, while the dancers can only use the downstage in front of the orchestra and travel upstage around the orchestra. This staging separates the dancers and the musicians into two entities: foreground and background. Both are ongoing without any moments of silence by one to let the focus be on the other. Almost all of my attention was directed at the dance, not the music performance. Indeed, it would be fine for them to be separate if Li’s choreography had also followed the five-part structure of the poem and music. In that case, the dance and music could have been accompaniment for each other.
I appreciate that Li chose not to follow the ordinary and chronological structure and attempted to present a linkage between characters and nature, which is definitely a better choice. Yet, it is then necessary for the choreographer to stage the musicians as well because the music is strong at creating the ambient environment – nature in this case. When the dancers can only dance on the fringes of the orchestra, it is as if the man and woman of the poem never get through the forest.
I was reminded by a music critic that Schönberg’s Verklärte Nacht was originally written for a string sextet, which calls for two violins, two violas, and two cellos. That version might affect Schönberg’s magnificent musical landscape but it would allow more space for the dancers and interactions between dancers and musicians.
is a graduate student of Philosophy, specializing in Kant’s philosophy and aesthetics and a freelance writer and art administrator.
Inspired by Schubert Series - Transfigured Night
Principal Guest Conductor: Christoph Poppen
Piano: Sophie Pacini
Concept/ Design/ Choreographers: Justyne Li, Yuri Ng
Performance: 22 October 2017 15:00 Concert Hall, Hong Kong City Hall