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[ENG] Hong Kong and English Ballet Companies

Christopher Wheeldon’s Rush with the Hong Kong Ballet; Photo: Conrad Dy-Liacco

Hong Kong Ballet closed its 2017/2018 season in early June with a triple-bill program planned by both the present artistic director Septime Webre and his predecessor Madeleine Onne. Webre’s contribution was the most publicized item on the program – the Hong Kong première of a Beatles Ballet by American choreographer Trey McIntyre entitled A Day in the Life.

The other two ballets, which had already been chosen by Onne last year before she left office, were by the two leading classical choreographers today. Christopher Wheeldon’s Rush was the second Hong Kong première of this program and Alexei Ratmansky’s Le Carnaval des Animaux was a revival.

While looking pretty impressive on paper, the program turned out to be rather light weight. Carnaval, originally created by Ratmansky for the San Francisco Ballet over a decade ago, is not one of his greatest works, such as his Whipped Cream that was just danced by the American Ballet Theatre in this year’s Hong Kong Arts Festival. But it is a delightful work nevertheless.

Among the memorable sections is a jolly dance for two male horses, a section for jelly fish, and a parody of the famous solo, The Dying Swan. Li Jiabo was a cute but not fearsome lion and Chen Zhiyao impressed as the ballerina in a pink tutu. Some of the other characters’ costumes, however, bear no relation to the animals listed in the program notes.

The Beatles ballet, A Day in the Life, set to a medley of 12 classic Beatles songs, is effective as a crowd pleaser, but lacks depth and subtlety. Trey McIntyre’s choreography, though full of energy, is repetitive and limited in range. Shen Jie and Li Lin both impressed in the two leading male roles in the Sunday afternoon cast. Shen Jie’s solo was particularly full-bodied.

The other local première – Christopher Wheeldon’s Rush, originally created in 2003 for the San Francisco Ballet – is the best crafted work in this program. It has a clear formal classical structure, set to Bohuslav Martinů’s Sinfonietta La Jolla. The two outer movements are for two main couples as well as a corps de ballet of five sub couples. The overall feel is, however, cerebral. The main pas de deux in the second movement – impressively danced by Li Jiabo and Ye Feifei - is dreamy and ecstatic, though occasionally remote. The original lighting design by Mark Stanley is excellent, with different shades of red and purple on the backdrop.

Akram Khan’s Giselle with the English National Ballet; Photo: Laurent Liotardo

The English National Ballet made a welcome return tour to Hong Kong at the end of June. Their program was a modern version of the 19th century classic Giselle choreographed by the British modern dance choreographer Akram Khan, who himself has already toured the city several times with his own company.

The new musical score by Vincenzo Lamagna, well played by the Hong Kong Sinfonietta, frequently echoes the original score by Adolphe Adams.

Akram Khan's Giselle; Dancers: (front) Tamara Rojo and (back) James Streeter; Photo: Laurent Liotardo

The original 1841 Gautier scenario is more or less intact in this new version. The original story of Giselle is of a peasant girl driven to death by the betrayal of her lover Albrecht, an aristocrat in disguise. In this new scenario updated by the dramaturg Ruth Little, the peasants have become a community of migrant garment factory workers, described as outcasts in the program notes. And the aristocrats are now the wealthy landlords. A monumental revolving wall designed by Tim Yip divides the rich and the poor communities.

Akram Khan seems to presume the audience possesses a certain knowledge of the original story of the classic, which is unfair to some seeing the ballet for the first time. The role of Albrecht is superficial and not well developed for a start. Khan’s version has several crucial points in the story unexplained, notably how Giselle died at the end of Act 1 after being surrounded by the outcasts. And at the end of the ballet, Giselle’s reluctance to kill Albrecht with a bamboo stick and her final disappearance are not convincingly depicted.

Khan’s vocabulary is sometimes derived from his Indian Kathak background, as seen in the intricate footwork and dizzying turns. Khan’s choreography is more effective for the corps de ballet both in Act 1 and Act 2. The circling group patterns have a sweeping power. In Act 2, the heart-rending duet for Giselle and Albrecht is the best part of the ballet.

The English National Ballet gave a strong company performance. Alina Cojocaru was superlative in the title role, conveying every nuance of Khan’s choreography. James Streeter impressed as her lover Albrecht. As his love rival Hilarion, Ken Saruhashi dramatically acted his jealousy. Stina Quagebeur was imposing as the Queen of the Wilis. Despite some weaknesses in dramatic logic, this is still a refreshing new update of the 19th century classic.


Kevin Ng

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).

Wheeldon, Ratmansky, McIntyre and The Beatles

Choreographers: Christopher Wheeldon, Alexei Ratmansky, Trey McIntyre

Performance: 1 June 2018 19:30 Grand Theater, Hong Kong Cultural Centre

Akram Khan's Giselle by English National Ballet

Direction & Choreography: Akram Khan

Performance: 28 June 2018 19:45 Grand Theater, Hong Kong Cultural Centre


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