Published: 10:40, November 17, 2023 | Updated: 10:40, November 17, 2023
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The Roaring ‘20s revisited
By Chitralekha Basu

Hong Kong Ballet’s The Great Gatsby revisits the 1920s Jazz Age. A New York City street scene. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Some things get better with age. Septime Webre’s The Great Gatsby certainly has. In 2010, Webre, then the artistic director of the Washington Ballet, had adapted F Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel for the stage. Having joined Hong Kong Ballet as its artistic director in 2017, Webre staged Gatsby with HK Ballet dancers in 2019, but retained the original production’s music ensemble — Billy Novick’s Blue Syncopators jazz band, and lead female vocalist E Faye Butler, whose full-throated rendering of Jazz Age classics such as the Lemuel Fowler-composed He May Be Your Man packs power enough to switch on the house lights.     

Last week, HK Ballet brought back Fitzgerald’s time-honored tale of love, longing, betrayal and jealousy to the Hong Kong Cultural Centre for a limited run. Set in the super-rich Long Island milieu of the 1920s — and partly in the working-class “Valley of Ashes”, a sprawling garbage dump in the north of New York City (since reinvented as Flushing Meadows) — Gatsby is a study in contrasts. The pursuit of the American Dream ends differently for the story’s narrator, Nick Carraway, and its protagonist, Jay Gatsby, the self-made multimillionaire who acquires everything money can buy and more but is consumed by his unrequited love for the shallow and self-absorbed socialite Daisy Buchanan.

James Seol as narrator Nick Carraway. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

The tone is set in the opening scene, as the curtains part to reveal the monumental art deco gate of Gatsby’s estate. Nick, who is nowhere near as rich as Gatsby or the Buchanans, is often shown to be on the wrong side of this intricately designed cast-iron beauty with jumping-deer patterns. 

The set and costumes by Academy Award-winner Tim Yip underscore the conflict between old wealth (a lone pin-tucked sofa is enough to suggest the living room of Daisy and Tom Buchanan’s home on Long Island’s East Egg, complemented by French windows looking out on a serene, digitally animated sea) and the nouveaux riches. Gatsby’s West Egg residence comes with an indoor fountain, and a giant, digital screen for a ceiling, with splashes of loud colors making kaleidoscopic patterns on it.

George Wilson (Wang Zi) with his working-class Valley of Ashes neighbors. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

HK Ballet rotated the dancers playing the seven main parts this season, with each role played by at least three different members of the company over eight shows. Going against convention, soloists and coryphees, rather than principal dancers, appeared in some of the meatiest of roles. Zhang Xuening, a coryphee playing Tom Buchanan’s mistress, Myrtle Wilson, is a fine example. Seeking relief from her unexciting marriage to the owner of an unsuccessful auto-repair business, Myrtle ends up in an abusive relationship with Tom, sullying her reputation in the process. She is taken for a loose woman. Repeatedly thrown into the air and caught in the arms of the male guests at a party, Zhang plays one of the most physically demanding parts in Gatsby with amazing clarity. 

The meticulously detailed scenes set in the streets of New York are a joy to watch. Some of the vignettes — a couple of robbers outsmarting the cop on their heels and the parade of earnest-looking school girls led by a nun, for example — provide some of the lighter moments in a piece where the default scale is larger than life.  

George’s wife, Myrtle (Zhang Xuening), in the company of her rich friends. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Jay Gatsby (Garry Corpuz) with the love of his life, Daisy Buchanan (Yang Ruiqi). (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Wong Tan-ki’s tap-dancing number is a virtuoso act, though it comes across as a standalone solo, with no apparent connections to the plot. 

James Seol plays the narrator and also sings the male parts. His hauntingly beautiful rendition of the 1923 Irving Berlin number What’ll I Do? bookends the production. A throwback to Jack Clayton’s 1974 film adaptation of the novel, the song is likely to leave a searing imprint on the minds of all those who have loved and lost.