06 January, 2022

Swan Lake

Click pics to enlarge. Above, note the locked feet in the corps. Below, the esplanade.

Jan 3, 2022, Bay Opera, Opera House
Shanghai Ballet
Tchaikovsky Swan Lake, Grand Version

Letter from Shenzhen (22-1)

With Chinese New Year on the horizon, the lockdown of Xian and a smattering of cases in many provinces surely have put immense pressure on Chinese health officials. Miracle of miracles, a string of performances in Shenzhen, at the Bay Opera, Concert Hall and Grand Theater went on as usual to end 2021 and start 2022. Shenzhen Art lovers had been well served! If not for living so far away, I’d have attended more of those performances, particularly those of the National Beijing Opera (traditional Chinese opera).

I’ll have it out: this was a miraculous performance that will remain in my memory for a long time. True to its name, it was Grand indeed.

The choreographer is English Derek Deane, who used to lead the English National Ballet. This ballet is well travelled and has had many versions and revisions over the years, even an amazing one “in the round” (Derek Deane on 20 years in the Round). English critics were not at all completely impressed, at least equivocal, in their reviews. Witness the Guardian 2016 Review.

This Ballet is one of Shanghai Ballet’s signature pieces and they have taken it on the road often, to great accolades. The SB’s official website (Chinese, English) quotes a Dutch review. Damn! This very production actually toured NYC in 2020, at the start of the pandemic! I don’t usually closely follow ballet so I missed out! Doubly regrettable since it had the estimable City Ballet orchestra in the pit (their excellent Christmas Nutcracker run is a NYC institution). This 2020 Review of NYC performance is excellent, and I urge you to read it as it pretty much sums up my feelings.

I watched the “matinee” performance, as it made the 2 hour travelling each way more manageable. It was a magnificent day and I took in the nearby waterfront like a fish to water. It was reminiscent of Hong Kong, but the air was better and there were less people (even on a holiday), enabling a more leisurely feel.

The leads were performed by the second cast of Feng Zichun 冯子纯 (Odette/Odile) and Tu Hangbin 涂汉彬 (Siegfried). The night before, they were performed by the better known pair seen in NYC and Europe.

The choreography, not so much for the leads than for the corps, is more stylized and geometrically patterned than more traditional versions (here my cheap concession ticket in the balcony, with its aerial view, actually confers an advantage). It was certainly a completely different viewing experience than the ABT and the Russian one I watched decades ago at City Center (NYC). The leads, especially Feng, danced beautifully, technically perfect (axial alignments of the limbs, even in turmoil, as in being snatched by Rothbart, were something to marvel at, not a whit less impressive than her Western counterparts,) even if slightly reticent in emotional expression, particularly as Odile (she is very young). But, of course, for this ballet, the corps have the pivotal role (punt intended). And it is here that the immensely high standard of the Shanghai Ballet manifests itself. Despite the height disadvantage when compared to Western corps, they are truly outstanding, the synchronicity truly astonishing, especially for such a large corps (48 swans in the corps! hence the name “Grand Version”). The way the members daisy-chained and locked their feet against each other (see pic above) was ravishingly beautiful. As was the way they folded themselves on the ground (for Odette, this also signifies hurt). The patterning are purposeful, as they do remind one of flocks of swans, some pronate and some standing. Rigorously regimented as it may be, the beauty is enormous, and is a case of function (emotional expression) following form. I urge you to watch some video clips. There is strangely nothing much on youtube, though there may be more from English troupes like the ENB, which I have not had time to investigate yet. On Chinese Bilibili there are some footages, but they are rather crude in quality:

Excerpts: https://www.bilibili.com/video/BV1LA411e76h/?spm_id_from=333.788.videocard.7

Act III and IV (I and II not available): https://www.bilibili.com/video/BV19q4y1N7Tk?from=search&seid=345722668198498571&spm_id_from=333.337.0.0

Credit must be given to the Set and Costume designer, Peter Farmer. Indeed, when the curtain first lifted, I was under the impression that I was watching a Watteau painting! Of course, that would not have happened without the aid of the superb Lighting by Howard Harrison. A complete triumph for production values.

Classical Ballet is thriving in China, and many provinces have their own troupes. Just a couple of weeks ago, the Liaoning Ballet presented a more traditional Swan Lake. I’d love to have seen it, but one must choose sometimes. The 2 ladies in front of me said the Liaoning moved along more and was more dramatic (likely with cuts). Shenzhen doesn’t have that many full-length ballets, so it’s really unfortunate that these 2 troups duplicate repertoire. That’s a common occurrence even in event-rich cities like NYC, where one could hear several Mahler 5th’ in one year without the other ones.

I love ballet, but I love even more classical music, so my views are dependent also on the musical contribution. So, as in Opera, I am selective. In Ballet, For Tchaikovsky, even if I love musically the most Swan Lake, and I frequently play the whole thing through my audio system, I do think its set pieces, various Pas de Deux (or Trois or Quatre etc) are not as enticing as the Nutcracker, but its almost Wagnerian apotheoses are eminently thrilling. I have still to get into Sleeping Beauty. Otherwise, my hands down favorite is Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, which moves along more than Tchaikovsky’s creations. Ballet is a product of the Romantic era, but acts like Delibes’ Sylvia and Coppelia, good as they are here and there, in inspiration fail to sustain an evening, and are frankly not up to the standards of Tchaikovsky or Prokofiev. I otherwise rather prefer more recent neoclassical choreographers, like Balanchine, who knew his classical music, be it Bach or Stravinsky.

As intimated above, a good Ballet orchestra is an asset. Regrettably, perhaps due to pandemic concerns (just the company without musicians was 100+) this performance was to a taped soundtrack. It was decently performed and the sound was “reasonable” (identifiably solid state and digital) but of course it was not at all like the real thing. There were small gaps which allowed the audience to clap for the performers. This was good. The team all deserved it. Ah, but a live orchestra would have enhanced it beyond measure. Given that the Shanghai environs have some smattering cases, I have no complaints, and am grateful that the performance happened at all.

A Remarkable Success! It is also a testament to the quality of Tchaikovsky’s score, which, no matter your viewpoint, is a masterpiece.

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