Hong Kong Ballet’s sparkling new Nutcracker

December 14, 2021 10:52
Ye Feifei & Daniel Camargo  Photo: Keith Hiro

The Hong Kong Ballet has just premiered a brand new production of “The Nutcracker” last weekend. It is the second full-length ballet specially created by the company by its artistic director Septime Webre, who had created an excellent production of “Romeo + Juliet” with a Hong Kong flavour earlier this year.

“Nutcracker” is a famous 19th century ballet classic which is normally associated with Christmas. The main theme of a family Christmas party and the girl Clara’s dream journey into the Kingdom of Sweets is perfectly captured in Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece, played again this season by the Hong Kong Sinfonietta conducted by Yip Wing-sie. As in most productions of “Nutracker”, the libretto of this new production is based on A. Dumas’ adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffman’s story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King”.

Yan Pat To is again the dramaturge of this new production of “Nutcracker”. That successful formula in “Romeo” of making a classic more relevant for the local audiences has been used again this time. Adding a local flavour, the magician Drosselmeyer is called Tao Sifu, who presents a short video shadow puppet show for the children during the Act 1 party. And Webre and his team have adapted this Christmas tale to take place in Hong Kong in the early 20th century instead of 19th century Europe. The dominating stage set is a palatial mansion resembling the historic Kam Tong Hall. The colonial era interior brings to mind the Hong Kong Club. The magnificent sets and costumes are designed by Gabriela Tylesova. Memorable is a replica of the Tsimshatsui Clock Tower on the right side of the stage.

The overall conception of this new creation is a celebration of the unique heritage and culture of Hong Kong in the past century. Webre’s team is ambitious in introducing as many local characters as possible in Act 1. Once the overture is being played, the busy stage action already commences with Clara’s appearance and the various guests’ arrival at the mansion for the Christmas party. The guests included historical characters like Dr. Sun Yat-sen and his wife Soong Ching-ling, and Sir Robert Hotung. And it’s no surprise that mahjong games are also played by the party guests, as in “Romeo”. Even the legendary Monkey King makes an appearance as one of the dancing dolls.

However, the growth of the Christmas tree to a gigantic size which is so magical and festive in some productions of “Nutcracker” is missing here. Instead, the Christmas tree gives way to a lush bamboo forest which is the scene of the battle between the rats and the toy soldiers. However, in this battle scene, the connection with the local legend of the pirate Cheung Po Tsai as mentioned in the programme notes is not that clear.

Webre has added an extra leading couple in the snowflakes scene at the end of Act 1 after the battle scene. The Snow King and Snow Queen now dance the duet normally performed by Clara and the Nutcracker Prince. The duet should be danced by Clara as an emotional resolution after she has seen the Nutcracker transformed into a handsome prince. It does not feel right emotionally to see this duet suddenly danced by a new couple.

In Act 2, instead of the Kingdom of Sweets setting, the décor is a beautiful garden scene. The divertissements have also been adapted to reflect local cultural heritage. The annual Cheung Chau Bun Festival is celebrated in the Chinese dance. Mother Dim Sum has now replaced the Mother Ginger divertissement. The Russian dance is good fun with jockeys racing at the Hong Kong Jockey Club. And Webre has added a Dew Drop Fairy to lead the waltz of the flowers, as in Balanchine’s great version for the New York City Ballet.

Webre’s choreography is effective, though occasionally formulaic and repetitive. The battle scene is theatrical. The choreography for the Chinese dance, which includes a lion dance, is the best and most imaginative. The grand pas de deux in Act 2 for the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier is based on the original Ivanov choreography. It is good that the nephew’s traditional mime scene describing his rescue by Clara throwing her slipper at the Rat King has been retained.

On the opening night of this premiere, the whole company’s performances were full of vitality and freshness. Ye Feifei sparkled with joy as the Sugar Plum Fairy, with guest Daniel Camargo impressive as her Cavalier. Shen Jie was handsome as the Nephew/Nutcracker Prince. Garry Corpuz displayed his dazzling virtuosity as the Snow King, while Amber Lewis was sharp and precise as Dew Drop Fairy. Wei Wei was authoritative as Tao Sifu.

In the Sunday matinee, Amber Lewis shone as the Sugar Plum Fairy, and Peggy Lai was warm as Clara. Overall, this original production is more coherent than the Chinese version of “Nutcracker” which the National Ballet of China had performed here on tour. And Webre’s new version is definitely the Hong Kong Ballet’s best production of “Nutcracker” in the past three decades.

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Amber Lewis  Photo: Eric Hong
Shen Jie & Kim Eunsil  Photo: Eric Hong
HK Ballet dancers Photo:Tony Luk

veteran dance critic