A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Hong Kong Ballet has made its Beijing premiere at long last, with two programs assembled by artistic director Bruce Steivel, an American, aimed at satisfying local tastes for both new work and twentieth-century classics.
Newest was Steivel's own version of A Midsummer Night's Dream, with the entire company of thirty-four appearing in the evening-length ballet, a challenge to choreographer and dancers alike. To the Beijing audience the plot meant very little, since its main theme of love is obscured by confusing exchanges involving human mistakes, divine power, and a magic flower pierced by Cupid's arrow. What actually stayed in the memory was several demanding pas de deux and one pas de quatre.
The role of Puck was danced by Zhao Ming, who was an excellent dancer and choreographer in the army while based in Beijing. He earned the lion's share of the audience's applause for his flawlessly light jumps and speedy turns, but one expected more eccentric behavior--that is, movement--from this naughty boy, instead of the completely well-tamed young servant his character turned out to be. Still, it was satisfying to observe Ming's virtuosic, performance; anyone with even some experience watching evening-length ballet has real interest in this skill, rather than in the narrative. Major disappointments in the production were the rough quality and provincial color of Queen Hippolyta' tights, which misled local au into supposing her a slave girl rather than a monarch, and the skirts for the woodlahd fairies, which were less than ethereal, making the sprites look earthbound.
Compared with opening night, the second performance showed off a much more relaxed and comfortable company. Several of the male principals and soloists, graduates of the Beijing Dance Academy and the Shanghai Dance School, were in fact dancing for their former teachers and classmates.
Using Ashton's Les Patineurs ("The Skaters") as a curtain raiser for the mixed bill was a clever idea indeed, as Beijing endured an exceptionally hot summer. Moreover, it showed that even the once-aristocratic art of ballet could conduct a harmonious pas de deux with the daily life of common people. Audiences applauded more for this lively and lovely short work than they had for Dream, for there were fewer limitations on the choreographer's imagination in creating humorous effects.
If Ashton lightheartedly brought daily life up close, Choo San Goh, the only Chinese choreographer to reach the first rank among Western ballet makers, pushed in a distant direction with Unknown Territory. Goh made dynamic use of several movements and gestures from southern Chinese ethnic danced as a starting point in his depiction of a primitive tribe enacting a mysterious rite. Most impressive was the tragic sensation Goh aroused through a symbolic wedding ceremony, in which A young bride is bound and rendered helpless by a beautiful red silk ribbon.
To save the audience from this depressing abyss, Steivel kindly concluded with Balanchine's Who Cares? But the Chinese-trained men and women of his troupe are so different from those male and female terpsi-choreans in the New York City Ballet that the contrast was startling. Without lengthy training in that particular kind of dynamic and momentum for the legs characteristic of Balanchine, and without having lived on that busy and crazy island of Manhattan, Hong Kong Ballet was hard but to grasp that Big Apple pizazz so essential to Who Cares?