A Contemporary Carmen: Bold and Ambitious, Yet Vulnerable

Carmen promotional image - Dancer: Fei-fei Ye - Photo by Noel Jones - Courtesy Hong Kong Ballet

Choreographer Ricky Hu Songwei boards a bus in Shenzhen bound for Hong Kong every day. During that time, you might see the slight man softly tapping out a rhythm. He might sit with his eyes closed intently, not asleep, but dreaming. You might even see him, in a more tender moment, weep, or at least wipe a tear or two away.

A two-hour commute is something most of us complain about. For Hu, it’s a place to get inspired and ideate. A chance to get emotional.

“You need that,” he says, “for what we do.”

Hu is a rising star at the Hong Kong Ballet. Born in Jiangxi, China, Hu studied at the Shanghai Dance School and the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts and joined the company in 2008. The “we” he refers to is himself and his collaborator Yuh Egami, the chatty choreographer sitting across from him  in a quietened rehearsal room in Hong Kong Ballet’s headquarters in the Tsim Sha Tsui’s Cultural Centre. The only other noise is the whisper of a lone dancer flexing in her pointe shoes. Egami was born in Okinawa and trained at London’s Royal Ballet School before coming to the company in 2002.

What this duo do, increasingly successfully, is create bold, modern, ballet.

Ricky Hu Songwei and Yuh Egami preparing Carmen – Photo by Viola Gaskell

Their first collaboration, White Lies, in 2012, was called “ambitious and stylish” by the South China Morning Post, and their work on 2013’s quirky A Frog Prince – A Ballet Chinois and 2014’s Horn featured flamboyant costumes and creative choreography. In 2015, their 20-minute Bolero, a piece set to the French composer Ravel’s famous 1928 work, drew even more praise. Inspired by its driving, repetitive score, Hu and Egami set their story in a lunatic asylum, and haunted the principal dancer with a cast of demons that appeared and re-appeared from within a large metallic cube. The piece won Outstanding Ensemble Performance at the 2016 Hong Kong Dance Awards.

At the time, the two choreographers said that they were nervous taking on a well-known work like Bolero, which comes accompanied with such a huge reputation. Now they are readying themselves for something even bigger. Their latest production will be the company’s debut of Carmen. Since opening in 1877, the opera by Bizet has endured, becoming one of the most famous of all time. The story, based on a novella by dramatist Prosper Mériméeis, is about a Spanish soldier named Don José, who loses his heart to a wild gypsy girl named Carmen, who rejects him for the bullfighter Escamillo. It has also been made into a film and a ballet.

The choreographers were “terrified,” they say, when learning of artistic director Madeleine Onne’s suggestion to put on Carmen. Yet Onne had faith in their ability, giving them free reign to create anything. The choreographers are clearly embarking on a new tour-de-force. With 28 dancers, and a running time of 40 minutes, numbers have doubled since their version of Bolero, but like that show, the dance is planned to be taut, fluid, and ambitious.

Their version uses eight of 12 tracks taken from Rodion Shchedrin’s Carmen Suite, a ballet first performed at the Moscow Bolshoi Theater in 1967, where Carmen was danced by the ballerina Maya Plisetskaya, Shchedrin’s wife. Shchedrin’s Carmen Suite modernised Bizet’s original Carmen, using some of its form but merging exciting rhythms for strings and lots of creative percussion that really built dramatic tension and shaping the story for dance. At the time, the Soviet Union’s Minister of Culture banned the production, saying it was insulting to Bizet, but it has since been staged across the world. “We loved the music, and that became our starting point,” says Egami.

The pair wanted to continue Shchedrin’s innovation and Egami invited local musician Mike Orange, of the rock collective Chochukmo, to move things on. The unlikely partnership was born thanks to the Kowloon Cultural District’s Choreographer and Composer Lab, where Egami worked with Orange. “He is a rock musician, but when we collaborated he presented all this really cinematic, lyrical music,” he says. “He has a really good sense of visuals and how that connects with dance. He’s really good at reading our minds.” he describes a recent rehearsal where things had stalled. “He reversed all the piano tracks. It was so beautiful, so modern. Including these kinds of elements really inspires us.”

The music also serves as a way to highlight two different timeframes. In this version, an older José serves as a narrator, looking back into his history and thereby recreating the story. Orange’s new compositions and his rearrangements of Shchedrin’s score mingle with the composer’s original tracks changing as present slips to past. Classical and contemporary steps in the choreography creatively serve the same purpose.

Carmen is part of the company’s annual season finale mixed bill, but it is also a feature of its two-year Ballet PLUS+ initiative that wants to promote contemporary ballet through a symposium, films and talks that aim to expose more people to contemporary ballet. In line with this ideal, a lot of thought went into making the piece more accessible. “We wanted to talk about issues that we have now, not what happened 150 years ago,” says Egami.

Hong Kong Ballet Soloists Lin Li and Miao-miao Liu rehearsing intensively a few days from the premiere – Photo by Viola Gaskell

Their guiding question was, “Why now?” Why stage Carmen in 2017? With so many of us attached to devices, the choreographers wanted to explore how we communicate today. Despite today’s mass production, clothing ties us all, they realised, providing a tactile cover for our bodies as well as a means to express ourselves. It also offers bountiful new ways to explore interconnection. This Carmen no longer works in a cigarette factory, as in the original story. Now it’s a fabric factory, where dancers perform staccato movements that recall garment manufacture’s hefty machinery and where they weave, wrap and flex themselves in swathes of cloth as they extend movement seeking to interrelate on new levels.

And wild, intoxicating, ambitious Carmen is not the unusual figure today that she would have been in 1960’s Russia, for instance. “Right now, in the 21st century, so many girls could feel like Carmen. They can do anything,” says Hu. They focussed on what Carmen did represent today. “It’s freedom,” he says. “She’ll do anything to get her dream.”

“In our Carmen, just like original Carmen, she can love multiple men at the same time and she will never agree to become a belonging of just one man,” says Egami – which is what makes her so enticing to watch. “You can idolise her. She can be over-top in a way you might wish to be.”

The pair have always shared an aim to produce beautifully executed dance moves, but now they are becoming just as intent on coaxing emotional performances. With the dancers, they have been working on facial expressions and eye contact. They are keen to explore Carmen’s vulnerability. “How she is when she’s alone,” says Hu. “In those moments, when no-one is watching her, we can see a softer side to her. That is Carmen too.”

The two men have been learning a lot about the many facets of a woman’s personality, working with the show’s 16 female dancers. This is the largest number of female parts they have choreographed to date, which has been its own challenge. Carmen will dance only on pointe, but early into the rehearsal process Hu and Egami found that steps they envisaged, and that worked for them in soft shoes, wouldn’t always work for her.

Still, the expanded group has led to a more relaxed and collaborative approach, a marked difference from their earlier collaborations, when they couldn’t stop retuning, indecisive in the quest for perfection. Sometimes, they’ll walk into a rehearsal with little more than a mood or a feeling they want to explore, and through experimentation and improvisation with the dancers, will work on producing a piece of choreography. Changes still happen, of course, Egami explains, but now there is a comfort and trust in each other.

There is definitely some magic in their own relationship. Why do they think they work so well together?

“We do listen. We know when one of us has a stronger idea, and we’ll say, ‘do that,'” says Egami. “It isn’t about ego.”

Ideas that, once in a while, are born during a long and frequent bus ride.

Carmen runs from May 26 to 28, 2017, at the Cultural Centre in Tsim Sha Tsui. Click here for more information.

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