Hong Kong Ballet premiered last weekend a new production of Lady of the Camellias, originally choreographed in 1994 by American choreographer Val Caniparoli. Based on Alexandre Dumas’ novel of the same name and set to a score by Chopin, this three-act ballet tells the tragic story of the courtesan Marguerite and her lover Armand. This premiere is timely, since it’s over a decade since local audiences last saw John Neumeier’s famous version of the ballet performed by the Hamburg Ballet at the Hong Kong Arts Festival.
In the Caniparoli production, the narrative is pretty straightforward and the action is easy to follow. Act 1 starts with Marguerite’s chance meeting with Armand and ends with their bedroom duet. Act 2 opens with a party in a country garden in the summer, before Marguerte is visited by Armand’s father, who forces her to leave his son. Act 3 ends with a melodramatic solo by Marguerite before her death.
Caniparoli’s choreography is too basic. There are not enough variations in the steps. In the duets, for instance, the big soaring overhead lifts occur too frequently – after a while, the routines become predictable and dull. The ensemble dances are also repetitive, and the duets soupy. That said, the final pas de deux towards the end of Act 3 for Marguerite and Armand is quite moving. And the group dance in Act 2 provides some exciting solos for the male soloists, particularly Li Lin and Shen Jie.
The scheme of Caniparoli’s choreography is somewhat formulaic, leaving the audience with an overall feeling of sitting through one classical dance after another. Some mime or character dancing would have been welcome as a contrast.
Nevertheless, the excellent performances of the Hong Kong Ballet’s dancers on this occasion transcends the dull choreography. In the title role of Marguerite on the opening night was Jin Yao, celebrating the 20th anniversary of her dancing career. This ballerina role is perfect for her. She’s blossomed into a sophisticated dance actress, highlighted by her superlative turn as Marguerite.
Jin is strongly partnered by Lucas Jerkander, a talented Swede dancing his first major role with the company. Jerkander makes a handsome Armand, and his acting and dancing is superb. He has more classical potential than any other male dancer in Hong Kong Ballet at present, and should be given more leading roles in future.
On the production side, Robert Glay de la Rose’s costume designs are lavish and beautiful, particularly the white costumes in the Act 2 country garden scene. David Gano’s set designs are sparse but effective, and the Hong Kong Sinfonietta is superb under the baton of Benjamin Pope. It’s almost all enough to make us look past the choreography.