Hong Kong Ballet premieres Coco Chanel

March 27, 2023 06:00
Yang Ruiqi & Garry Corpuz (Photo: Conrad Dy-Liacco)

Hong Kong’s cultural scene is bouncing back. Just after the Hong Kong Arts Festival, Art Basel has returned after three years. And nearby at the Academy for Performing Arts, Hong Kong Ballet premiered last weekend an eagerly awaited two-act ballet “Coco Chanel” by the Belgian-born Colombian choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa which has been delayed by the pandemic.

Unexpectedly, the colourful life of the iconic French designer Coco Chanel has not yet been adapted into a ballet or modern dance work by any French choreographer. So the Hong Kong Ballet artistic director Septime Webre deserves praise for commissioning this new ballet from Lopez Ochoa, who has previously also tackled the life of another female icon – Eva Peron - for the Ballet Hispanico.

Chanel is a very hard working visionary, but also controversial, opportunistic, and anti-Semitic. Her life and her complex character deeply interest Lopez Ochoa. The choreographer has added an extra role – Shadow Chanel who constantly guides Chanel to a better future. She is seen in Chanel’s iconic look with a pearl necklace and holding a cigarette. I am not convinced though of the necessity, and find this additional character a distraction at times.

There are 12 different scenes in the two acts highlighting the key events of Chanel’s life beginning with a prologue showing Chanel as a penniless seamstress. Then the story progresses and she becomes the mistress of a wealthy man Balsan, and then emerges Boy Capel, the great love of her life. Her fashion business becomes more and more successful, and Act 1 ends with Capel’s tragic death in a car crash. Act 2 begins with Chanel’s affair with Igor Stravinsky, and then fast forwards to her affair with a Nazi officer in Nazi-occupied Paris, then her exile, and finally ends with her triumphant return to the fashion world.

This two-hour-long work feels cinematic in its smooth scene change and flow. Lopez Ochoa focuses on three key strands – Chanel’s innovation in women’s fashion, her rise from poverty to heading a fashion empire, and above all her colourful love affairs.

Her love affairs are easily conveyed by duets, which are numerous in this ballet. Her work in her atelier is deftly depicted by a corps de ballet of seamstresses. As for the strand of her business empire, the myth of the Chanel logo is imaginatively conveyed in an episode by a couple in leotard. However, the scene narrating the business deal for her most successful perfume, Chanel No. 5, is too long-winded.

Among the duets, the passionate pas de deux for Chanel and Boy Capel with a table swinging round at times is the best. However, Lopez Ochoa’s choreography is rather predictable after a while with the constant lifts and narrow vocabulary. More dramatic is a trio in which Balsan and Boy Capel compete to win Chanel’s affection. The workshop scenes with a corps de ballet of seamstresses and models are lively and exciting. The Deauville sailors’ dance is vigorous.

This ballet is good in theatrical effects. Chairs become chandeliers early in Act 1. Boy Capel’s car crash scene is ingeniously enacted by four men holding each of the four tyres. Also memorable is the chilling Nazi scene which is so brutal. The final scene which depicts the growth of Chanel’s fashion empire is particularly moving at the end when an old tape of Chanel’s dialogue in an interview is played.

The whole Hong Kong Ballet company danced admirably. Yang Ruiqi danced magnificently the title role. Garry Corpuz was excellent as Boy Capel, while Henry Seldon impressed as the Nazi officer.

The lovely designs are by the French designer Jerome Kaplan. His set consists of two staircases. In terms of colour scheme, Act 1 is the white act, while Act 2 is the black act covering the darker period of Chanel’s life. The costumes are gorgeous.

The brand new score is by a regular collaborator of Lopez Ochoa, the British composer Peter Salem. It perfectly fits the action and drama of the ballet. It was superbly played by the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Faycal Karoui.

“Coco Chanel” is an excellent creation. It is thoughtful and original, deeply expressionistic and theatrical. It should be revived soon by the Hong Kong Ballet. Being a co-production with the Atlanta Ballet and the Queensland Ballet. it will be seen next in Atlanta.

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Yang Ruiqi & Yonen Takano (Photo by Conrad Dy-Liacco)

veteran dance critic