Power of three
It takes a gifted ballet company, and a confident artistic director, to stage Marius Petipa's The Kingdom of the Shades from La Bayadere. That's the challenge Hong Kong Ballet under Madeleine Onne will tackle in its upcoming triple bill, Symphony of Movements. The opening sequence, which demands perfection from every dancer, is considered the ultimate test for the female corps de ballet.
The choreography requires dancers to hold long balances in difficult positions, Onne explains. 'And the fact that if anyone wobbles, the audience will see it for sure.'
La Bayadere was created by master choreographer Petipa in 1877 to a score by Ludwig Minkus. Set in India, it tells the story of Nikiya, a bayadere (sacred temple dancer), and the warrior Solor, who are secretly in love. When Solor is forced to marry the Rajah's daughter, Gamzatti, the jealous Gamzatti has Nikiya murdered. Smoking opium to forget his sorrow, Solor has a vision of Nikiya's spirit, accompanied by other 'shades', and dances with her for the last time.
Often performed on its own, The Kingdom of the Shades is one of Petipa's greatest creations and a supreme celebration of the classical ballerina's art. The pas de deux and solos for Nikiya are tremendously demanding, as are the variations for the soloists, often used as benchmark pieces in competitions or examinations.
However, the greatest test is faced by the corps. The dancers - originally 32 but the ballet will have 18 - file in one by one down a zig-zag ramp at the back of the stage, performing a series of arabesques penchees en plie(standing on one leg and leaning forward with the supporting knee bent and free leg raised high behind) in synchronisation as they descend.
Criss-crossing from left to right and back again with white scarves draped along their arms, they form a coiling ribbon of white that represents the smoke rising from Solor's opium pipe.
The angle of the slope and the tutu make it harder for the dancers to balance and they can't get it over with quickly because the music is slow. That the dancers must match each other exactly places huge pressure on the nerves - one mistake by one dancer can ruin the whole sequence. It's also hard on the muscles to do such slow, controlled steps so many times.
It's much harder than Swan Lake, where the corps are in more relaxed positions when they have to stand still for long periods, says Onne, who succeeded John Meehan as the company's artistic director earlier this year.
To help the dancers cope, she is using a training programme invented by the Australian Ballet when the company did the piece 30 times in a row.
'First there are preparation exercises, because it's very difficult to go down the slope and have lights shining in your face,' Onne says. 'And they also have stretching exercises, because they realised they were getting a lot of injuries. We're only doing four shows, but we rehearse it every day so it is almost like doing 30 in a row.'
Luckily, soloist Camilla Vergotis was with the Australian Ballet at the time and has been able to help teach her fellow dancers the exercises.
The other works on the triple bill are the elegiac The Way Alone, created for the company in 2007 by the Australian Ballet's resident choreographer, Stephen Baynes, with music by Tchaikovsky, and Stravinsky's darkly dramatic Symphony in Three Movements, by Dutch choreographer Nils Christe.
Onne says the programme's title refers both to Christe's work and to the fact that all the ballets 'are about movement, beautiful movement'. At her request, Christe has reworked his piece to focus on the male dancers to balance the female-dominated Petipa.
'So we open with 16 boys on stage,' Onne says. 'That's extremely powerful, I think.'
It is now five months since Onne, formerly artistic director of the Royal Swedish Ballet, took up her post in Hong Kong full time. She is thrilled by the quality of her dancers but frustrated by budget constraints - in Sweden the company is heavily subsidised. There are many works Onne believes should be added to the company's repertoire, but she says she can't afford them.
Also keen to have new work created for the company, Onne has commissioned a full-length ballet from local choreographer Yuri Ng Yue-lit and will continue annual choreographic workshops to identify and nurture new talents. Commissioning work from international choreographers is a longer-term goal, as they are booked up for years in advance.
After a recent spate of injuries, all three female principals - Jin Yao, Kyoko Tomimura and Margarita Demjanoka - will be back on stage for Symphony of Movements. During their absence, several young dancers proved themselves in principal roles, demonstrating the company's strength in depth - and therefore the need to provide more opportunities.
Onne says a company should stage no fewer than 70 performances per year.
'We now have under 50, which is not enough because we have such good dancers. If they don't get to dance enough they won't get stimulation,' she says.
Expanding the local audience is vital and one of her top priorities in the coming years.
'We have to brainstorm new ways to reach a new audience so that more people want to see us, because if there is demand then we'll be able to do more performances,' says Onne.
She also wants to tour more but admits this 'is not a good time for touring anywhere, because everybody is cutting right down'.
Meanwhile, she will concentrate on finding ballets - such as Symphony of Movements - which 'have a lot of people, a lot of little solos and things, so they all feel they've at least got one little goodie'.
Symphony of Movements, Fri-Sat, 7.30pm, Sat-Nov 22, 2.30pm, Hong Kong Cultural Centre Grand Theatre, TST, HK$120-HK$600. Inquiries: 2105 9724