Lyon Opera Ballet at Hong Kong Cultural Centre 21,22 May
As one of the highlights of this year's French May Festival, Lyon Opera Ballet (last seen in Hong Kong in the 1996 Arts Festival) gave two performances last weekend. The two choreographers whose ballets were in this programme are well-known in Europe, although they are not French.
The first work "Rassemblement" was choreographed by Nacho Duato, a prominent Spanish choreographer who is the artistic director of the National Dance Company in Madrid, which incidentally appeared here in the 1998 Arts Festival.
But perhaps more significant is the choreographer of the second work "Carmen", Mats Ek, from the Cullberg Ballet in Sweden. In this year's Edinburgh International Festival in August, Cullberg Ballet will be the major dance company, and several important ballets of Mats Ek will be showcased.
The Duato work "Rassemblement" (1990) is visually pleasing, rhythmically vibrant, and danced with polish by its cast of 4 couples. It is descended from the angst-ridden, humanistic style of the earlier ballets of choreographer Jiri Kylian, whose company Netherlands Dance Theatre gave memorable performances in Hong Kong in March. Fortunately, this ballet is not too overbearing in its earnestness of manner which is typically Kylian.
There was a variety of choreographic material to sustain our interest, despite the dull grey costumes and the frequently sombre lighting much favoured by Duato. It opened with a mournful solo performed by a female soloist dancing barefoot. The soundtrack, which consisted of rippling water for this solo, later on in the piece alternated between the atmospheric music of Toto Bissainthe and a melange of Haitian Voodo slave songs.
The choreography for the ensemble of 4 couples emphasised the dancers' upraised and flailing arms. At one point, they resembled eagles with their outstretched arms and upright body stance.
Halfway through, there finally came the episode with "an audience-affecting human rights appeal" as promised in the programme notes. After a male dancer performed his solo, he was dragged away by two men in black and violently beaten up.
This brutality was then contrasted by a graceful flowing dance by 3 women each holding a veil, who comforted the tortured male dancer at the end.
Later there was also a 'pas de deux' full of bodily contractions. A recurring gesture was the covering of the eyes, as if to shut out from our vision the brutalities happening in the world, e.g. in Kosovo perhaps. But the finale was more upbeat and exhilarting.
In "Carmen" (1992) as in his other ballets, Mats Ek deliberately eschewed the graceful ballet vocabulary and bodily positions in favour of awkward, grotesque movements. However one thing I dislike is Ek's requirement of the dancers to use their voices as well - in their frequent mumbling of gibberish in the proceedings, and in their wailing towards the end after Carmen has been stabbed by her jealous lover, Don Jose.
Nevertheless one cannot help admiring Ek's flair for theatricality in this somewhat mannered rendering of the story from Bizet's opera. There are memorable moments of theatrical flourish that lingered in the memory.
Early on there was a simple ensemble number in which each dancer was sitting on the ground smoking, led by Carmen who in this version was often seen with a cigar in her mouth. There was also a joyful carnival dance with the Gypsies throwing colourful streamers about the stage.
The two big 'pas de deux' were emotionally differentiated. The duet for Carmen and Jose was tender (Carmen playfully pulled out a red scarf from Jose's clothes), contrasting with the later sensual duet for Carmen and her new lover, Escamillo the matador, which betrayed an underlying tension. At one point Carmen touched her face with Escamillo's boots.
At the end Jose lifted Escamillo into the wings, and the murder took place out of our sights - all the more effective theatrically - before Jose returned to stab Carmen. The closing scene with Jose in tears alone on stage was filled with pathos.
Much has been made in the publicity of the role reveral in this version - that Carmen is manly while Jose is more womanly. Last Saturday these two leading roles of Carmen and Jose were admirably danced by Yoke Martin and Miquel de Jong.
The colourful costumes and the functional set painted with plenty of dots were designed by Marie-Louise Ekman.
Overall, this was a highly entertaining evening offering many delights in terms of dancing, choreography, and theatre.