Review: Hong Kong Ballet's Pinocchio has great dancing, costumes and sets, but is let down by score

PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 August, 2015, 10:42am
UPDATED : Monday, 31 August, 2015, 4:06pm

Hong Kong Ballet launched its 2015/16 season with Pinocchio, created by Swedish choreographer Par Isberg. The tale of a little boy made of wood who wishes to become human is of course best known from the classic Disney animated film of 1940, a sugar-coated version of 19th-century Italian author Carlo Collodi’s original book.  

The company deserves credit for commissioning an original full-length ballet and Pinocchio scores well on some points - lavish production values, strong dancing and a star performance from Shen Jie in the title role - but also has some major flaws.

Good narrative ballets, from Giselle to Manon use dance to drive the story, depict the characters and express their emotions. Here the narrative is so rushed and sketchy that it’s impossible to follow, with numerous “blink and you miss it” moments. The moral of the tale - Pinocchio behaves badly and is punished; he behaves well and is rewarded - is lost since it’s never made clear that he’s done anything wrong. The emotional heart of the story, Pinocchio’s relationship with his father Gepetto, is barely touched on, while the Blue Fairy has hardly anything to do.

Instead, Isberg has chosen to focus on showcasing classical technique in what amounts to a continuous series of divertissements. While the aim of using the whole company is laudable and the standard of dancing impressive, this throwback to 19th century-style set pieces becomes tiresome, as does the constant use of bravura steps at moments where simple acting would work better. It’s all too busy, not to mention a puzzling approach for a work aimed at children.

A key issue is that good choreography requires good music and Pinocchio is handicapped by the weakness of its score. Made up of extracts from the work of Italian composer Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936) arranged by Benjamin Pope, the music is dull and poorly suited to dance.

This is a pity since the best of Isberg’s choreography is attractive and expressive, notably for the Cricket (the delightful Liu Yuyao) the Cat (the slyly sensuous Liu Miaomiao) and the Fox (the dashing and sinuous Li Lin). The circus sequence also works well.

The whole evening is held together and lifted by Shen Jie, who dances with effortless virtuosity and makes a vividly expressive Pinocchio even while wearing a mask. Li Jiabo is a touching Gepetto and Jonathan Spigner a splendidly louche Lampwick.

Fantasy material demands top-notch design and here Pinocchio is a triumph. Jerome Kaplan’s costumes, Bo-Ruben Hedwall’s sets, Jordi Castells’ painting and Aya Mok’s props are ingenious, imaginative and skilfully executed. The underwater sequence with Pinocchio suspended on wires “swimming” above the ocean floor where various sea creatures scurry about is a standout.

Cultural Centre Grand Theatre, 10 Salisbury Rd, Tsim Sha Tsui. 

Reviewed:  August 28