Hong Kong Ballet
New York City Center
New York, New York
January 13, 2023
Romeo + Juliet
Ballet’s 2023 New York area performance year, at least for me, began with a visit by Hong Kong Ballet to City Center. For this brief two-performance season, the company presented the U.S. premiere of Artistic Director Septime Webre’s take on “Romeo and Juliet.” I saw Friday’s opening night presentation, together with an enthusiastic sold-out house.
This production of the classic Shakespeare tragedy has many qualities to recommend it, some quite ingeniously presented. The overall result, however, is a mixed bag both because of the changed venue and with respect to its choreography.
Webre’s production transposes Shakespeare’s classic tragedy to the streets of 1960s Hong Kong. Consequently, nothing looks the same as what might be seen in more “standard” Romeo and Juliet ballet presentations. That being said, since this version tracks the story’s essential framework, there’s an underlying similarity notwithstanding the changed setting. For this reason, the production is like a take-out container of sweet and sour fish and chips: it’s quite interesting as well as unusual, but the contrasting ingredients don’t always mesh. And this appears to be exactly the effect that Hong Kong Ballet (“HKB”) intended.
Altering the venue, and/or the time period, of classic ballets (as well as other classics in other forms of performance art) is not unusual, and I have no qualms about the choices that HKB’s artistic staff has made in its choice of venue. Indeed, a lot of what’s presented here – representative of the clash and amalgamation of East and West that was taking place in 1960s Hong Kong, as well as the apparent reality of extreme competition during that time period among family businesses for financial and cultural superiority coupled with the increased status that a connection with a wealthy “Westerner” might provide – enlivens and enriches the standard Romeo and Juliet ballet. While I think this engaging young company (comprised primarily of Asian dancers, but also including many non-Asians) could pull off a “standard” presentation of Romeo and Juliet (as the Shanghai Ballet did last year with its presentation of Swan Lake), making it more geographically and culturally relevant to the dancers and its local audience isn’t a bad thing.
As a consequence, however, there are numerous surface changes. The names and status of the characters – except for Romeo and Juliet – are changed to be more compatible with the changed venue. For example, Lord and Lady Capulet are here identified as “Juliet’s Father” and “Juliet’s Mother.” [There is no Lord or Lady Montague equivalent here.] Tybalt becomes “Tai Po”; Paris is “Mr. Parker” (this role is specifically provided with a non-Asian identity since the character personifies the sought alliance between Juliet’s Family and a prosperous Westerner), Mercutio is “Little Mak,” and Benvolio is “Benny.” Instead of a Nurse, there’s “Juliet’s Amah” (literally a “grandmother,” but then – and perhaps now – a trusted friend who helps the family raise a child). And in this version “Romeo’s Situ” (a Situ is a high-ranking officer or minister of education) functions as a combination Prince of Verona, Friar Laurence, father figure, and snake-oil salesman).
As the curtain opens and as most of the First Act evolves, the relocation to Hong Kong proved an exciting choice. A viewer is immediately struck by the eye-opening set. The stage is chockablock with neon signs, movie posters, and other indicia of the chosen venue. To me it resembled New York’s Chinatown rather than my memory of Hong Kong (I visited Hong Kong all too briefly in the early 1970s), but I’ll concede that I might not have seen the kind of mixed-use neighborhood that is presented here. Regardless, it’s a superb execution of the overall artistic concept, thrilling in its uniqueness.
This same high level of scenic execution continues throughout the varying scenes in the piece – including a breathtakingly opulent-looking backdrop for the Juliet Family’s Gala Dinner in Act I, Scene 3. Kudos to Set Designer Ricky CHAN. And amid the crowded neon cacophony, catching sight of a poster advertising a James Bond-like movie featuring the amplified numbers “007,” an Asian modification of the image of Sean Connery, and the proclamation “Jack Brown is Back!” (unfortunately not captured in any of the photos provided) was by itself worth the price of admission. [Note that for the Asian names of persons I identify here, I’ve used the order and type-case that is used in the program for that person. In some cases, the surname appears first; in some cases last – which itself can be seen as a consequence of the mash-up (now, and perhaps then as well) of Eastern and Western culture in Hong Kong.]
This opening panorama is quickly followed by the appearances of most of the production’s characters: male and female “office-workers” who share the confined neighborhood with residents, tycoons, and thugs. The male office members are outfitted in multi-colored but conservative Western business suits, but the costumes for the women, though somewhat stylistically stereotyped, are gorgeous Asian-style (don’t ask me to define that) dresses slashed open on one side up to mid-thigh. And as the dance progresses the costumes evolve as well, becoming stunning when the scene called for it (e.g., for the Capulet – rather, Juliet Family – Dinner Party). Credit the costume designer, Mandy TAM.
The music that Webre uses is the familiar score by Prokofiev, but here it’s been clumsily rearranged to correspond to Webre’s conflation of several scenes, including three Act I scenes (3, 4, and 5 in American Ballet Theatre’s production of the version by Sir Kenneth MacMillan) into one and the condensation or rearrangement of others. And the music is delivered with a strangely varying tempo – much of the time the pace is significantly faster than those standard versions, but occasionally it slows to a relative crawl for no particular choreographic or performance purpose. The music was prerecorded, so the varying tempo is apparently what Webre wanted. [It crossed my mind that perhaps the score modifications were intended to inject Western classical music with an Asian sensibility as to tone and tempo, but I have no support for that.]
To its credit, this version also disposes of loose ends that exist in other iterations of the ballet. Here, for example, a romantic sexual relationship between Juliet’s Mother and Tai Po isn’t hinted at; rather, it’s open and visible to anyone, including Juliet’s Father, who doesn’t seem at all bothered by it except when it becomes a public embarrassment to him. And where some versions fail to address how Romeo happened to find out that Juliet was dead, here the information is presented as a “side introduction” to the final crypt scene, with Benny disclosing something to Romeo, followed immediately by Romeo falling to the floor in a silent scream.
An especially clever example of this production’s transposition of location and sensibility is in Act II, Scene 1, in which the standard “newlywed” procession and/or carnival gaiety is replaced by a crew filming a movie on the Hong Kong street /plaza area that includes a Hong Kong-ish commedia dell’arte-like set of encounters, which later is followed by a relatively brief and humorously over-the-top appearance by a “real” bride and groom in Scene 3. The portion of Act II Scene 1 in which Juliet’s Amah brings Juliet’s letter to Romeo is also nicely done, as is Mercutio’s far more interestingly than usual staged death scene.
Webre is not an unknown quantity here – his background includes being Artistic Director of New Jersey’s American Repertory Ballet (1993-99) and D.C.’s Washington Ballet (1999 – 2016) before assuming the artistic helm at HKB in 2017.
Some of Webre’s choreography and staging, fueled by the overall concept, is quite good. He does particularly fine work with regard to ensemble action throughout: the staging for the “mass” scenes (e.g., the street scenes; the Juliet Family Gala Dinner Party; the fight scenes) is very good. Although there are times when the corps frames the action and moves robotically with programmed and archaic-looking gestures, as is the case in many standard presentations, when they move as a group, perhaps because of the confined stage space, the presentation has a welcome organic visual feel. In this respect, it’s likely that the City Center stage is smaller than the stage HKB may be used to – everything looks cramped, and some might say overly busy. But to me, this sense of confinement is perfectly appropriate for a Hong Kong street scene.
Those fight scenes are remarkably successful. A sword fight in 1960s Hong Kong would have been incongruous, so here the fighting (in Scene 2 of Act I and the final scene of Act II) is presented in the form of Chinese martial arts, with the weapons of choice being wooden sticks of varying lengths, as well as flailing arms, hands, legs, and bodies, all delivered in rapid-fire movement. The end result appears more real than choreographed.
The fight between Romeo and Tai Po in the final scene in Act II is noteworthy in another respect: it’s supplemented by “moving” step sets. One set is rolled from audience left onto the central stage area (part village square, part mah jong parlor) and the pair fight up and down these steps. Then this set is rolled back, another set of steps is moved into position audience right, and the fight continues up these steps culminating in Tai Po’s death. This mandates some level of suspension of disbelief, but I thought it was a clever way to vary the presentation of this continuing battle, and to simulate the “sudden” appearance of building entrances and exits as one moves between one and another within a confined, tenement-like space. Webre’s staging and choreography here was abetted by Hing Chao, the company’s martial arts advisor for this production.
All this being said, there’s not much inventiveness to Webre’s choreographic movement itself. Even in the mass scenes, there’s far too much “sameness” to the movement, and there’s a continuing sense of a leg being thrust upward into the air as the “go to” exclamation point for a particular choreographed phrase. Similarly, the choreography for Romeo, Little Mak, and Benny when they first dance together after the ballet begins is quite good, but it’s repeated almost verbatim in subsequent dances by the same trio.
There’s also a “sameness” to critical components of the ballet’s imagery. Some level of similarity between ballet versions of “Romeo and Juliet” is not unexpected: given the same score, a certain type of movement may be unavoidable. Here, Webre modifies the iconic MacMillan (or Cranko) images to be somewhat different, but then utilizes the same image in a slightly different location. Thus, for example, the image of Juliet being swept off her feet by a kneeling Romeo in the MacMillan balcony scene is amended to being swept high overhead by Romeo. Fine. But then the “swept by a kneeling Romeo” image, carefully avoided earlier, is inserted later – as I recall in the Act III bedroom scene. And other images are repeated for no good reason. In MacMillan’s version, at one point in Act I Scene 3 (the “Capulet ball” scene), in an effort to avoid joining the rest of the guests, Juliet mimes the equivalent of “sorry, I have a headache” – which usually prompts mild audience giggles in MacMillan’s version (and perhaps others as well). Here, that same gesture is used three separate times in the same scene, which makes little visual sense. After the first time the image loses its value.
In the other critical direction are parts of the Romeo and Juliet pas de deux. Here the problem isn’t so much “sameness” as it is the appearance of unnecessary complexity.
Including seemingly impossibly complex lifts and body manipulation in a pas de deux isn’t unusual, but it only works if the dancers can execute it seamlessly, without making it look especially arduous or awkward – essentially, the seaming effortlessness creates a somewhat magical sense that the dancers and choreographer have pulled off the impossible. Here, it’s painfully obvious that the complex partnering imagery that peppers many of Webre’s Romeo and Juliet pas de deux requires considerable and obvious effort to execute. I saw too many situations where each was straining to reach the other’s hand while Juliet was awkwardly draped over Romeo’s body.
As noted above, HKB is an eclectic-looking and highly engaging company, and overall the dancers did fine work. Tai Po (Tybalt) was superbly presented by Garry Corpuz. Although Webre’s choreography compels much of what Corpuz delivered, the end result was one of the finest renditions of this character that I’ve seen anywhere. This Tybalt is a nasty and tyrannical rather than intoxicated character, taking his cue from the equally tyrannical Juliet’s Father (Lord Capulet) portrayed with marvelous venom and vigor, and too little too late sensitivity, by WEI wei.
Alejandro Virelles delivered an unusually endearing Romeo. He handled his choreographic assignment well notwithstanding the strained effort that Webre’s occasionally overly complex choreography required, and his characterization was equally accomplished. To my eye, even though the extent of his capability was not adequately tested here, he came across, visually, as a young Fernando Bujones. [It must be noted that Virelles is a Guest Artist, as was the Romeo in the second cast’s performance the following afternoon.] The Mercutio and Benvolio equivalents did fine work as well. LEUNG Chunlong’s Little Mak in particular delivered a lower-than-usual decibel but highly credible (and likeable) character.
Juliet’s Mother (Lady Capulet), one of two major female characters aside from Juliet, is a perplexing character, played exactly as it should have been given the modifications to the scenario here. As portrayed by WANG Qingxin, she’s flat and emotionless throughout – but comes to passionate life, even if temporarily limited to darting eyes, in the presence of Tai Po. And her concluding imagery in Act II Scene 3 following Tai Po’s death was remarkably well-done, particularly in her interaction with her husband.
ZHANG Xuening’s Amah was portrayed with a liveliness and youth that was both strange and welcome. But to me, those qualities emphasized the absence of these qualities in this performance’s Juliet.
YE Feifei’s Juliet was problematic for me – though I admit that much of that is based on a preconception as to how a Juliet should look. Additionally, though stage heights can be deceptive, this Juliet appeared taller than any other female character on stage (as well as many of the men). A 15 or 16 year old somewhat headstrong Juliet she wasn’t. Indeed, the closing image in Act I Scene 2 (almost identical to the MacMillan version) required a suspension of disbelief that was more than I was able to muster. Then again, this particular version plays down Juliet’s age: Instead of being presented to society at the Capulet Ball, this Juliet is presented as her daddy’s prize possession and guest entertainment at her family’s dinner party.
That being said, putting aside my initial prejudices and preconceptions, as must be done, I can’t deny that this Juliet executed Webre’s choreography quite well (except for those problematic partnering situations, which wasn’t her fault), her extensions are to die for (those legs go on forever), and her characterization was sufficiently convincing and not in the least bit melodramatic.
As I usually do, I scoured the corps to see if I could find one or more dancers who had a special quality, at least to me. Being unfamiliar with the dancers made this difficult, but there were two who stood out whenever they were on stage. There was something about their demeanor, and their attack. As office workers, each wore a turquoise-based outfit, though one costume was slightly different from the other, and they frequently appeared on opposites sites of the stage. They later reappeared as two of Juliet’s five Bridesmaids, but I can’t narrow their identity beyond that. My point in mentioning this is not to simply highlight cast-members who draw eyes, but to emphasize that these and other company dancers aren’t mere window dressing for guest artists; many here seemed capable of far more than that.
While not an unqualified success, Webre’s Romeo + Juliet proved to be well worth the effort to attend, and the HKB dancers to be an appealing and capable group. I’d encourage any viewer to see Hong Kong Ballet whenever the company returns to New York.