Hong Kong Ballet’s spectacular new Romeo a big hit

June 22, 2021 09:57
Dancers Daniel Camargo (left) and Chen Zhiyao Photo: Conrad Dy-Liacco

Hong Kong Ballet’s final offering this season at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre last weekend was the premiere of a brand new production of “Romeo + Juliet” created by the artistic director Septime Webre. It is a big change from the company’s previous production by Rudi van Dantzig. Compressed into under 2 1/2 hours with only an interval after Act 1, this new production has updated Renaissance Italy to Hong Kong in the 1960s.

Being a tribute to this city which has been his home for the last four years, Webre has assembled a knowledgeable team for this new “Romeo”. Among his closest collaborators is the award-winning playwright Yan Pat To. Listed as the dramaturge, Yan has infused a Chinese flavour into the storyline and the characters.

So the names of some characters of Shakespeare’s play have been adapted to add a local flavour. Tybalt becomes Tai Po, a triad boss who is a business associate of Juliet’s father. In this version, Tai Po is also the secret lover of Juliet’s mother. Their relationship is first hinted in a short duet in the Act 1 banquet scene. Later, seeing that he has been killed by Romeo, her loss of self-control, which is so embarrassing to her husband, therefore makes sense.

Friar Laurence becomes Sifu (a martial arts master) who is based in a Chinese temple instead of a monastery. Juliet’s nurse is an amah (a Chinese nanny) with a traditional ponytail. And Mercutio is renamed Mak.

The street scenes are rich and detailed with a local flavour. There are many characters including vegetables hawkers, dim-sum and noodle sellers, office workers, students as well as an old man holding a cage with his bird inside.

The company has also received extensive training in Chinese martial arts from tutors in the International Guoshu Association. No wonder that the kung fu fighting scene with bamboo sticks early in Act 1, as well as the duelling scene in Act 2 were so impressively performed by the dancers.

The lavish 1960s costumes, designed by Mandy Tam, include many splendid cheongsams for the women alongside stylish leather jackets for some men. It would need a separate essay to describe all the riches.

Ricky Chan’s attractive and eye-catching sets evoke the 1960s era in colonial Hong Kong. The décor with lots of colourful neon-light signs brings to mind Nathan Road. The red panel for the Act 1 banquet scene in a floating seafood restaurant (instead of in a ballroom in other versions) is sumptuous with a golden dragon in the centre. And the balcony duet takes place in a traditional Chinese courtyard with a stone bridge.

This new “Romeo” production is spectacular and exciting. Septime Webre’s choreography is particularly inventive and imaginative in the street scenes in the city centre. In Act 3, a newly-wed couple is cheered by the crowds while taking photos with an official photographer. This is followed by an episode with a film director shooting a comic rock n roll scene in the street for a movie. Later, the corps de ballet has an energetic dance enacting a session in a mahjong game parlour, which is great fun.

The choreography for the two big duets is expressive. The Act 1 balcony pas de deux is ecstatic and full of soaring lifts, the Act 2 bedroom duet is sexually charged. Webre has cut slightly Juliet’s long confrontation scene in Act 3 with her parents after refusing to marry her fiancé. And the final death scene is powerfully conveyed.

The whole first cast was praiseworthy on Saturday night. Chen Zhiyao was superb as Juliet, bringing out all the nuances in the role in her fine acting. She conveyed a fresh innocence in the beginning, and gradually heightening in passion. She was radiant in the duets, soaring like a bird in the high lifts of the balcony duet. In the bedroom duet her limbs formed beautiful curves. And her death scene was most moving. The guest star Daniel Camargo was magnificent as her Romeo.

Shen Jie dazzled as Mak in his technical virtuosity as well as acting. Jonathan Spigner was a lively Benny. Li Lin was menacing as the evil Tai Po. Garry Corpuz was commanding as the kung fu master; Henry Seldon was handsome as Juliet’s fiancé. Wei Wei had a dignified authority as her father, and Ye Feifei was glamorous as her mother.

Ye also shone as Juliet in another cast, with Garry Corpuz as her Romeo. Albert Gordon impressed as Mak. For the record, the last performance led by Venus Villa as Juliet marked her farewell performance. The Hong Kong Sinfonietta, conducted by Yip Wing-sie provided good accompaniment.

This new spectacular production of “Romeo + Juliet” is the most outstanding full-length narrative ballet with a Chinese or Hong Kong theme created by the company in the past two decades. Hopefully it will be shown on Hong Kong Ballet’s overseas tours in the future as travel returns to normal.

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Hong Kong Ballet dancers  Photo:  Conrad Dy-Liacco

veteran dance critic