Hong Kong Ballet

May 13, 1998

Hong Kong Ballet

City Center
May 13-17, 1998

Reviewed by Molly McQuade

Emerging from a very long movie–from Lawrence of Arabia, say, or from John Cassavetes’s Love Streams–I feel dazed . . . happily heedless. The movie stole me away, then brought me back. I can’t recall from which city I stepped into the theater. And I don’t care.

The confused euphoria of the satisfied escapist is perhaps best induced by a vivid, ample story (spoken, sung, danced, or written) that interrupts and improves on your own. This endlessly unwinding yarn claims and commands you, going on and on, and rescues you from your old lifespan. Your personal plot dissolves silkily. Set free, you can pretend to be timeless.

A very long dance can do all this for an audience as eloquently as any movie can. Think of Romeo and Juliet, danced to music by Prokofiev, or of Cinderella, by the same composer. Dance may rescue us even more reliably, since the musical inspiration of story ballets takes charge of us with a subtle authority rarely heard in movie sound tracks. Music in a ballet at times persuades us to take seriously an unlikely or ridiculous tale. And dance’s physical immediacy ushers us into the story directly, without wordy intervention. For these reasons, evening-length ballets, often a financial mainstay and an artistic measuring stick for dance companies, tend to pull in ticket sales.

Still, Hong Kong Ballet’s attractive production of The Last Emperor, seen in the company’s New York debut, and choreographed by Canadian-born, English-trained Wayne Eagling, didn’t rescue me. Maybe this was because the ballet’s score by Su Cong, who cocomposed the Academy Award-winning music for Bernardo Bertolucci’s film of the same name, gracefully mingles elements of Asian and Western musical traditions without suggesting much of a story to compel them. Even though the dance chronicles high drama (the overthrow of Pu Yi, China’s last Manchu emperor), the story is downplayed incongruously in the ballet’s music. This is “movie music”–atmospheric, occasionally mawkish, unchallenging, mostly without narrative import–that accepts dance as an incidental accompaniment without actually demanding it. The music limits the dance by not needing it.

This seems a shame, especially since the company, reflecting Hong Kong’s recent independence from British dominion, is right to draw now on Asian history and themes. Founded in 1979 to bear a British imprint, the company these days, headed by Englishman Stephen Jefferies, seems to be mostly made of Asian dancers poised to reinterpret a polyglot heritage. Their crisp lyricism recalls British style, but Asian theatrical gesture and imagery also recur; pointe work, though present in The Last Emperor, is minimized. In fact, the ballet’s understated sensibility could be seen as merging aspects of supposed British and Asian modesty or reticence.

The dance unfolds as a leisurely and lapidary series of scenes that only sometimes involve dancing as an intrinsic form of action. Elegant sepia tones infuse the set as the Emperor makes his way from glorious boyhood to near anonymity in Mao’s China. Despite accomplished dancing from Michael Wang as the Emperor, Leung Fei and Eriko Ochiai as his wives, and Fiona Brockway as a spy, you get the feeling that everyone in this national crisis is something of an extra, the fleeting members of an old or new regime.

Which may, of course, be true. But that doesn’t help the story.