Anticipating the Hong Kong Ballet

Oct 30, 2014

Here I am in Hong Kong, preparing to dance the premiere of Pier Windows on the Kwun Ton Pier on Victoria Harbor. There are still demonstrators in the streets, mainly in Mon Kok and Admiralty. It’s quite beautiful and peaceful, actually. Small tents and umbrellas, heads bowed in study and reading, handwritten signs of pro-democracy love and support. The policemen nearby do not seem in the least anxious or ready to harm. 

Last week I made my way to the huge Hong Kong Cultural Center where the 35-year old Hong Kong Ballet had its mixed bill season. The gracious staff met me in the lobby near Starbucks and I spread out in the modest auditorium for the dress rehearsal. I chatted quickly with former New York City Ballet Principal Judith Fugate who was staging George Balanchine’s Serenade. Then the lights went down. Tchaikovsky’s music, played live and conducted by a wonderfully feisty woman, burst open my heart and the tears flowed. I had danced this ballet for the last time over 25 years ago with the Royal Ballet of Flanders (KBVV) in Belgium.

All kinds of emotions coursed through me for 45 seconds and then I was done, eyes dry as the curtain went up on 17gorgeous, long tutu-ed women: Canadian, Japanese, Philippino, Chinese, and European. The company is run by Madeleine Onne, former principal dancer for the Royal Swedish Ballet. As Hong Kong Ballet’s Artistic Director, she has commissioned  amazing productions like the Turandot Northrop audiences are about to feast their eyes upon. It was created by Australian choreographer Natalie Weir in 2003. More on that later, but get your tickets now for Northrop’s November 6th and 7th performances.

Serenade proceeded to remind me why I love ballet and what Balanchine has meant in my life. I got to dance the leads in Balanchine ballets like Apollo, Allegro Brilliante, Tarantella, and in the corps of Concerto Barocco. It’s a pleasure to dance in the corps of any Balanchine ballet, I swear! No standing in place, no waiting on bended knees. Often you dance more than the soloist, and Serenade has many wild sections where Balanchine said, “just run and make your way to corner!”

The next piece, Castrati, was choreographed by Nacho Duato. Ms. Onne acquired the work for the nine excellent men in the company. It’s a spectacular showcase for the men, dressed in long vest robes and then undies. Super fast, up and down physical choreography that in the end shows an unwilling victim of intimate castration. It amuses me to no end imagining Duato waking up in Spain one day and deciding “Today I think I’ll make a ballet about men being castrated…..5, 6, 7, 8…!” Hong Kong Ballet is the only Asian company with the work. 

The dress rehearsal I saw closed with Act III from Swan Lake— a great excerpt because it shows all the opulent costumes and gorgeous character dances that, as a kid, I never appreciated but now adore. I thought fondly of my teacher in Minneapolis, Lirena Biranski, who excelled at these character dances and taught them for many years at Ballet Arts Minnesota. Many of the Hong Kong Ballet dancers were really into it, I could tell: jaunty heads and articulate fingers.

Then, the Black Swan, Odile, and Prince Siegfried danced the famous grand Pas de Deux; her with ballet’s rare chance to be overtly sexy and evil and him, super romantic, the lamb to her lion. The glimpse of the company that this rehearsal provided me made me confident that Hong Kong Ballet’s  Turandot  will be amazing. 

About Turandot: I’ve not seen the opera and I will get to watch a rehearsal of the ballet in a few days, and will share in a new blog. But I know a bit about it and it seems perfect for this Asian company to create and perform. It is the last work Puccini created before he died in 1924. Actually, Franco Alfano had to complete the last acts and it was first performed two years after Puccini’s heart attack, with Toscanini conducting. Not too shabby.

The production design by Bill Haycock is reportedly spectacular and acts as a key element of the narrative. According to reviews “Weir’s choreography skillfully integrates classical and contemporary languages, demanding a challenging combination of rigorous ballet technique - notably in the complex partnering - and unfettered freedom of movement.” The story sounds a bit like “Princess and the Pea” meets “Frozen:” an icy-hearted princess, noble middle class guy love triangle, love among the various classes, work, royalty, riddles, and death. 

Like the project that brought me here a month ago, Turandot draws from the creative energies of many cultures and countries. An Italian libretto based on a German adaptation of a play by a Persian poet, set in a Chinese setting. In my case, it’s East Indian, Chinese, and American, with artistry from Germany, Korea, and Japan as well. A melting pot, even here in Hong Kong where cultural identity is being wrought on the streets, on the water, on the piers and onstage.

Northrop Presents
The Hong Kong Ballet


Thu, Nov 6, 7:30 pm & Fri, Nov 7, 8:00 pm
Carlson Family Stage

Tickets available here

Related Events
The Hong Kong Ballet Performance Preview

Thu, Nov 6, 6:15 pm & Fri, Nov 7, 6:45 pm
Best Buy Theater, 4th floor, Northrop
Free and open to the public

Gain insight into the performance at an in-depth conversation about the company and the evening’s program. Penelope Freeh (a 2014 McKnight Artist Fellow for Choreography) will moderate the discussion on Thu, Nov 6. The moderator for the Nov 7 discussion is David Walsh, U of M Associate Professor of Opera.

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