[Editor's Note: See Part 1 of Sally Rousse's blog posts on Hong Kong Ballet here.]
Here’s what I love about the Hong Kong Ballet: they work so very hard and with joy! It is just such a treat to see them in class and in rehearsal, giving every moment their physical and mental focus, cheering each other on. I’m not sure I have seen any other group of dancers work so intensely. There’s just something sweet about seeing all these young dancers care about every moment, whether they need to or not, without attitude. “Need" is the key word maybe, to dance like one needs to, for oneself — that looks different than dancing for other eyes. As dancers, we are constantly trying to please the audience, the choreographer, the ballet master, or mistress. Rarely in ballet is the priority to please oneself.
I got to take class with The Hong Kong Ballet (HKB) and then watch a run-through of the first cast of Turandot three days ago. As I write this, I am on a 13-hour flight to Seattle with them, soaking up all the sodium and in-flight cinema our bodies can possibly consume. The company will perform the Asian-themed Turandot at the gorgeous Northrop this Thursday and Friday, with two different casts. Turandot, choreographed for the HKB by Australian Natalie Weir in 2003, is a neoclassical ballet based on Puccini’s last opera. It uses the recorded opera music and the choreography is largely connected to the lyrics, so the bodies truly sing the narrative and bend and breathe with the voices. There’s that famous aria “Nessun Dorma" (you hear it three times) which went mainstream a dozen years ago. Even my brother, a total ice-king businessman, was into it.
Of the original HKB cast on whom Weir created the leading roles, Yuh Egami and Liang Jaingwere were on hand to coach the new dancers. Candice Adea will take on the role of Liu Liu in a few weeks during the Hong Kong run. I remember seeing Candice in Serenade a week earlier as one of the four Russian Girls, maybe even in the exact place I danced a million years ago in Europe! I confess I have a special place in my heart for this dancer: petite, earnest, lyrical, musical, with enough energy and will to do both her ensemble part as well as the principal role during this rehearsal. Candice dove into the role with relish and professionalism. Then she put her hair up and danced the ornate partnering sections Weir crafted for six couples of the court. These couples seem to reflect the spirit of the leads: the icy resolve of the Princess and the tenacity of Calaf, her suitor, along with the elasticity of sweet Liu Liu. It’s all the classes mixed in there, so they have to be like bamboo — strong but flexible. There’s fondness for men and women going from fourth position releve straight down, over their arches to the floor. It’s effective. The couples dance very close to each other, yet do big gymnastic feats and tosses. A number of times I was amazed that the dancer dancing Calaf could manage to do his double sauté de basque in the midst of the entire corps. But this is China and everyone is used to crowds, I guess.
In Act III, the vast Northrop stage — first half of it, then all of it! — will be covered in a steely glittery gown. It’s very cool. It’s probably no fun for Princess Turandot to have in the midst of it, but it’s a very effective vision of unflappable power and stature. While this segment of the role may not be extremely demanding technically, it does require a gorgeous divine specimen because the audience does look at her for quite some time.
Liu Yu-Yao (Thursday’s cast) absolutely fits the bill. She has the longest neck I have ever seen in my life other than in National Geographic, and long arched feet and a ribbon-thin body that reminds me of Avatar. In Act I she appears on top of a large pearly ball wearing ice dagger bracelets. She maintains a look of regal hardness that made me wonder “Why the love triangle? Why would men line up to ask her hand in marriage? Why would they risk their lives for this ice princess?” The suitors have to answer three riddles correctly or they are killed. I had to wonder if anyone, no matter how beautiful, would be worth it.
Calaf answers the riddles correctly but still there’s a test: she must guess his name (Rumplestiltskin! No.). There is a mystery here, but I won’t spoil it for you.
Meanwhile, Calaf’s long lost blind father warns him against this quest. Liu Liu, who has been devoted to the old man and is sustained by a mere smile Calaf flashed her long ago, is tortured to reveal Calaf’s name. Calaf is clearly torn between his father’s dying wishes, the love and sacrifice of Liu Liu, and the growing love between him and the slowly melting Turnadot. There is a passionate duet and I see Princess Turandot’s mouth soften into a smile, her impossible neck bends to Calaf’s hand, and they kiss. The duet is reminiscent of MacMillian’s Romeo and Juliet, horizontal lifts and back of hand partnering, ardent arabesque fouette reaches. It looks effortless and lush.
I had just gone a month without taking class, dancing on concrete on an ancient pier with extreme corners of sound, aesthetic tastes, and post-modern movement idioms. But somehow, seeing this kind of ballet spectacle with its virtuosity, overt beauty, and the heartfelt work that everyone in the organization is putting into it — from costume makers to coaches to understudies and of course the dancers telling the story — brings me back to a kind of center.
[Editor's Note: Experience The Hong Kong Ballet in Turandot yourself this Thu and Fri at Northrop! Purchase your tickets here.]