Judging by the number of LV bags and Bordeux corks, ballet is fast becoming a status symbol for the middle class, and for their kids, entry tickets into La Salle and the like. So it was no surprise to see hundreds of pink tutus flocking into Sha Tin Town Hall on March 17, 2013 where the Hong Kong Ballet performed The Sleeping Beauty.
Albeit a staple in many companies’ repertoire, this was a slightly altered version by Producer Cynthia Harvey. Recognized as one of ballet’s most versatile and valued artists, she has danced virtually every ballerina role with American Ballet Theater (ABT), and was a Principal at the Royal Ballet.
The choreography stayed largely faithful to Petipa’s original. The highlight came in Act II: the Lilac Fairy presented an image of Princess Aurora to Prince Desire who fell in love at first sight. The couple started a pas de deux which gradually developed into a pas de trois with the Lilac Fairy, before evolving into a group dance with 16 corps de ballet. After a few press lifts and turns by the couple, the Lilac Fairy joined in from the middle, as if to remind us of the spell separating them; later on, when Desire confessed his love for Aurora, the Fairy gave way so that they could unite. Similarly, the nymphs flew in in two parallel diagonal lines which the couple crossed back and forth, again suggesting untouchable beauty and unattainable happiness; as the couple’s future grew brighter, the nymphs turned into a circle, surrounding them with blessing. All steps followed closely the development of the couple’s relationship, from love at first sight, to separation by the evil curse, to yearning for a bright future. The three sequences were so perfectly interwoven with the plot that constitutes a fine example of classical narrative ballet. It demonstrated the choreographer’s mastery of story-telling through manipulating the dancers’ grouping.
Arranging a large group in large space can make or break a choreographer. Similar to the multi-talents required to compose a 3D painting with moving sculptures, they need a strong spatial sense on top of a solid grasp of visual arts principles. It’s typical for classical narrative works to crowd 50 or more performers on stage. The image thus created, if poorly conceived, can appear like a photograph without depth of field or taken with a lens with poor focusing. Also common is to position the corps on both sides – sometimes at the back as well – watching the Principals in the middle. This way, the contrast between stillness and motion may bring the image back to focus; yet, the corps are squeezed in only for the sake of spectacle. Here, however, everyone contributed – both the corps and principals: their formation aided story-telling, their grouping made aesthetic sense.
The sequence is reminiscent of one in Swan Lake where Odette, Siegfried and von Rothbart danced with a flock of white swans, a critically- acclaimed sequence. Perhaps local choreographers, often criticized for a weak spatial sense and inability to manipulate big groups, can learn from these masterpieces.
I don’t mean the choreography was flawless, however. At the end of Act II, Desire kissed Aurora and she came back to life. As our heartbeats grew faster over the climax, the excitement was shattered by an abrupt intermission, further spoilt by the pressure of rushing to the ladies’ room. To add insult to injury, the finale dragged on with a grand pas de deux by a Blue Bird couple, when we were expecting – obviously – the newly-weds to jump in ecstasy and cuddle in marital bliss. Who are the Blue Birds anyway? Why do they deserve so much spotlight? Granted, the classical structure determines that Final Acts should bear no responsibility of story-telling, it is purely show off. But considering this is a modernized version, Harvey should be entitled to changes where appropriate.
Back home at ABT, Harvey must have seen a precedent in Cinderella. The Final Act which is almost identical to Sleeping Beauty’s, is cut. Instead, the folk-type music is inserted in Act II, where the Prince goes around the world searching for Cinderella and sees a dazzling array of local footwear. What a refreshing and adorable touch! By the same token, if it’s indeed so important to flaunt the Blue Birds’ technical flair, can we perhaps move the pas de deux to Act I to celebrate the birth of Aurora?
The portrayal of Aurora by Liu-yu yao is indeed to be celebrated. Apart from the excellent techniques and musicality expected of a Principal, the highlight was her facial expressions. Granted, in classical works, ballerinas typically smile all the time because they are supposed to be happily in love. Much to the delight of feminists, this stereotype effectively labels classical ballet as “reducing girls to beautiful little fools waiting to be rescued by Prince Charming”. Liu’s smiles, however, were beyond happiness, more like a thesaurus of “happiness”: joy, ecstasy, excitement, exuberance, cheer, fulfillment, yearning. Observing closely, I noticed that she only smiled when she should, not freezing her cheeks like every other Princess. It reflected her deeper understanding of a multi-faceted role, and conveyed more heartfelt emotions. Naturally, her dramatic ability stimulated stronger resonance in the audience – so strong that when she fell down, poisoned by Carabosse’s roses, a 4-year-old girl in front of me burst out crying “Mommy!”, and crawled into her arms, sobbing.
As wonderful as her acting talent was Liu’s smartness, evident in her tricks of compensating for off-balance. On several occasions when she was just about to fall, she slightly bent her upper body to make the potential fall appear deliberate, then back. The “correction” not only brought her back to balance, but made her appear more emotionally invested in the role. Granted, all ballerinas slip, but only few can handle it with so much agility that they can “turn a crisis into an opportunity”. This swift response, enabled by great techniques and rich experience, elevated Liu well beyond “a beautiful little fool”. Unlike her, the rest of the company had so many slips throughout the show that I actually wondered if the anti-slipper floor cover at Sha Tin Town Hall had worn out.
The real test came with the Rose adagio. Overall execution was fine, although next time, she will need stronger and steadier legs, especially when passing from one suitor to another. By contrast, Aurelie Dupont of Paris Opera Ballet, can hold up for a full 40 seconds for all four suitors, as if her toe were planted deep into the stage with 10 nails, and her back straightened by a utility pole.
Liu’s male counterpart Desire portrayed by Zhang Yao had excellent elevation, dwarfing most Asian men. His straight legs cutting across the sky created an illusion of flying over a giant helium balloon. Reminiscent of Carlos Acosta, he managed to stay so long in the air that he was able to enjoy a little rest after scissoring his legs!
As the audience applauded, I looked around, only to find no sleeping beauties in pink tutus – they were all jumping in rapture. On their sides, however, a few snores rose from the LV bags and Bordeux glasses holders. Suddenly, the “fine line” between money and taste became oh – so – clear.