The Hong Kong Ballet: Strength in Numbers
Classical dance lovers had something to cheer about this week, as The Hong Kong Ballet made its Jacob’s Pillow debut. At the same time, so did fans of contemporary dance; the company’s artistic director since 2009, Madeleine Onne, formerly headed the Royal Swedish Ballet, and founded Stockholm 59° North, an offshoot of the 300-plus-year-old company committed to commissioning and performing work by contemporary choreographers, which made its highly acclaimed debut at the Pillow in 1997.
Onne has taken that commitment to contemporary work with her to Hong Kong, where the young ballet company (33 years old this year, less than one-tenth the age of the Royal Swedish Ballet) is known mostly for its classical repertoire – Swan Lake, Giselle, and the like. Her three-dance program at the Pillow included the U.S. premiere of Black on Black by Vancouver’s Kinsun Chan, a piece dark in its design, with black costumes, each unique in details, and low light (obscured even further by haze effects) marking faint patterns on the stage floor that recall the tonal explorations of the Abstract Expressionist era. The somberness of the staging is lightened with a sprinkling of humorous elements.
The 2011 piece, set to Górecki’s String Quartet No. 2, Op. 64 ‘Quasi Una Fantasia’ began with a piece of fabric fleetingly wafted high across the stage on a wire, and included other notable if quizzical moments, as when the focus turned to a man, framed by the black back curtain shirred partially open against the theater’s wooden stage wall, trapped by a band of fabric, who seemed to sprout extra arms, which were revealed to belong to a female dancer hidden behind him. When she danced out in front, his bonds precipitously flew off, a visual surprise.
The work included some striking coupling, which showed off the line and incredible extensions of the dancers – some of the women’s standing splits go beyond 180 degrees. The most powerful parts were the single-sex ensemble sections. The women ended their clever, well synchronized segment of linear, rectangular configurations with an exit into the wings – almost. Each stopped there, dead still, with only the diagonal of their calves to the tip of their toe shoes left in view, highly lit in bright white, framing the stage as the male dancers took the spotlight. The men’s prowess with the engaging patterning of the choreography made you forget about those legs sticking out – as stiff and still as props – until the men danced the women back onstage.
There was a similarity of design – black costumes on black setting – in the evening’s third piece, Symphony in Three Movements, but the dancers seemed much less restrained and much more assured in their performance of this striking work by Dutch choreographer Nils Christe from 1883. With its geometric patterning and mechanized movements, the piece raises questions of whether there can ever be a dance set to a Stravinsky score that does not call to mind the film Metropolis. Fully extended arms repeatedly and vigorously whip round, like huge gears or wheels in swift motion, or giant pinwheel fireworks. The dancers’ elbows featured prominently, supporting their heads as they hit the floor prone, leading their bodies in upright movements, or jutting out from atop their heads in a sort of duck-and-cover posture. In the most powerful section, the entire ensemble, which seems like a cast of thousands, forms a diagonal across the stage to the forceful music; while some dancers remain upright, others roll in and out of backward somersaults, hands flexed perfectly to give the illusion of feet, reinforcing a feeling of wheels inexorably in motion, an engrossing bit of imagery.
Sandwiched between these two dark, ponderous pieces, Luminous, Canadian choreographer Peter Quanz’s 2010 work set to music by Marjan Mozetich, seems lighter than air. This perception is aided by bright costumes (short white dresses for the women, pale silvery tights on the bare-chested men); dappled light effects on the stage; the choreographer’s quick bird-like movements (a repeated ripple through the chest; arms held back like wings); and the perched postures of the dancers at the beginning and the end – in circles of light they teeter precariously on their toes and seem to be preparing to take flight. In a series of fleet-footed couplings, the standout is a tender pas de deux that culminates with the woman perched on the man’s thighs, her back curled against his concave torso. It’s a striking image that lingers. —Bess Hochstein
The Hong Kong Ballet at Jacob’s Pillow
Ted Shawn Theatre
Through Sunday, July 22