For a change this year the opening programme in the Hong Kong Arts Festival was a ballet instead of an opera. The local audiences warmly welcomed the long-overdue return of the Hamburg Ballet which was appearing for the third time in the festival. For this 40th anniversary festival the Hamburg company brought both a plotless ballet and a narrative ballet by its renowned choreographer, John Neumeier. Neumeier, who is celebrating his 70th birthday this year, has been directing the company for nearly 40 years.
The opening programme was Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler. This early abstract work dating from 1975 is over-extended with its length of 1 hour 45 minutes. In this ballet Neumeier’s choreography is stronger in allegro than in adagio. The first of the six movements is by far the longest and lasts for nearly 30 minutes. It is danced by the troupe’s male dancers only and is pretty exuberant with its raw energy and massed power. The choreographic style is reminiscent of Bejart.
In the Autumn movement the choreography is suitably lively for a pas de trois and a quartet. One couple seems to represent a youthful version of another more mature couple. Also delightful is the short Angel movement in which Silvia Azzoni was most ravishing.
These sections are well contrasted by a gloomy pas de trois in the Night movement, which brings to mind MacMillan’s ballet, Song of the Earth. In the slow Summer movement the choreography for the two couples and the female corps de ballet is however quite feeble. Neumeier’s choreography for the duets doesn’t quite touch the heart fully. His best duet in this ballet is in the last movement for the leading couple. And the final tableau at the end echoes the exciting first movement.
The central male soloist is actually on stage throughout the whole ballet. Alexander Riabko was an elegant and lyrical dancer, dancing the role superbly throughout. The tall Edvin Revazov impressed as one of the other soloists, and seemed to represent occasionally a youthful mirror version of the main male soloist. Company dancing was strong. It’s a pity that this ballet was performed here no more than once, as it would have been interesting to see another cast.
The second programme, A Streetcar Named Desire based on Tennessee Williams’ play, was actually much more satisfying in terms of choreography. Created in 1983 for the great Stuttgart ballerina Marcia Haydee, this work shows off perfectly Neumeier’s masterliness as a choreographer of dramatic ballets. His choreography is full of emotional power, and the ballet is most compelling dramatically. Each duet aptly expresses the emotional states of the characters.
The first half is set in an asylum where the leading character, Blanche, looks back and remembers her wedding party where she unexpectedly discovers that her husband has a male lover. This trauma affects both her and her husband who quickly commits suicide. The tension throughout the wedding party where her husband’s lover is one of the guests is most palpable. Blanche’s pas de deux with her husband, and her husband’s duet with his lover subtly convey the hidden tension and conflict. The husband’s suicide scene is powerfully conveyed. The sets and the white costumes are beautiful.
Act 2 is set in New Orleans where Blanche visits the home of her sister and her brutish husband, Stanley. There is a steamy pas de deux for this couple in the beginning. The boxing scene and the street carnival scenes are full of bustle. Stanley’s good friend Mitch falls in love with Blanche. Blanche’s duet with Mitch is quite tender and moving at first, but ends in frustration due to Blanche’s memory of her dead husband. Finally Stanley rapes Blanche. This climactic rape scene is thrillingly and most graphically depicted in a spine-chilling pas de deux. The ending, which sees Blanche being confined in the asylum by a doctor, who unexpectedly is performed by the same dancer who danced her husband, is haunting. This whole second act is breathtaking and engrossing from start to finish.
The first cast was superlative. As Blanche, Silvia Azzoni danced beautifully, and conveyed every emotional nuance. Carsten Jung was most macho as the evil Stanley; his dancing and acting were full of raw physical power. Thiago Bordin was humane as Blanche’s husband; and Edvin Revazov was handsome as his lover. The second cast was equally outstanding. Helene Bouchet was more intense and vulnerable as Blanche. Ivan Urban was terrifying as Stanley.
Streetcar is definitely a masterpiece of dramatic ballet. The Hong Kong Arts Festival deserves praise for having selected this particular work of Neumeier. Last time in 2003 there were even three ballets brought here by the Hamburg Ballet. It would have been even better if this tour could also have included a more recent Neumeier ballet such as his much-praised Death in Venice.
(This article also appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal)