WITH the unfair competition of American Ballet Theatre, a limited marketing budget and reviews reflecting generic confusion, the Hong Kong Ballet finished its final performance of Last Emperor last weekend at New York's City Center, and deemed the trip a qualified triumph. General Manager Helen Ng said: 'The reviews were fair, even justified. And for the dancers themselves, no learning experience could have been better.' Still, after their opening night to a less than full house, three New York critics took the troupe to task with a confusion of the identity of the troupe itself. Anna Kisselgoff of The New York Times called it a 'curiosity' and like 'scenes from a movie'. While generally praising the dancers, she noted how 'nationalistic movement gave way to modern dance, Chinese martial arts, social dances of the 1930s, fugitives from The Red Detachment Of Women'. Clive Barnes in the New York Post praised the 'shrewd moments of theatricality' but noted 'the passion and politics' were missing, and it 'dissipated into cipher choreography and frantic silent movie-like emoting'. And while Sylviane Gold of Newsday praised the 'grand ambition' of even having a ballet company in Hong Kong ('Its main cultural activity has always been commerce,' she noted), she described the action as 'impossible to follow . . . with no flow or dramatic structure'. Among the opening night guests, painter Tina Johnson expressed some exasperation. 'The sets were interesting,' she said. 'But I simply didn't know what these dancers were trying to accomplish. Seeing a communist general with red star and full uniform doing a boogie beat to serious ballet music was a bit unnerving. 'I wanted to use an old New York joke, that one hour after watching a Chinese ballet, you feel hungry enough to watch it again.' Ms Ng claimed the choice of Last Emperor was vital. 'Nobody would expect a Hong Kong company to bring Swan Lake to Manhattan.' Hong Kong Ballet expected to have at least 50 per cent covered through ticket sales. This was not to be, and City Center producers noted that audience attendance was 'poor at best'. Failure to sell tickets was as much due to the brutal economics of New York as the production itself. Budgeted at $4 million, the ballet company expected to recoup 50 per cent through ticket sales and the rest from sponsors such as the Hong Kong Tourist Association and Shanghai Tang. But few tickets sold after opening night. One local public relations executive spoke disparagingly about the ballet's budget. 'I don't think the troupe knew the sad truth about money in New York. For six days at City Center, you need US$150,000 [HK$1.16 million] just to get known. This group apparently decided that $40,000 was enough. They got what they paid for.' Nonetheless, they did get an article in Advance Magazine detailing the history of the group, as well as an exceptional half-page story in the Sunday edition of The New York Times, the kind of publicity any dance company dreams of. With a three-column photo, Christopher Reardon's story profiled the company from the viewpoint of artistic director Stephen Jeffries, who spoke of 'an international ballet company'. 'It's not a Chinese ballet,' he was quoted as saying. And when Hong Kong Chinese press criticism of a Western choreographer for a Chinese story was brought up, Wayne Eagling disputed this. 'Do I have a right to tell a Chinese story? I guess the answer is yes. 'I was just trying to tell a story about a man rather than about a country and its history and its politics.' Outside of the gruelling nightly performances, the troupe enjoyed the glitter of New York. The day before the opening, David Tang hosted a dim sum party at his Shanghai Tang shop.