Hong Kong Ballet
Hong Kong, Grand Theatre
14 December 2012
A version of this review previously appeared in the HK Economic Journal
Hong Kong Ballet premiered a new Nutcracker production this Christmas. The previous production, by former artistic director Stephen Jefferies, had been looking worn and tired after 15 consecutive years of performances. It was pretty decent although the choreography for the grand pas de deux was weak, and there were some parts that didn’t seem to make sense dramatically. Anyway a new production is timely however for completeness I must add that local choreographer Yuri Ng also created an original, but small-scale production in 2010, called Firecracker. It was adapted from the Nutcracker story but set during the Chinese New Year instead of Christmas and was not on the scale of a ‘proper’ production.
This new version of Nutcracker is by the young Australian choreographer, Terence Kohler, currently resident choreographer of the Bavarian State Ballet in Munich. Kohler has used a new libretto by fellow Australian Clair Sauran which unexpectedly works pretty well. However this libretto is extremely complicated for a first viewing, even for adults, and audience members are well advised to read the story in the programme notes beforehand. The sets and costumes designed by Jordi Roig are most sumptuous.
In this new version, the main innovation is that Drosselmeyer’s present isn’t a nutcracker, but instead a dolls’ house. Fritz, who is more prominent in this production, is very impatient to unwrap this new present before the morning of Christmas day. And as he tries to enter the dolls’ house, he is captured by the rats and dragged inside. Then Clara starts searching for her brother and also enters the dolls’ house. It is in here that the Christmas Eve party (for the dolls in this version instead of the Stahlbaums’ guests) and the subsequent battle between the Nutcracker’s army and the rats take place. Another change is that the Nutcracker doll is frozen by the Rat King in the battle scene. So the subsequent snow scene with the Waltz of the Snowflakes makes sense dramatically. And, at the end of the battle, after Clara has hit the Rat King with her shoe, it is Fritz rather than the Nutcracker (in another change) who kills him with the sword.
This version also introduces an additional character called Clarchen who is Clara’s favourite doll. She is played by a student in Act 2, and has a short delightful solo at the end of the Waltz of the Flowers. My main criticism on Act 1 surrounds the romantic pas de deux after the battle scene which is normally danced by Clara and the Nutcracker. Here it’s danced instead by Clara and her brother Fritz which seems pretty odd and incongruous.
At the beginning of Act 2, the Nutcracker is unfrozen and restored to life after he is brought by the dolls to the Christmas tree kingdom to join his love, the Ballerina doll, who had also been frozen by the Rat King much earlier. The national dances are performed by the dolls from Act 1. The Waltz of the Flowers unexpectedly starts off with the corps de ballet women in snowflake costumes from Act 1 before they quickly change into the colourful floral costumes to signify the warmer weather after both the Nutcracker and the ballerina doll have been unfrozen and restored to life. And as expected, the grand pas de deux is danced by the Nutcracker and his beloved ballerina to celebrate their reunion.
I wish however that Kohler had retained Ivanov’s great choreography for the grand pas de deux instead of substituting his own steps. Kohler’s choreography, though not great, is competent throughout this production. The choreography for the battle scene and the Waltz of the Flowers for instance is more satisfying than before. However Kohler’s choreography for the national dances feels less than sparkling.
On the opening night, Jin Yao was glittering in Act 2 as the ballerina doll. She has never looked more radiant, and her virtuosity was dazzling as usual. However, Wei Wei, her (Nutcracker) partner, performed with evident strain. Classical princely roles are not really his forte. The second cast was weaker with Wu Feifei and Li Jiabo in the leads. I’ve commented before that the Hong Kong Ballet, being relatively weak in male principals, should make more use of the coryphée dancer Kostyantyn Kesheyshev. Keshyshev finally danced in the third cast in the following week, partnering Zhang Si Yuan. Their performances were assured, and they were by far the best leading couple during this first season. Shen Jie was excellent as Fritz. Company performances were impressive.
This new production of Nutcracker is ambitious with a complicated but intelligent libretto which makes a welcome change for the audience. Overall it is an improvement over the previous production.