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Text: Natasha Rogai

Hong Kong Ballet’s revival of artistic director Septime Webre’s The Great Gatsby, previously seen here in 2019, is a big, bold, spectacular show. Consistently entertaining and visually stunning, with wonderful period sets and costumes by Tim Yip, it plunges the audience into the febrile atmosphere of New York in the Roaring 20s. Above all, it is blessed with a gloriously evocative, infectiously toe-tapping score by jazz musician and composer Billy Novick, performed with sizzling style and verve by Novick and his Blue Syncopators.

The Great Gatsby- Dancers from left: Albert Gordon, Kim Eunsil/ Photo: Conrad Dy-Liacco

(Photo Provided by Hong Kong Ballet)

Scott Fitzgerald’s great 1925 novel is narrated by Nick Carraway, who has just moved to New York. It turns out that his mysterious neighbour, Jay Gatsby, famous for his lavish parties, is seeking to be reunited with his lost love Daisy, Nick’s cousin. Daisy is now the wife of the wealthy, cold-hearted playboy Tom Buchanan - other key characters are Tom’s working class mistress, Myrtle, her pathetic husband George and Daisy’s best friend Jordan. As events unfold, tragedy ensues.

Webre’s showmanship is on full display in a series of outstanding large-scale group scenes. A fast and furious kaleidoscope of 1920s New York street life pays witty homage to silent movies. The parties at Gatsby’s mansion include an exhilarating mass routine to Happy Feet and a delirious drunken brawl. Best of all is a number set to It’s Tight Like That where four men do all sorts of beats and jumps, their feet and legs going like crazy, keeping their hands casually in their pockets the whole time. This is smart, imaginative choreography which makes great use of the music. The opening solo for Nick Carraway is another stand-out, neatly conveying his innocence and his excitement at arriving in the big city.

Terrific as entertainment, the ballet succeeds less well as drama. Adapting a book as complex as The Great Gatsby is no easy task and, despite the use of a narrator, the story-telling lacks clarity. In particular, the denouement regarding Myrtle’s death is missing - the only way you would know what happened is by reading the synopsis in the house programme.

The Great Gatsby-Dancers from left: Ma Renjie, Ye Feifei, Garry Corpuz, Gao Ge/ Photo: Conrad Dy-Liacco

(Photo Provided by Hong Kong Ballet)

While dynamic and eye-catching, Webre’s choreography is sometimes overly classical for the music and tends to focus so much on packiing in technical effects that it leaves little room for emotion or characterisation. For example, the ballet opens with Gatsby dancing to Irving Berlin’s haunting, melancholy What’ll I Do, a perfect choice as the character’s theme. However, instead of the lyrical, expressive solo you might expect to introduce Gatsby and his doomed romantic love for Daisy, what we get is a string of complicated jumps and turns – these are just steps for the sake of steps: they tell us nothing about who Gatsby is or what he is feeling.

This problem is evident throughout the piece. Myrtle’s husband, George, is transformed from Fitzgerald’s “anaemic and spiritless” little man to a singlet-clad stud prowling around like Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, a persona which allows him to perform a lot of bravura pyrotechnics. Conversation pieces between the characters which feature the dancers jumping around on a sofa or on and off a table are cleverly choreographed but the non-stop movement is distracting and fails to illuminate the relationships these scenes need to portray.

In the Plaza Hotel scene where things come to a head between Gatsby and Tom, Webre adopts a simpler approach which works much better. This is by far the most effective scene in terms of dramatic narrative, with inspired use of the tango to convey the undercurrents of suspicion, jealousy and anger.

The onus is on the dancers to find a way to express emotion and make us believe in their characters while getting through so much technique and only one of the two casts I saw was able to succeed in this.

On the first night, the story never came to life. Ye Feifei as Daisy and Alexander Yap as Gatsby both danced well but there was too little rapport between them, while Garry Corpuz as Tom came over as spoilt and tetchy rather than entitled and tyrannical. Wang Qingxin was certainly a sexy Myrtle (if anything she needs to rein it in a little – Myrtle may be sexy, she shouldn’t be sleazy), but the complicated lifts in her duets with Tom and the sequence where she is passed around among the guests at her party looked uncomfortably awkward on this tall ballerina. On the plus side, Ma Renjie showed off his scintillating beats and lightness as Nick and much credit goes to Yonen Takano for managing to project George’s grief for Myrtle while pulling off feats of virtuosity.

The Great Gatsby- Dancers from left: Albert Gordon, Kim Eunsil/ Photo: Conrad Dy-Liacco

(Photo Provided by Hong Kong Ballet)

The cast I saw on the second weekend of the run made it look like a different ballet. An ensemble of detailed, intelligent portrayals made the characters vividly real and brought out the best in the choreography. Albert Gordon conveyed Gatsby’s authority as well as his passion for Kim Eunsil’s Daisy – this was the most expressive performance I have seen from Kim, she was genuinely touching and her duets with Gordon were full of feeling.

Vanessa Lai Nok Sze has made a welcome return to Hong Kong Ballet after a couple of seasons with National Ballet of Finland. An exceptional Myrtle in 2019, she was just as good this time, sumptuously sexy yet also capturing Myrtle’s desperation to get away from the dreary life she is trapped in, while her fluidity and control made all those complicated lifts go smoothly.

Another company alumnus back from Finland was guest artist Lucas Jerkander. Always a talented actor-dancer, he has matured impressively. His Tom oozed arrogance and privilege, and gave an uneasy sense of danger lurking beneath the surface. His partnering was excellent and he deserves kudos for managing to inject a jazzy feel into variations full of classical steps.

Jeremy Chan’s Nick showed that he can act as well as dance (he gave a sparkling account of that opening solo) and Nana Sakai was a lively, sympathetic Jordan. Kai Kanzaki as George produced some spectacular dancing- he wasn’t able to match Takano’s emotional power, but that’s no surprise in his first big dramatic role.

The whole company danced with admirable energy and discipline, even if some of the dancers, the women especially, were too classical in their movement - jazz isn’t something that comes naturally to them and they didn’t respond to the music freely enough. Among those who stood out consistently in both casts were Luis Cabrera, Kyle Lin and Basil James.

The Great Gatsby/ Photo: Conrad Dy-Liacco (Photo Provided by Hong Kong Ballet)

The real star of the show is the fabulous music from Novick and his splendid band. A seamless blend of trad jazz, blues and iconic 1920s pop songs, it’s a delight from start to finish - the only problem is resisting the urge to get up and dance yourself. The icing on the cake is the magnificent vocalist E. Faye Butler – her voice is extraordinary and when she leaves the orchestra pit and appears on stage to belt out the outrageously raunchy I Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl she brings the house down. A special mention goes to Ma for playing up to Butler with such uninhibited enthusiasm, something the younger dancers could learn from.

Hong Kong’s own Wong Tan-ki also brought the house down with a tap routine of jaw-dropping virtuosity, accompanied only by the mesmerising sounds of his own feet in what sounded like a symphony of percussion.

American theatre star James Seol did a brilliant two-fold job, narrating Fitzgerald’s text with impeccable precision and producing authentically stylish vocals on songs like Sheik of Araby, What’ll I Do and a snappy duet with Butler on Ain’t We Got Fun.

Fun The Great Gatsby undoubtedly is – if it falls short as a version of the book and misses Fitzgerald’s bitter commentary on the dark side of the Jazz Age, it would be mean-spirited indeed not to enjoy a show that sends you out of the theatre on a high, with those irresistible tunes going round your head.


Venue: Cultural Centre Grand Theatre

Dates: Friday 29 October (evening) & Saturday 4 November (matinee)


The line-up of guests for Hong Kong Ballet (HKB)’s International Gala of Stars 2023 included two true international superstars – Marienela Nuñez and Daniil Simkin – and the programme offered an entertaining mixture of classical and contemporary work, completed by a suite of crowd-pleasing scenes from The Great Gatsby (see separate review).

Simkin is one of the greatest dancers of his generation and his breathtaking virtuosity has lost nothing since his last appearance here in 2018 with American Ballet Theatre. His dazzling interpretation of the pas de deux from Le Corsaire included jumps which had to be seen to be believed and his partnering of HKB’s Kim Eunsil was immaculate. As a bonus, he also danced Ben van Cauwenbergh’s solo set to Jacques Brel’s Les Bourgeois with wit and charm as well as scintillating technique.

International Gala of Stars 2023- Dancers: Alexander Yap, Marianela Nuñez/ Photo: Tony Luk

(Photo Provided by Hong Kong Ballet)

Back in Hong Kong after her La Bayadere appearances in May, Nuñez’s warm personality shone in the pas de deux from Don Quixote, but she and HKB’s Alexander Yap didn’t really gel and it was a pity that Carlos Acosta’s version of the piece was used instead of the classic one. La Bayadere, where Yap had made a strong impression, might have been a better choice for this pair – and would also have avoided having no fewer than four pas de deux featuring the infamous 32 fouettés in a single programme.

Honours to the home team in the classical repertoire went to Nana Sakai and Albert Gordon’s sparkling, assured account of the pas de deux from Flames of Paris. Wang Qingxin made a striking Odile in the Black Swan pas de deux – so much so that her strong stage presence almost eclipsed her well-mannered Siegfried, Dutch National Ballet’s Constantine Allen.

Fang Mengying and Chen Zhuming from National Ballet of China gave capable if rather low key accounts of two pas de deux, one classical, from Act 2 of Giselle and one contemporary, from Fei Bo’s Permanent Yesterday.

An extract from an as yet untitled piece being choreographed for HKB by Andonis Foniadakis was hard to assess as it was very much a work in progress. All I can say is that this glimpse had strong echoes of William Forsythe’s early work, as did Ye Li’s somewhat sinister The 61st Second – if it wasn’t clear what the piece was supposed to be about, it was danced very well, with Gao Ge and Gouta Seki outstanding in the leads. Le Wang’s creation Inside-Out was an oddity involving three dancers sharing an outsize jacket.

International Gala of Stars 2023- Dancers: Xuan Cheng, Yonen Takano/ Photo: Tony Luk

(Photo Provided by Hong Kong Ballet)

Best of the contemporary work were three short pieces by HKB’s Choreographer in Residence, Ricky Hu Song Wei. Notturno, a duet set to Chopin first seen earlier this year, was beautifully danced by Xuan Cheng and Yonen Takano. It showcased Hu’s musicality and his gift for creating intricate, inventive lifts, as did a new all male trio, superbly performed by Ma Renjie, Kyle Lin and Luis Cabrera, set to the late, great Leslie Cheung’s version of I Am What I Am. Cheung’s much-loved hit Monica brought the company and all the guest artists on stage for a rousing, upbeat finale that had the audience clapping along – it was truly a special Hong Kong moment to see Nuñez and Simkin bopping to a Cantopop classic.


Venue: Cultural Centre Grand Theatre

Dates : Thursday 2 November 2023


Natasha Rogai

was born in London and has lived in Hong Kong for more than 20 years. She is the dance critic of the South China Morning Post and a recipient of the Hong Kong Dance Award for Services to Dance.


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