The Hamburg Ballet returned to this year’s Hong Kong Arts Festival with three programs by its artistic director John Neumeier, who has just celebrated his 80th birthday.

The first program was Neumeier’s 1971 production of The Nutcracker. This version was interesting in the sense that it completely did away with the Christmas party and Christmas tree in most other versions of this classic, so it could be conveniently presented outside the winter season.

Neumeier is noteworthy for his original theatrical concepts. In this version, he completely revised the scenario. Instead of a Christmas party, there was a surprise birthday party for the 12-year-old Marie, called Clara in other versions. There was also a new second female lead role in Louise, Marie’s elder sister, who was a ballet dancer in the Court Theatre.

Marie’s elder brother Fritz is a cadet and has invited his fellow cadets to the party. Marie falls in love with one of them, named Günther. He will become a ballet dancer and dance with her in her dream.

And the magician Drosselmeier in other traditional versions of Nutcracker is instead a ballet master in this Neumeier version. This ballet master figure is modeled on Marius Petipa, the actual choreographer who created The Nutcracker in 1892 in St Petersburg. He will show and teach Marie his ballets danced in the Court Theatre during her dream.

Nevertheless, this story is complicated and difficult to understand without first reading the program notes. There is far too much detail in the narrative in the party scene in Act 1 which drags on for too long till the end of the act.

Act 2 works much better. The national dances have been rearranged in order by Neumeier and become excerpts from the ballet master’s works. The divertissements, which have been augmented by additional music by Tchaikovsky, are all inventive, particularly the Arab dance duet, the waltz of the flowers, and the vivid tambourine dance.

Neumeier’s best choreography is for the divertissements in this Act 2. In Act 1, the best is the white duet for Marie and Günther at the end of the act. The solos for Günther and Drosselmeier are exciting too.

The opening night in Hong Kong was led by a stellar cast. What a happy surprise it was to see the lead role of Marie danced by Alina Cojocaru. Cojocaru, one of the lead principals from the English National Ballet, as well as the guest principal of Hamburg Ballet, is one of the top ballet stars in the world. She was excellent in her dancing and characterization. She completely conveyed the sweetness and innocence of Marie, and her dancing had a fresh lightness.

As her sister Louise, Anna Laudere was rather bland, however. Christopher Evans danced with high spirits as Günther, but he was outshone by Marc Jubete, who had more charisma as Drosselmeier.

The whole company was in top form and gave strong supporting performances. Jürgen Rose’s costume and set designs are lavish, especially the sumptuous palatial décor in Act 2. What a treat for Hong Kong audiences to have this superb German company for two weeks of this year’s Arts Festival.

Alina Cojocaru as Marie in the Hamburg Ballet’s The Nutcracker. Photo by Kiran West Photography

Retrospectives of Lin Hwai-Min’s Works by Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan

Earlier, rich choreography was also offered by the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan which appeared in the opening week of the Festival. This company, a regular visitor to Hong Kong, presented a gala programme entitled Retrospectives of Lin Hwai-Min’s Works to celebrate the 45th anniversary of the company founded by Lin.

This two-part program, which lasts for two hours, consists of 11 excerpts from a selection of Lin’s most famous works. All the dancers in the troupe were technically formidable and possessed superb control. All the dancers’ movements were radiated from a calm center.

In the first half, the duet from Bamboo Dream is balletic and was superbly danced by Huang Li-chieh and Huang Mei-ya. In Moon Water, set to Bach’s cello suites, a long, beautiful serpentine solo was impressively performed by Huang Pei-hua. In Portrait of the Families, there was a political message as the 1947 White Terror in Taiwan is evoked by means of recorded dialogue from the victims’ families.

In the second half, Rice had a lively ensemble bamboo dance as well as an expressive duet enhanced by videos of landscapes. And the Black Angel excerpt from Wind Shadows was grim and sinister. After this superb celebratory gala, Lin will sadly step down later this year as the artistic director. And a new direction is in store for this renowned Taiwanese company.

A scene from Rice by the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan. Photo: Liu Chen-hsiang