BWW Review: Hong Kong Ballet defines her new direction through season finale, WHEELDON, RATMANSKY, MCINTYRE & THE BEATLES, at Hong Kong Cultural Centre

BWW Review: Hong Kong Ballet defines her new direction through season finale, WHEELDON, RATMANSKY, MCINTYRE & THE BEATLES, at Hong Kong Cultural Centre
Jiabo Li and Feifei Ye in 'Rush'
Photo Credit: Conrad Dy-Liacco

Something has refreshed the Hong Kong Cultural Centre since early this month when Hong Kong Ballet's season finale, WHEELDON, RATMANSKY, MCINTYRE & THE BEATLES, a showcase of three short pieces by arguably the best contemporary ballet choreographers of this day and age, was presented on the Grand Theatre stage.

No doubt that this show, featuring Alexei Ratmansky's 'Le Carnaval des Animaux', Christopher Wheeldon's 'Rush', and Trey McIntyre's 'A Day in the Life', is the most important event of the year in the Hong Kong dance field when two of the three featured choreographers (Wheeldon and McIntyre) and all three choreographers' respective répétiteurs (Betsy Erickson for Ratmasky, Jason Fowler for Wheeldon and Erin Mahoney Du for McIntyre) came to town and rehearsed with the Company.

Why I say that this is the most important event of the year in the dance field of the city is because finally, Hong Kong Ballet is stepping outside the box and pushing their dancers to attempt not regular classics in the ballet canon but contemporary new works within the last decade that is relevant but still technique-demanding, as well as to work with world-class choreographers of these original works.

Another no doubt is that 'Le Carnival des Animaux', 'Rush' and 'A Day in the Life' are three absolutely brilliant pieces. I do not think one can challenge the fundamental strength that these three choreographers have presented in these pieces, each of them is designed with a vision that not only to tell 'stories' but also to break down the conventional idea of how to give ballet a close-to-heart dialogue with the audience, i.e. to give ballet a theatrical treatment instead of just technique-focused.

BWW Review: Hong Kong Ballet defines her new direction through season finale, WHEELDON, RATMANSKY, MCINTYRE & THE BEATLES, at Hong Kong Cultural Centre
Hong Kong Ballet Dancers in 'Le Carnivale des Animaux'
Photo Credit: Conrad Dy-Liacco

The show I saw was the Sunday matinee, the final show of the run. It opens with Ratmansky's piece that is the most explicit on narration. 'Le Carnival des Animaux' is choreographed basing on Camille Saint-Saëns' musical suite, which as the title suggests, presenting a carnival of animals. In the 14 movements of the suite, Ratmansky reimagines how the animals move and interact in ballet vocabularies.

'Le Carnival des Animaux' shows Ratmansky's usual advantage of character development in a casual tone. One should not forget his WHIPPED CREAM, recently toured in Hong Kong for the Hong Kong Arts Festival, shows Ratmansky's focus on classical ballet technique without losing the production as children's theatre. Everything in WHIPPED CREAM, from design to acting to movements, serves the storytelling.

While in 'Le Carnival des Animaux', the costumes of the dancers, designed by Sandra Woodall, transform them into the animals not by imitating the physicality of them but more to transpire the characteristics of the animals through human forms. Horses are dressed as equestrians with the significant caps, the cockerel is dressed more like a hunter, showing the alpha male side of a male chicken. To me, the most interesting design is the elephant, which is a female in a pink tutu.

BWW Review: Hong Kong Ballet defines her new direction through season finale, WHEELDON, RATMANSKY, MCINTYRE & THE BEATLES, at Hong Kong Cultural Centre
Qingxin Wang as the Swan
with Corp de Ballet in 'Le Carnivale des Animaux'
Photo Credit: Conrad Dy-Liacco

Because of these stripped-bare design of the costumes, one can see how Ratmansky challenges himself to use movements in order to show the animal for the audience to see it through another dimension. Those are highly classical ballet vocabularies that the Hong Kong Ballet dancers are familiar enough to handle. However, I can also see that the dancers are venturing toward a more narrative approach to their movements as well as their emotional expressions.

Of course, as the piece is similar to a ballet version of a short pantomime, it does not necessarily need the dancers to be experts in Method acting, but adequate awareness from the dancers to be actors are essential. Several main featured animals like the lion, the jellyfish, the elephant, the cockerel, the birds and the turtles, and most importantly the swan, need the sense of playfulness inside them. It requires a grounded, natural approach to humour through the ballet movements in order to translate these animals' eccentric nature that Ratmansky wants to inject in this piece.

It is quite a lukewarm presentation of 'Le Carnival des Animaux' from the Hong Kong Ballet dancers. Several dancers are exceptionally skilful and attractive as their characters. Jun Xia's cockerel is outstanding with his constrained energy as a gentle alpha male. Zhiyao Chen's elephant is a big highlight of the piece, with her showing weight as an enormous beast without losing the grace of her port de bras. Qinxin Wang's swan catches laughter through Ratmansky's mockery of SWAN LAKE. Wang shows the swan's excessive obsession with her narcissism is very on point, but one will not miss her incredible skill with her pointes.

BWW Review: Hong Kong Ballet defines her new direction through season finale, WHEELDON, RATMANSKY, MCINTYRE & THE BEATLES, at Hong Kong Cultural Centre
Hong Kong Ballet Dancers in 'Rush'
Photo Credit: Trey McIntyre

If Ratmansky's 'Le Carnival des Animaux' is the appetizer of a three-course meal, Wheeldon's 'Rush' is the main course, and also a very delicious one that challenges the chef. Created in 2003 for the San Francisco Ballet, 'Rush' is solely choreographed by marrying the riveting rhythm of Bohuslav Martinu's SINFONIETTA LA JOLLA, a piece that is to express the joyfulness of the sunshine city in California. Wheeldon had explained in the Salon Talk held several days before this programme opens that his approach on 'Rush' is basing on the music, the expressive feeling Martinu suggests in the piece. It inspires Wheeldon on choreographing the ballet without losing the connection with the music.

And it shows. The first movement presents Martinu's composition of expressive melodies with a quick tempo, and within a few seconds after the piece starts, one can see Wheeldon's choreography of fast movements, demanding dancers to have the precision of swift dancing feet, turns and lifts, has already transmitted a glorious feeling to the audience of seeing the sunshine in California.

Scenic and costume designer Jon Morrell and lighting designer Mark Stanley (with the adaption of lighting by Alice Kwong) never show a single palette of light colour on stage, yet an invisible brightness just flows out. It is because Wheeldon's strength in novel formations through classical ballet languages, as well as his sensitivity in transitions, holds the piece's riveting energy through the end. It also creates a force to push against the Rothko-eques colour of blue, orange and red on stage, resulting in a greater joyfulness through contrasts.

BWW Review: Hong Kong Ballet defines her new direction through season finale, WHEELDON, RATMANSKY, MCINTYRE & THE BEATLES, at Hong Kong Cultural Centre
Miaomiao Liu, Lin Li, Ayano Haneishi, Jonathan Spigner
and Corp de Ballet in 'Rush'
Photo Credit: Conrad Dy-Liacco

'Rush' demands the dancers to push their stamina to their highest while not to forget enjoying the moment of leisure. I am pleased to see the Hong Kong Ballet dancers attempting such a difficult piece with class and presence. Knowing that the Company is not too familiar to approach the American style in ballet, the replication of 'Rush' has already exceeded my expectations. The corp de ballet is strong with only some tiny slips in precision and focus, but the morale as an ensemble is high. Miaomiao Liu, Lin Li, Ayano Haneishi and Jonathan Spigner as the two outstanding couples from the corp de ballet do catch their opportunities to be the highlights of the piece, and though there is still room to improve, the four dancers are already catching the spotlight.

Of course, the ultimate star of 'Rush' goes to Feifei Ye who has a pas de deux with Jiabo Li in the second movement. Comparing to the first and the third movements, Martinu composes the second movement with a hint of European melancholy. Wheeldon choreographs a duet with the couple dressed in black, having them dance intimately, but never having them romanticise it, showing the tension between the two.

As the movement is at a slower pace, Wheeldon subsequently choreographs the duet also at a slower pace. Yet, he requires the female dancer to be lifted mostly at the medium level. That means both dancers have to use their core strength for supporting each other throughout the whole duet. Not to mention that the gracefulness of the female dancer's port de bras and pointes has to be contained.

BWW Review: Hong Kong Ballet defines her new direction through season finale, WHEELDON, RATMANSKY, MCINTYRE & THE BEATLES, at Hong Kong Cultural Centre
Hong Kong Ballet Dancers in 'A Day in the Life'
Photo Credit: Conrad Dy-Liacco

And Ye achieves that in a world-class fashion. Her techniques are unmissably spectacular. Her energy constraint that the dance requires has never been failed, while her port de bras and pointes, even in the semi-mid-air, are strong and tight. Not to mention that she still expresses a thin cloth of melancholy that is not artificial. To see Ye dances 'Rush' is to stop one's heart.

It is Ye's execution of the duet that in return showing why Wheeldon is one of the most important ballet choreographers to date, not because he is just showing athletism in ballet but to present ballet as an integrated artform which, if one can execute it, makes the audience transcends and emotes.

After the rich 'main course' comes the 'dessert', and McIntyre's 'A Day in the Life' ends the programme with a comparatively low-key but still a climactic finale. Unlike 'Le Carnivale des Animaux' and 'Rush', 'A Day in the Life' is choreographed by basing on a selection of songs from the Beatles, which means the music for the ballet is not originally in entirety. McIntyre set up his own dance company Trey McIntyre Project in 2005 in Idaho with a company of regular dancers. 'A Day in the Life' was created with McIntyre closely working with his company, thus the piece speaks in personal terms.

Through the 12 singles from the Beatles, acting as 12 movements, 'A Day in the Life' is probably the most abstract piece among the three, simply because it is more psychological than representational. McIntyre merges movements in modern dance with the languages in classical ballet, and because of that, even though one can see ballet techniques in the piece, one focuses more on the dancers' expressions through their bodies rather than their techniques.

BWW Review: Hong Kong Ballet defines her new direction through season finale, WHEELDON, RATMANSKY, MCINTYRE & THE BEATLES, at Hong Kong Cultural Centre
Jie Shen and Corp de Ballet in 'A Day in the Life'
Photo Credit: Conrad Dy-Liacco

And here is where the magic grows. With a literal bare stage (there is no credit for scenic design) and a minimalistic approach on the costume, designed by the Bisou Consortium, and lighting, designed by Nicholas Phillips (again adapted by Alice Kwong for this production), 'A Day in the Life' fully lets ballet dancers treat ballet dancing as playing, giving them a playground to really express themselves as who they are. Clearly, the piece is developed through the original cast's personal input. If the dancers of 'A Day in the Life' do not try to give life by breathing air to the choreography, then they are not doing justice to the piece. Each dancer's personal life can totally colour a different painting with the same choreography.

Renowned designer Jan Versweyveld once said that to design a stage is to give the audience an 'emotional reality'. McIntyre, in this case, has designed his own 'emotional reality' through his choreography. The openness of his world is so vast that it gives liberation for dancers to 'create', and I dare say, this is the challenge that McIntyre has planted in his work, especially for the world of ballet.

The Hong Kong Ballet dancers do well in 'A Day in the Life'. The matinee show features an ensemble of dancers who have strong affinity, though most of them are still too focusing on their techniques. The presentation is still strong with highly executed formations. Jie Shen, on the other hand, shines as the lead of the piece. He totally embodies the journey of his 'character', and through his skilfully executed movements, I can connect with him emotionally. Shen's innocence gradually turns into frustration and confinement in the end, and with the strong mise-en-scene and the sound-mixing of the song 'A Day in the Life', an ovation has already been given before the piece ends.


WHEELDON, RATMANSKY, MCINTYRE & THE BEATLES at Grand Theatre, Hong Kong Cultural Centre
Closed on 3rd June 2018

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From This Author Clement Lee

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