Photo: Conrad Dy-Liacco
In an era when a random day can be made a ‘festival’ to induce a frantic orgy of online consumption1, Hong Kong Ballet’s (HKB) Le Corsaire comes just in time to remind us that mesmerization is still possible in this age of disenchantment. The unapologetic virtuosity and radiance of HKB’s Le Corsaire grips the audience for a good two and a half hours. The applause is not just courteous but almost involuntary muscle reaction to the wonders on stage. This is a real occasion of beauty worth celebration; a memorable event that deserves to be revisited. With the art and craft of ballet, modern societies like Hong Kong, used to being told to sing the praises of shopping, are offered a chance to learn about celebration of aesthetic tradition, painstakingly sustained by collective creative effort over many generations.
Event and tradition are reciprocal ideas: the former is a moment of expression accentuating the accumulated knowledge, values, and emotions of the latter as a forming and formative process. Events come in many expressions and intentions. Some disrupt tradition, others celebrate, both are indispensable. In light of the dynamics of event and tradition, we can look at and experience classics as desacralized historical textual situations that provide ample room for creative interpretation. This is why Le Corsaire still survives today, despite a plot that is politically incorrect on every level. The audience does not celebrate its silly story or orientalist narrative, but the enchantment witnessed and felt in its signature dances.
HKB’s Le Corsaire is faithful to tradition and spot-on with casting and contrast between characters. Ye Feifei’s Medora – the slave girl who falls in love with the pirate leader Conrad (Li Jiabo) – embodies a seductiveness that transcends sexuality. Every muscle in her body dances, translating ballet movement into an aestheticized expression of human sentiment. In contrast to the powerful womanhood of Medora unabashed of her desires, is the delicate (yet full of strength) femininity of Chen Zhiyao’s Gulnare, Medora’s friend. Chen’s superb musicality makes every note of the harp accompaniment visible. Gulnare’s vulnerability is interpreted and realized through Chen’s movements contrasting Ye’s lyrical elaboration, sharpness with a soft edge and crystal clarity and fragility.
Photo: Conrad Dy-Liacco
Two small complaints: there’s not enough Shen Jie, and Li Jiabo’s Conrad – who is supposed to be the image of eccentric and shrewd pirate – is too princely, in both attire and disposition. Shen’s Ali, Conrad’s right-hand man, has a numinous and mysterious quality but unfortunately the role’s function in the narrative is ambiguous. His innate dreamy temperament makes him a natural Ali. Shen’s leaps are unforgettable. Dressed in turquoise pants with bare torso he makes each leap seem like the streak of a meteor soaring across space; his split-second hanging in mid-air feels immense and eternal. On the other hand, Conrad, supposedly the gang’s alpha-male, turns out to be Prince Charming. As personified by Li, Conrad serves his role well – as prop for the ballerina, not the ideal image of a wild, rebellious, pirate chief.
The performances call into question the role of plot/story in ballet. While there is always room for technical improvement, success or otherwise of the characterization seems to depend very much on understanding and interpretation of characters within the story and how they facilitate the progress of the narrative; the more depth to the characterization, the more sophisticated and impressive the choreography and dancing. How do choreography and narrative complement each other? Le Corsaire’s “Pas de trois des odalisques”, for example, would be an absolute feast for the eyes as a dance on its own. However, as exhibition of grace and beauty, it feels unnecessarily long in this story. The question becomes how can contemporary re-enactment enrich – and carry forward – classics and sustain ballet’s much-loved tradition? Apart from higher jumps and longer limbs, what are the possibilities of this art of enchantment and how can they be perceived and realized?
HKB’s Le Corsaire reminds us that some traditions immerse us in beauty we want to encounter again and again and are worth celebrating. It also exhibits the capacity to re-enact a classic and the potential to reinvent it. A ground-breaking event that disrupts the present often establishes a new tradition to celebrate meanings and values epitomized by the event. To sustain a creative tradition of mesmerization, it is essential to reflect and explore the possibilities of classics, every staging should be both re-enactment and reinvention to enchant audiences as these works have done for centuries.
1Single’s Day, 11 November, is used by online business behemoth Alibaba for a 24-hour mega sale; Single’s Day 2017, recorded a total sale of RMB $168.2 billion.
Le Corsaire Choreographer: Anna-Marie Holmes Performance: 4 November 2017 19:30 Grand Theatre, Hong Kong Cultural Centre
This review was written by a Dance Enhance participant. Dance Enhance: Dance Appreciation & Criticism Writing Project 2017 is a four-month course begun in September 2017 that aims at providing foundation knowledge of dance appreciation and criticism to aspiring dance writers. Structured with a series of lectures, workshops, discussion sessions, artists sharing and attendance at performances, the course helps participants to develop knowledge on different dance types, appreciation skills, and techniques in review writing under the guidance of dance experts.