Hong Kong Ballet’s welcome return to stage

November 04, 2020 08:05
Amber Lewis & Shen Jie in “Don Quixote”.  Photo by Edward So

Last weekend, the Hong Kong Ballet has made a most eagerly awaited return to the stage after 10 months. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the company hasn’t performed at all in the city since its Nutcracker season last Christmas.

And how fitting that it has chosen an uplifting 19th century classic “Don Quixote” to open the current 2020/1 season. This sunny and joyous classic warhorse has a moral of triumph against adversity, which is most apt in the current difficult times. The two lovers Kitri and Basilio successfully overcome all difficulties to get married.

In Europe and the USA, only a handful of dance companies have performed on stage this autumn and with reduced numbers, while most others have resorted to online live streams.

In accordance with government regulations, only 75% of the seats in the Hong Kong Cultural Centre Grand Theatre were sold. A new plastic barrier was erected separating the audience from the orchestra pit. And Judith Yan, the conductor of the accompanying orchestra, City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong, had to undergo a 14-day period of self-quarantine after flying in from Canada.

Fortunately, Hong Kong Ballet was performing at full capacity without any reduction in the corps de ballet at all. The only noticeable change was that the children performers were wearing transparent masks.

The Saturday matinee that I attended was a triumph. As Basilio, Shen Jie was at his most dazzling in virtuosic power. His leaps and turns were most spectacular. His two one-handed lifts early in Act 1 were rock solid. Kitri was performed in a remarkable debut by Amber Lewis, a talented coryphee dancer. She was dancing with an amazing confidence. The technical fireworks held no fear for her; her double and triple fouettes in the Act 3 grand pas de deux were breathtaking. It was truly a memorable debut. Among the supporting performances, Yang Ruiqi impressed as Mercedes.

Traditional versions of “Don Quixote” normally last for over three hours. This production is by Nina Ananiashvili, a former star of the Bolshoi Ballet, and was last performed in 2017. It is an abridged version lasting just two hours, and admittedly suits the resources of a smaller sized company such as the Hong Kong Ballet.

Act 1, as in most other versions, ends with the innkeeper’s daughter Kitri running off with her lover Basilio. Act 2 picks up at the gypsy encampment to which they have escaped. Then the Don dreams of Kitri as his ideal woman. In the next scene, Basilio fakes his own suicide, and the last scene (Act 3 in other versions) is the wedding celebration of the two lovers.

Act 2 feels too rushed consequently. Another interval is really necessary after the Don’s beautiful dream scene in order to provide a break in the audience’s mood before the dramatic tavern scene. The tavern scene is too brief; the denouement after the fake suicide doesn’t make the full dramatic impact.

The choreographic text remains rooted in the traditional Petipa choregraphy. The cuts are justifiable and are mostly character dances which would have been too taxing for the company, such as the Arab and Oriental dances in the tavern scene which are so memorable in the Russian productions.

The Sunday night performance was led by Chen Zhiyao and Li Lin, both of whom were also making their debut in this classic this season. Both had rough edges. Garry Corpuz was a dazzling Espada, while Gao Ge impressed as the Queen of the Dryads. Hong Kong Ballet has returned to the stage in good form, dancing with a bright energy.

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veteran dance critic