In the words of a friend, my weekend trip with my mum to Hong Kong was “a little extravagant”. We’d booked tickets to see American Ballet Theatre (ABT) perform at the Hong Kong Arts Festival on Christmas night (after the novelty of opening presents).
If you’ve read a previous post, you’ll know my mum is just about as big of a dance buff as I am. She won’t know what a double saut de basque is, but that doesn’t stop her from admiring the breathtaking height of the jump.
We watched ABT perform on two nights – the first, a typical gala programme to open the Hong Kong Arts Festival.
I was interested in the opening night bill solely because of Alexei Ratmansky‘s Symphony No. 9, the first in a Shostakovich trilogy which’ll be presented in New York in the summer. He’s the classical choreographer of the moment, and rightly so. The mesh of the literal and the abstract revealed hints of irony, ambiguity and mystery, by which the work engaged. The sprightly Simone Messmer impressed with lightning quick footwork in the first movement, and in the second slow movement, Polina Semionova (cue teenage ballerina crush) and Marcelo Gomes were quietly, languorously fluid.
But it was the sheer bravura of Herman Cornejo who stole the show. A delightfully Puckish performer, he seemed to set the whole work in motion. And even as the curtain went down, he was still spinning, moving, accelerating. It’s exhilarating stuff of which I hope to get a second viewing.
It is no wonder that ABT’s artistic director Kevin McKenzie, in a post-show talk, remarked:
As Balanchine brought ballet into the 20th century, I believe Ratmansky will bring ballet into the 21st century.
Which leads neatly on to the Balanchine offering of Stars and Stripes. Sarah Lane and Daniil Simkin certainly thrilled the Hong Kong audience with their risk-taking, high-flying ballet pyrotechnics (a manege of barrel jumps and 540s!), but the duo could have afforded to be more impish and cheeky with the choreography and with each other.
Mark Morris’ Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes was wonderfully accompanied by onstage pianist, and led by the lovely Hee Seo and radiant Isabella Boylston. The Swan Lake Act III pas de deux was the disappointment of the night. (I used to enjoy the tricks, but I thought it looked very odd out of context of the whole ballet.) The lasting image I have of Paloma Herrera is in this video of her and Angel Corella in the Don Quixote pas de deux – jubilant, flamboyant, youthful (and I guess it’s a hard one to shake off). She now looks nothing like that – her arms highly distracting and while brave, she appeared on the wild side. Maturity and years at the top equate (perhaps too much) artistic licence/liberty?
We returned the next evening for what Kevin McKenzie called “a typical Ballet Theatre bill”: a pure dance piece, a theatrical work and an emphatic big ballet to close. Paying tribute to ABT’s formative years fuelled by the creativity of Antony Tudor, The Leaves are Fading is graceful, subdued, but also quite monotonous throughout. I was looking forward to seeing Julie Kent in the lead role, but she was replaced by Hee Seo (supple, sinuous) due to injury. The Moor’s Pavane looked its age – all stilted gestures, pomp and circumstance. While well-played (especially by Simone Messmer as the villainess), I found it all a bit too literal and affected.
For the rousing closer, McKenzie chose Mr B’s Symphony in C. The grandeur, the volume, the stars – what’s not to like!
The Hong Kong audiences seem to be an educated bunch – they know their stars (Simkin in particular, was popular), they love their tricks. But I do hope that beneath the surface, there’s an audience who’s genuinely invested in ballet, in dance – its artistry, ecstacy, power to move, communicate and inspire.