LAST EDITED ON 18-Dec-99 AT 03:09 AM (GMT)
Stephen Jefferies' production of "The Nutcracker" for Hong Kong Ballet is less in the limelight this Christmas season due to the absence of any glamorous guest stars. In December 1997 when this production was new, Chan Hon Goh, a principal of the National Ballet of Canada, gave several memorable performances as a radiant Sugar Plum Fairy. Goh, a physically ravishing ballerina, was also intensely musical. (Incidentally, Goh was guesting last weekend with the Singapore Dance Theatre instead in "Giselle".)
Last December, two months after his abrupt departure from the Royal Ballet, Tetsuya Kumakawa flew into Hong Kong as a guest to dance the
Nutcracker Prince, attracting over 300 of his Japanese fans to this city. This year, however, it just feels like business as usual!
The chief merit of artistic director Jefferies' production, now being performed at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, are the lavish sets and costumes designed by Peter Farmer, instead of the actual dancing. In Act 1, the red draperies and decor evoke a Victorian drawing room. And in Act 2, the apt blue and white backdrop for the Ice Palace is tasteful.
This production faithfully follows Hoffmann's libretto to a large extent. In terms of its choreographic text, I am however disappointed
that Jeffereis chose to re-choreograph the grand pas de deux and ignore the authentic choreography by Ivanov which he should know well. After all,
Jefferies himself danced the Ivanov text in Sir Peter Wright's production for Covent Garden, when he was a principal of the Royal Ballet. Jefferies' choreography is inferior and lacks the magic of Ivanov's. There are far too many conventional lifts in the grand pas de deux choreographed entirely by Jefferies; and I miss the 'gargouillades' in the Sugar Plum Fairy's solo.
As for the national dances in Act 2, I would have preferred the Spanish Dance to be danced in proper character shoes instead of pointe shoes, as there should be a distinction between the classical dances and the character dances. The Chinese dance, choreographed by local choreographer Sheng Pei-qi for three fan-waving girls in pink silk
costumes, was cute enough, but not as tasteful as the choreography in the Covent Garden version; or indeed as original as that for the dragon in Derek Deane's current production for the English National Ballet. Jefferies' Arabian Dance is simply vulgar; the female soloist performing snake-like contortionist movements is worthy of a circus act!
The Waltz of the Flowers and the Reeds-Flute Dance (called the Dance of the Mirlitons in other versions) were credited to Jeffrey Graham Hughes,
the company's previous Rehearsal Master, and contain serviceable choreography. Hughes was also responsible for the children's dance in
the Act 1 party. The Waltz of the Snowflakes in Act 1, presumably choreographed by Jefferies, consists of far too many grands jetes for the corps but not many other steps. And Jefferies' battle scene in Act 1 is rather pedestrian.
Jefferies however introduced some novel touches. In the Prologue, Fritz scares Clara with a rat in her bedroom. And one of the dolls brought by
Drosselmeyer to the Stahlbaums' party is the King Rat. In this production, it is the nephew, instead of Drosselmeyer himself, who repairs the broken nutcracker for Clara.
Jefferies, I think, borrowed one detail from Nureyev's production for the Royal Ballet in the late 1960s at the end of Act 2, when Drosselmeyer waves goodbye to Clara from outside her bedroom window. I find this quite moving, as this symbolises Clara's waking up from her dream at the Sugar Plum Fairy's palace and returning to the prosaic real world.
However there are parts in this production which are illogical. In the beginning of Act 2, the Nutcracker Prince mimes his victory in the
battle with Clara's help to Drosselmeyer, who after all should know about it since he himself was the actual instigator for this "education sentimentale" of Clara; instead of to the Sugar Plum Fairy as in the Covent Garden production. (In this Jefferies production Clara in Act 2 becomes the Sugar Plum after wearing the tutu gifted by Drosselmeyer.) And I see no point at
all in Jefferies having all the Act 2 divertissements danced on a bare stage devoid of any courtiers or indeed anyone else as spectators.
The climax of the battle scene when Clara hits the Rat King with her slipper and saves the Nutcracker Prince's life is blurred and not shown clearly.
And the sketch in the party scene for the grandparents couple is overblown, with the grandfather dancing incredibly vivaciously for his advanced years.
Actually, in view of the company's inexperience in mime, it would have been much better if Stephen Jefferies himself had danced Drosselmeyer, like
his ex-Royal Ballet colleagues Sir Anthony Dowell and Derek Deane this season. After all, Jefferies' portrayal of the tutor in Wayne Eagling's ballet "The Last Emperor" created for Hong Kong Ballet two years ago was the best part of the whole evening.
On the opening night last Friday, there wasn't much sparkle at all with the leading roles taken by two senior principals - Eriko Ochiai whom
Jefferies put into the first cast for nearly all productions, and Michael Wang. Both dancers were competent enough, but their dancing was lacklustre and did not have much flair. Ochiai lacked grace, while Wang did not seem to generate much excitement.
The young cast making their debut on Sunday afternoon was slightly more rewarding - Fei Leung, and the 20-year-old Japanese coryphee dancer
Nobuo Fujino. They brought a creamy smoothness to the Act 1 pas de deux after the battle scene; Fujino managing superbly those swooning lifts. Fujino, a graduate of the Australian Ballet School, has a natural heroic look which is quite winning.
In the grand pas de deux, Fujino's clean virtuosity was impressive, especially in his series of double tours en l'air each of
which landing in a fifth position, and later in his series of double tours ending in arabesque in the coda. Leung's dancing was decent but lacked
variety in terms of phrasing and expression.
The company's supporting performances were respectable overall given its modest resources. The Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra was conducted by Yip Wing-Sie.