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Dance Review

Hong Kong Ballet crosses cultures with language of dance

Members of the Hong Kong Ballet perform “Symphony in Three Movements,” the most successful of the three pieces on the Jacob’s Pillow program.

Christopher Duggan

Members of the Hong Kong Ballet perform “Symphony in Three Movements,” the most successful of the three pieces on the Jacob’s Pillow program.

BECKET — The Jacob’s Pillow debut of the Hong Kong Ballet offers up a dramatic example of the internationalism and range of training, personnel, and repertoire that are ubiquitous in the dance world today. Though the majority of the company is Chinese, there are a few Europeans and North Americans in the mix; they are directed by the Swedish Madeleine Onne. Of the three choreographers represented on the program, two, Kinsun Chan and Peter Quanz, are Canadian-born, and the third, Nils Christe, is Dutch.

Just as the artists represent a broad swath of cultures, so do the characters and themes presented. In Chan’s 2011 “Black on Black,” the dancers are coolly glamorous; in Quanz’s 2010 “Luminous,” they portray various shades of young romance.

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The most successful piece on the program, Christe’s “Symphony in Three Movements,” is driven by Igor Stravinsky’s pulsing score; expert staging of the large cast depicts the spectrum of reaction in both the individual’s and a community’s exposure to strife. Stark images abound: Men lift their crossed, bent arms up and cover their faces, or wrap their hands around their own necks. They swiftly circle their arms overhead and coil into crouched positions; this vulnerability is ultimately overcome, their snailed shapes darting and spiking into the air with powerful jumps and turns.

Refreshingly, the women, too, dance with steely verve that’s only occasionally broken as they hunch over, their hands momentarily shielding their eyes. In this terrifically compelling ballet, Christe weaves heroism with humanity without succumbing to cliché.

“Black on Black” also boasts some striking images, though more notably in the costuming — the women’s leotards and the men’s tops are black with flesh-colored geometric designs — and the set, which includes large black fabric flown across the stage, and a back curtain parting or lifting at times. Chan, who designed the costumes and the set, introduces, but doesn’t develop fully, some intriguing visual and choreographic ideas. The abundance of unison in the duets and the group phases also fails to create progression or amplification of movement in the way that, for example, “Symphony’” does. “Black on Black” is certainly handsome, and satisfies in fits and starts, but doesn’t often arc and connect.

Likewise, Quanz’s “Luminous,” a ballet that is pretty if not terribly deep, also presents some interesting ideas, particularly in the partnering, but these don’t always pan out. Though some of the fault lies in the movement, the company shows the most strain where the partnering is nontraditional: Onne probably knows her dancers need more training in contemporary partnering, with its tactile acrobatics that have dancers slipping, climbing, and jumping under, over, and around each other. That fluidity of transition is necessary in such partnering is a given; awkward setups or obvious preparations into a new configuration create disruption of the kinetic thought.

Though it is often said that the language of dance is universal, individual dances themselves are not necessarily one-size-fits-all. I found myself wishing to see more of what really fits this particular group of dancers — what they look really sharp in. If, increasingly, dance companies everywhere must be versatile enough to learn and perform works from a wide range of choreographers, is it realistic to expect that companies can develop and retain a style? In trying to show that its dancers have the skills to match what dancers elsewhere do, a company risks sacrificing its own identity.

Janine Parker can be reached at parkerzab@hotmail.com.
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