Review: Testimony – Hong Kong dancers revive Shostakovich story

Helen Lai’s choreography has stood the test of time, and work’s second half had the power and beauty of City Contemporary Dance Company’s original 2006 performances, but changes to its opening made little sense

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 November, 2017, 11:28am
UPDATED : Friday, 29 December, 2017, 4:43pm

The City Contemporary Dance Company revisited Helen Lai’s Testimony, a show the Hong Kong troupe first performed in December 2006, to open the City Contemporary Dance Festival.

One of Lai’s finest works from a golden era for the company, the choreography has stood the test of time. The second half retained all its power and beauty; however, changes to the first half diluted the depth and impact of the piece as a whole, and the performance by the current ensemble of dancers suffers by comparison to their predecessors in the outstanding original cast.

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Testimony explores the life of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who found fame in the heady days of the late 1920s and early 1930s, when the Soviet Union was awash with innovation and inspiration in the arts.

In 1936 Stalin’s Great Purge began and Shostakovich was among those who found themselves vilified and disgraced. To avoid the fate of friends and fellow artists who were imprisoned or killed, for the rest of his life Shostakovich would walk the tightrope between serving his art and appeasing the authorities and, in spite of all he went through, would compose some of the 20th century’s greatest music.

Shostakovich himself is the focal point of the first half of Testimony, which mixes theatre (with actor Lee Chun-chow repeating his magnificent portrayal of the composer), video and dance.

Lai cleverly incorporates references to Shostakovich’s film music, starting from his days as a silent film accompanist and continuing to his scores for Hamlet and King Lear, enabling her to bring in yet another layer of meaning through the use of Shakespearean texts, projected in English and spoken in Cantonese by Lee.

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Despite the intelligence of Lai’s concept and Lee’s dazzling performance, the sense of the composer’s moral and emotional dilemmas fails to come over as strongly as in the original production.

Maybe that impression is due to the patina of memory, but the lack of live music – previously there was a trio on stage – was certainly a loss. A bigger loss was the change to the 2006 version of the opening sequence in which dancer Chan Yi Jing played the piano (including Tea For Two, a melody Shostakovich used in his ballet The Golden Age), then suddenly began to dance: Chan was a magical dancer and this was a magical moment.

It appears the company no longer has anyone who can play the piano, and while it’s a nice tribute to Chan that a recording of his playing is used, it makes no sense to have the music playing with nothing happening on stage.

Fortunately the second half, which is pure dance and calls for ensemble work only, is as riveting as in the original. In a desolate place, a group of women perform ballet movements at a barre then, throwing off their heavy winter coats to reveal long white dresses, scatter white lilies on the ground in an allusion to Giselle. Their men return from war – or perhaps, in this context, from the gulag – and the couples are briefly united before the men leave, this time forever.

Lai’s love, and profound knowledge, of music informs all her work and here her choreography has a searing beauty to equal the stunning power of the Chamber Symphony Opus 110a to which it is set.

The elegiac ending where Lee walks slowly away, clutching a radio on which the music is fading out, remains as moving as ever.

Testimony, City Contemporary Dance Company, Kwai Tsing Theatre. Reviewed: November 21