Hong Kong Ballet's mixed record
by Kevin Ng
On 15 December the Hong Kong Ballet opened its annual 10-day run of "Nutcracker". This production by artistic director Stephen Jefferies, premiered three years ago, was danced with slightly more coherence than in previous years.
The chief merit of this production are the lavish sets and costumes designed by British designer Peter Farmer, instead of the actual dancing. The red draperies in Act 1 evoke a Victorian dressing room, while the blue and white backdrop for the ice palace is quite tasteful. The production faithfully follows the original libretto by Hoffmann, but with some modifications in the choreographic text which are not however an improvement on the original Ivanov choreography.
Dancing the lead role of the Sugar Plum Fairy that night was Terasa Webster, a young soloist from Australia who joined the company three years ago. Webster danced with a winning charm, showing off her strong technique, though somewhat lacking in purity of classical style. She was well partnered by principal dancer Liang Jing as the Nutcracker Prince.
Another highlight was the Waltz of the Flowers which was stylishly danced by the ensemble. The mime however appeared exaggerated in some places, not surprising as acting is not a strength of the company.
The company is currently in high spirits after returning from its European tour in November. The 38 dancers performed in six provincial cities in Germany including Ludwigsburg and Wolfsburg, as well as the Swiss city of Winterthur and Salzburg in Austria. They brought only one ballet - "The Emperor and the Nightingale" created for the company in 1997 by London-based choreographer Domy Reiter-Soffer. At the company's press conference held in mid-December, Terasa Webster remarked, "Enthusiastic audiences waited to greet us at the backstage entrance after the performances. This has been a great experience for all the dancers."
According to Helen Ng, the company's chief executive, they gave 29 performances to appreciative audiences, with the average attendance rate at an impressive 97%. And on the first night of the tour the cast received a standing ovation. Ng told me, "This European tour has allowed our company to fulfil its role as the cultural ambassador of Hong Kong."
Artistic director Stephen Jefferies whose contract was renewed for another term of three years said, "I am delighted that the company has achieved recognition overseas. Horst Koegler (a leading German critic) wrote a favourable review. The applause everywhere was much warmer than what we normally get in Hong Kong." Then he joked that the Hong Kong Ballet seems to be better known abroad than locally.
Jefferies can justifiably be proud of the success of this European tour, since the company's last overseas tour to New York two years ago was a flop both artistically and commercially. The favourable response this time - though the cities toured are not the ballet capitals of Europe - must also have been music to his ears, as his present term of directorship is not without controversies.
Undeniably, Jefferies' record in the past five years looks impressive on paper. As he himself remarked, "The company now gives 60 to 70 performances a year in total, locally and on tour; compared to only 35 when I first took over." Admittedly the standard of dancing has improved.
Jefferies, a former principal dancer of England's Royal Ballet, also stressed that he has introduced into the company's repertory a number of new ballets that reflect its Chinese identity, e.g. "The Last Emperor" by Wayne Eagling. The abundance of new creations is however one of the more controversial aspects of his directorship.
There have been complaints from members of the board that too much of the company's annual budget has been spent on uninteresting new productions by Jefferies' favourite choreographer Domy Reiter-Soffer, who is not a big name in London anyway. Next January the company will premiere another ballet by this choreographer - "White Snake" based on the Chinese folklore. Jefferies could perhaps have economised and made more use of some of the more successful productions left behind by his predecessors.
For instance, there are a numher of interesting ballets by the late Singaporean choreographer Choo-San Goh, which have not been seen again during Jefferies' directorship. Also missed are three masterpieces by George Balanchine (the greatest ballet choreographer of the 20th century) which were brought into the company's repertory by Jefferies' predecessor Bruce Steivel - "Who Cares", "Allegro Brillante" and "Tchaikovsky Pas De Deux".
Moreover, in the past two years there has not been a single mixed bill programme presented by the company, as all the programmes have been full-length story ballets. This is not wise, because the company does not have a strong dramatic tradition like the Royal Ballet. When I asked Jefferies about this, he just explained that mixed bill programmes don't sell in the local box office.
But if commercial viability is really his main concern, Jefferies could do better to reallocate more of the company's budget on inviting some illustrious guest stars from abroad, instead of on some new productions of no real merit. In view of Jefferies' past connection with the Royal Ballet, I am puzzled that he has not invited more stars from London like Darcey Bussell who no doubt will delight local audiences as much as those glamorous stars of the American Ballet Theatre who performed with the New York company here in October. Actually two years ago, Tetsuya Kumakawa, a former Royal Ballet star, guested in "Nutcracker", attracting over 300 of his Japanese fans to this city.
It is also incomprehensible why the company cannot recruit more dancers and artistic staff from mainland China, though last year's appointment of Wang Jia-hong as the rehearsal master was a right step in that direction.
The National Ballet of China, which performed in Hong Kong last September, revealed itself as a much finer classical troupe. Interestingly it brought a Chinese version of "Nutcracker", and a mixed bill consisting of a Chinese ballet "Yellow River" as well as the Bournonville classic "La Sylphide" produced by Frank Anderson, a former artistic director of the Royal Danish Ballet. This was a much better mixture of East and West than what our local company can manage. And the Chinese company's 'corps de ballet' and leading dancers are more polished than their Hong Kong counterparts.
Stephen Jefferies could take a moment to ponder these issues as he prepares his action plan for his new term as director.
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