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Daniel Camargo and Amber Lewis (foreground) in Hong Kong Ballet’s performance of Emeralds, the second of the three pieces that make up Balanchine’s work Jewels. Photo: Hong Kong Ballet/Conrad Dy-Liacco

ReviewHong Kong Ballet with Daniel Camargo sparkle in Balanchine’s Jewels

  • Amber Lewis and guest artist Camargo bring Emeralds to life, Shen Jie and Lewis dazzle in Rubies, and Ye Fei-fei captures the grandeur of Diamonds
  • Balanchine’s three loosely linked pieces are one of the supreme tests of a classical ballet troupe

May 2021 was third time lucky for Hong Kong Ballet’s first performance of George Balanchine’s Jewels, originally scheduled twice but ultimately not performed in 2020. One reason for the delays was travel restrictions, as performing work by Balanchine necessitates bringing in repetiteurs authorised by the Balanchine Trust. Diana White and Paul Boos flew in from overseas to stage the ballet and gallantly underwent 21 days of quarantine, as did guest artist Daniel Camargo and guest conductor Robert Reimer.

The production featured some outstanding performances and showcased the company’s strengths – energy, commitment and high standards of technique – while also hinting at its weaker points in terms of nuance and musicality.

There was a definite divide between those dancers fully at home with Balanchine and those less comfortable with the off-balance moves and extreme lightness, speed and precision of footwork his choreography demands, while the impact of injuries and departures left some roles undercast. Nonetheless, Hong Kong Ballet can be proud of the overall level of performance for this work, one of the supreme tests of a classical ballet troupe.

Created in 1967, Jewels is routinely described as the “first full-length plotless ballet”, yet it’s not clear that this was the choreographer’s intention. The three short pieces that make up Jewels were initially performed in mixed bills with other ballets, and are connected only by their gemstone titles: Emeralds, Rubies and Diamonds (Balanchine himself pointed out that they had nothing to do with jewels except the costume designs).

Daniel Camargo, Ye Feifei and the rest of the Hong Kong Ballet cast in Diamonds, the third part of Jewels by George Balanchine. Photo: Hong Kong Ballet/Tony Luk

The least substantive (or, depending on your viewpoint, the most subtle) of the three pieces, Emeralds can easily fall flat, and it’s a tribute to White’s staging that here it went well.

On the first night, Chen Zhiyao and Garry Corpuz danced with lightness and elegance as the lead couple, but it was the second cast of Amber Lewis and Camargo who brought the work to life through their rapport with each other and ability to connect with the audience, showing what a difference it makes when dancers not only dance but act.

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The best dance always tells a story, whether or not there’s an actual plot, and this performance of Emeralds was a shining example of that. Among the supporting cast, Jessica Burrows and Jonathan Spigner lifted everything they did through sheer force of personality.

Set to Stravinsky’s Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra, Rubies is a celebration of Balanchine’s adopted country, the United States of America; fast, bright and brash, it lifts the spirits like a number from one of the great Hollywood musicals.

Shen Jie and Lewis gave a dazzling account of the bravura, jazz-influenced choreography, capturing the playfulness of the piece and responding to the dynamic, full-blooded playing of pianist Rachel Cheung with intense musicality.

Dancers (from left): Lai Pui Ki Peggy, Jessica Burrows, Henry Seldon, Wang Zi, Zhang Xuening, Jackson Dwyer, Jonathan Spigner in Rubies from Hong Kong Ballet’s performance of Balanchine’s Jewels. Photo: Hong Kong Ballet/Conrad Dy-Liacco

In the same roles, Ma Renjie danced with impressive speed and power, but the less experienced Nana Sakai’s interpretation missed the mark – Rubies is sexy, not sexual. As the solo ballerina, both Wang Qingxin and Zhang Xuening danced well – Zhang caught the style better, although the role requires someone taller and more statuesque. The two quartets of male dancers were particularly good in both casts.

Diamonds, set to music from Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 3 in D Major, is Balanchine’s homage to the golden age of Russian ballet and the Imperial Ballet of Saint Petersburg where he started his career, and to the ballets of his great predecessor Marius Petipa.

Relating closely to the Petipa style in which all classical dancers are trained, this was the piece in which the company as a whole was most at ease. Ably partnered by Camargo, Ye Feifei on the opening night brought out the grandeur of the lead ballerina role, imperious and assured, with majestic arms and back and rock-solid technique.

Chen Zhiyao and Garry Corpuz shone technically and danced lyrically in Hong Kong Ballet’s performance of Diamonds, part of Balanchine’s Jewels. Photo: Hong Kong Ballet/Tony Luk

Chen Zhiyao gave a gentler, more lyrical interpretation but also shone technically, as did her partner, Corpuz, who produced impressively well-finished solos.

Among the female soloists, Burrows and Wang stood out. The grand finale, with its parade of 17 couples, was hampered by the limited size of the Lyric Theatre stage, leaving dancers packed together like rush hour on the MTR. Happily the sublime ending, with all the dancers together raising their legs in slow grand battements, retained its power, drawing spontaneous applause from the audience.

Conductor Reimer drew fine, full-toned renditions of the three composers’ contrasting music from the City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong. Barbara Karinska’s original costumes are as integral a part of Jewels as the choreography, but while the women’s gorgeous gem-studded costumes are as glamorous as ever, the doublets for the men need updating – the bulky cut of the shoulders is awkward and spoils the line.

Jewels, Hong Kong Ballet, Lyric Theatre, Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts. Reviewed: May 21 and 22 (matinee)