Triumphant return for ballet's operatic parable

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 March, 2012, 12:00am

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Turandot
HK Ballet
Cultural Centre Grand Theatre
March 17, 2.30pm and 7.30pm

Turandot, created for the Hong Kong Ballet in 2003 by Australian choreographer Natalie Weir, made a triumphant return to the stage last week.

One of the best works ever made for the company, the award-winning production has been absent from the repertoire for some years. Seeing it performed by a new generation of dancers confirmed that it's a keeper.

The ballet is based on the Puccini opera and is danced to a recording of the opera itself. Beautiful but cold, the man-hating Princess Turandot decrees that anyone who aspires to marry her must answer three riddles she sets or be executed. Many have died because of her cruelty. The courageous Calaf becomes her latest suitor despite the pleas of his old, blind father, Timur, and devoted maidservant Liu. Although Calaf answers the riddles correctly, Turandot still refuses to wed him. Calaf sets a riddle of his own - if she can guess his name by dawn, she can have him killed. If she cannot, she must marry him. Love triumphs in the end, but only after Liu dies to save Calaf.

Weir has cut down the plot to its bare bones - a parable about courage, self-sacrifice and love. The result is a powerful piece of story-telling that matches the emotional intensity of Puccini's glorious score.

It is also consummate theatre, with Bill Haycock's spectacular designs acting as a key element of the narrative. Weir's choreography skilfully integrates classical and contemporary languages, demanding a challenging combination of rigorous ballet technique - notably in the complex partnering - and unfettered freedom of movement.

In an electrifying matinee performance on March 17, three young dancers made outstanding debuts in the leading roles. Li Jia-bo danced Calaf with blinding commitment and impassioned intensity. Ye Fei-fei made Turandot's transition from implacable ice princess to young woman in love totally convincing, and Liu Miao-miao was a lyrical, heart-rending Liu. The entire company performed with passion and vibrancy.

The evening's fine performance was smoother technically, although the matinee had the emotional edge. Wei Wei gave a heartfelt interpretation of Calaf, including a magnificent account of the exacting Nessun Dorma solo, and Ricky Hu was a moving Timur.