The Hong Kong Ballet’s final offering this season at the Hong Kong Cultural Center last weekend was the premiere of an all-new production of “Romeo + Juliet” created by artistic director Septime Webre. This is a big change from the company’s previous production by Rudi van Dantzig. Compressed in under 2.5 hours with only an interval after Act 1, this new production updated Renaissance Italy to Hong Kong in the 1960s.
As a tribute to this city which has inhabited it for four years, Webre has assembled a competent team for this new “Romeo”. Among his closest collaborators is award-winning playwright Yan Pat To. Listed as a playwright, Yan has infused a Chinese flavor into the script and characters.
Thus, the names of some characters in Shakespeare’s play have been adapted to add a local flavor. Tybalt becomes Tai Po, a triad boss who is an associate of Juliet’s father. In this version, Tai Po is also Juliet’s mother’s secret lover. Their relationship is first evoked in a short duet in the banquet scene of Act 1. Later, seeing that he was killed by Romeo, her loss of temper, so embarrassing for her husband, therefore takes all its meaning.
Brother Laurence becomes Sifu (martial arts master) who is based in a Chinese temple instead of a monastery. Juliet’s nurse is an amah (a Chinese nanny) with a traditional ponytail. And Mercutio is renamed Mak.
The street scenes are rich and detailed with a local flavor. There are many characters including vegetable hawkers, dim sum and noodle vendors, office workers, students, and an old man holding a cage with his bird inside.
The company also received extensive training in Chinese martial arts from tutors from the International Guoshu Association. No wonder the kung fu fight scene with bamboo sticks at the start of Act 1, as well as the duel scene in Act 2 were performed so impressively by the dancers.
The lavish 1960s costumes, designed by Mandy Tam, include many splendid cheongsams for women as well as elegant leather jackets for some men. It would take a separate essay to describe all the riches.
Ricky Chan’s eye-catching, eye-catching ensembles evoke the 1960s era in colonial Hong Kong. The decor with many colorful illuminated signs is reminiscent of Nathan Road. The red panel for the banquet scene in Act 1 at a floating seafood restaurant (instead of a ballroom in other versions) is lavish with a golden dragon in the center. And the balcony duo takes place in a traditional Chinese courtyard with a stone bridge.
This new production “Romeo” is spectacular and fascinating. Septime Webre’s choreography is particularly inventive and imaginative in downtown street scenes. In Act 3, a newlywed couple are cheered by the crowds while taking photos with an official photographer. This is followed by an episode with a director filming a comedic rock n roll scene on the street for a movie. Later the corps de ballet has an energetic dance featuring a session in a mahjong game parlor which is great fun.
The choreography of the two great duets is expressive. Act 1’s pas de deux balcony is ecstatic and full of elevators, act 2’s bedroom duo is sexually charged. Webre cut off Juliet’s lengthy confrontation scene in Act 3 with her parents slightly after refusing to marry her fiance. And the final death scene is powerfully conveyed.
The entire first casting was commendable on Saturday night. Chen Zhiyao looked superb in the role of Juliet, bringing out all the nuances of the role in her acting. It conveyed a fresh innocence at first, and gradually exalted itself in passion. She was radiant in the duets, soaring like a bird in the high lifts of the balcony duo. In the bedroom duo, her limbs formed beautiful curves. And his death scene was most moving. Guest star Daniel Camargo was gorgeous like his Romeo.
Shen Jie dazzled as Mak in his technical virtuosity as well as in his acting. Jonathan Spigner was a spirited Benny. Li Lin was menacing as an evil Tai Po. Garry Corpuz was in command as a kung fu master; Henry Seldon was handsome as Juliet’s fiancé. Wei Wei had dignified authority as a father, and Ye Feifei was glamorous as a mother.
Ye also shone as Juliet in another cast, with Garry Corpuz as Romeo. Albert Gordon impressed as Mak. For the record, the last performance directed by Venus Villa as Juliette marked her farewell performance. The Hong Kong Sinfonietta, led by Yip Wing-sie, was a good accompaniment.
This spectacular new production of “Romeo + Juliet” is the most outstanding full narrative ballet on a Chinese or Hong Kong theme created by the company over the past two decades. Hopefully it will be featured on Hong Kong Ballet’s overseas tours as travel returns to normal.
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