Last weekend the Hong Kong Ballet premiered a full-length work “The Great Gatsby” choreographed by its artistic director Septime Webre. Webre first created this ballet based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel of the same name for the Washington Ballet in 2010 when he was its artistic director.
This two-hour two-act production boasts attractive new designs by Tim Yip, who won an Academy Award for his art direction for the movie “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” in 2000. Video imageries, combining newsreel filmed in New York City in the 1920s, designed by William Kwok and Tobias Gremmler, are also effective.
The jazz music score, composed by Billy Novick, was superbly performed by his own troupe, Billy Novick’s Blue Syncopators. The Blues singer E. Faye Butler was a showstopper, winning the loudest applause in Act 2 with her rendition of “I Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl”.
Also high on the applause meter was another guest, Tanki Wong, who performed impeccably the male tap dancing solo in Act 2. Nevertheless, this tap solo, though undeniably spectacular, actually adds no value to the narrative and could have easily been replaced by another ballet sequence.
Webre’s “Gatsby” is extremely theatrical and has an easy pop appeal to the audience due to its high energy. However, one cannot help feeling at times that the predominance of non-dance elements overshadow the actual ballet dancing. To be fair, this new “Gatsby” seems more in structure like a jazz musical than a ballet.
Webre’s narrative is good and clear. All the main characters are quickly introduced in the beginning of Act 1. The flashback to how Gatsby first met Daisy when he was a poor army officer and her marriage to the wealthy Tom is cleverly depicted. The dramatic ending – the car crash and the murder of Gatsby – is very succinctly depicted.
However, the momentum sags in the middle, especially in the ballroom party scenes set in the Gatsby’s mansion. Early in Act 1 there is a lively New York street scene filled with various characters, including sailors and nuns etc. Though imaginative, it is not conducive to dramatic development.
Webre’s choreography is rather generic and not particularly inventive. The best dance is the ecstatic dream duet at the end of Act 1 when Gatsby dreams of his beloved Daisy after his meeting with her through her cousin Nick Carraway. Also imaginative is the duet early in Act 1 for Tom and his mistress Myrtle during their secret telephone conversation. The golf duet for Nick and Jordan is so much fun. The heart-tearing solo for George after his wife’s death in the car crash at the end of Act 2 has a raw emotional power. But the ballroom dances in the Gatsby mansion are slightly monotonous and repetitive.
The first cast was excellent and had an edge over the other cast. Guest star Matthew Golding had charisma in the title role, and his dancing was flawless. Ye Feifei was glamorous as Daisy, her body soft and yielding in the duets. Garry Corpuz was convincing as the villainous Tom. And another guest, Brooklyn Mack, was powerful as George.
In another cast, Li Lin and Venus Villa in the leading roles were also a good match. Both were elegant in style. Li Jiabo impressed as Tom. Television host Desmond So was the narrator Nick in all performances. The sold-out performances last weekend no doubt testified to the popular appeal of this new “Gatsby”, and should guarantee its place in the Hong Kong Ballet’s repertory in future.