Published: 10:16, June 7, 2024
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Seasoned dancers set Swan Lake off to a flying start
By Chitralekha Basu
Ye Feifei does a midair split as the White Swan Odette. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Hong Kong Ballet’s 2023-24 season finale is a new production of that mother of all classical ballets — Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. The tale of a doomed romance between a prince and a girl trapped in the body of a swan is to ballet companies what Shakespeare’s Hamlet is to theater groups. It’s the most obvious piece to revisit every few years — Hong Kong Ballet’s last Swan Lake, choreographed by Australian ballet director John Meehan, was staged in 2008 — for each new production serves as a touchstone of both the company’s professional standards as well as its ability to present a classic in a way that speaks to the present moment.

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It was never in doubt that the Hong Kong Ballet dancers are on a par with those of the world’s finest dance companies. Choosing the company’s most seasoned ballerina, Ye Feifei, to dance the excruciatingly demanding roles of the swan-maiden Odette and her evil doppelganger Odile seems to have paid off, big time. The deliciously textured performance delivered by Ye is doubtless the product of experience. In Act II, as Odette, dancing her first pas de deux with Prince Siegfried, when the characters have just met and instantly smitten with each other, she embodies a gamut of emotions — hope, fear, pain and affection for the beloved, all rolled into one. By the time she makes her entry as the Black Swan Odile, the last traces of her fragile and tormented earlier persona have been erased completely. Dancing the coda from the pas de deux in Act III, which involves performing a series of relentless pirouettes, Ye shoots triumphant smiles at the audience. For all the hype around Matthew Ball — an internationally feted dancer and model and a star of The Royal Ballet — who is cast opposite her as Prince Siegfried, it’s Ye’s show all the way.

Yonen Takano (left) as Von Rothbart, Ye Feifei as the Black Swan Odile, and Matthew Ball as Prince Siegfried in Hong Kong Ballet’s Swan Lake. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Ball has danced Siegfried before. He also appeared as the lead swan in an all-male, ballet noir adaptation of Swan Lake by Matthew Bourne and hence is aware of the material’s dark psychological possibilities. Ball interprets Siegfried as a quiet and thoughtful young man, aware of his place in the royal court and yet something of an outsider, not particularly fond of socializing. For long periods of time, he is present on the scene as a spectator, watching others take the center stage. But his body language is most eloquent even when he stands perfectly still. His extremely understated interactions with the court jester — playful at first, bored after a while but never lacking in elegance — are a treat to watch. Which is not to say that his mid-air splits and barrel turns are any the less spectacular.  

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The choreography is by Yuri Possokhov, who was a principal dancer at the Bolshoi Ballet before he went on to choreograph for some of the most high-profile dance companies of the world. The production stays close to the 1895 stage adaptation of the original by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, though I’m not sure imagining the evil Von Rothbart as an incarnation of the court jester actually works. While Wang Zi as the Jester is most delightful, especially when he is appearing to be bungling his moves, Yonen Takano as Von Rothbart, though a competent dancer, does not come across as particularly menacing or cunning to justify his role as the evil mastermind. The transitions between the characters of the Jester and Von Rothbart could have been visualized more imaginatively. The scenography lacks the sophistication that is evident elsewhere in the production, particularly in the performances by its two lead dancers, Ye and Ball.

If you go

Swan Lake by Hong Kong Ballet

Dates: Through Sunday

Venue: Grand Theatre, Hong Kong Cultural Centre, 10 Salisbury Avenue, Tsim Sha Tsui