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Chamber Ballet Taipei

'Romance - The Music and the Destiny of Tchaikovsky'

by David Mead

August 11, 2012 -- Metropolitan Hall, Taipei,

Allen Yu, the Austria-based Taiwanese choreographer, and founder and director of Chamber Ballet Taipei is far from the first choreographer to have fallen in love with Tchaikovsky’s music. He particularly likes its combination of romance and sadness. It provides him with “limitless imagination,” he says.

That imagination has been used to excellent effect in “Romance - The Music and The Destiny of Tchaikovsky”, in which he focuses on the composer’s background and key relationships using two of his best known pieces of music. The English title is a bit of a mouthful (the more literal translation of “Tchaikovsky: music and life” works rather better), but don’t let that get in the way because this is a terrific production. Yu and his cast of 23 Taiwanese dancers plus guests Bogdan Canila and Christina Dijmaru from the Romanian National Ballet did everyone proud.

Act I is danced to the “Serenade for Strings.” I find it impossible to hear the first few notes of that score without thinking Balanchine. “Romance” appears to contain a couple of brief references to his iconic ballet, but it says volumes about Yu’s choreography that such thoughts were very soon put most definitely to one side. Here, Yu pans in on the composer’s relationship with patron Nadezhda von Meck who supported him for 13 years, though on the condition that they never met. That scenario was covered neatly by having the Dijmaru and Canila restricted to separate white areas on the otherwise black floor. There was a clear sense of conversation in the choreography as they danced with letters in hand. Tchaikovsky talked of his pleasure in writing music for her in his scripts, but Canila also gave a clear sense of yearning, even romance, as the couple danced out their correspondence.

An initial joy in the dancing that comes from the composer’s passion for his music is followed in the Elegie by a sense of despair that he cannot meet and realise the feelings he has for von Meck. That sense of being trapped is given power by having Yu Meng-chun and Lin Po Ju as the souls of the couple trapped inside separate birdcages. It is a most effective device. Both are unsettled and often reach out to each other, but all to no avail. The baring of their true feelings is emphasised by the two dancers being naked, although it is so tastefully lit you can only occasionally tell. In front, Dijmaru and Canila, now in nothing more than perfectly skin coloured underwear, dance out the physical couple.

Act II, to the “Violin Concerto in D Major, Op.35” introduces more figures from Tchaikovsky’s life. Somewhat strangely, and confusingly, continuity was now lost by von Meck now being danced by Liao Yi-hsuan, while Dijmaru switched to being Belgian soprano Désirée Artôt, with who Tchaikovsky had a short affair. Yu continues his focus on the composer’s feelings and his music, but now presenting more overtly the paradox between beautiful music, costumes and dance, and the inner man, always it seems racked with insecurity and an inability to fully express his feelings. There is a moving but sadly all too brief pas de deux between Tchaikovsky and his nephew Vladimir Davydov, danced by Lin Po-ju (less confusing as we never really saw Lin’s face when he was the composer’s soul), which gave some strong hints as to the composer’s feelings for him. Yu shows the composer thinking about his wife, Antonina Milyukova; mother, Alexandra Assier; and friend, music critic and would-be composer Herman Laroche. Each appears in strangely-angled picture frames, as if paintings that had fallen, each representing a sometimes difficult or failed relationship, those associations are not explored in any depth. Still, the act flowed nicely, apart from one long section in silence that partly covered a scene change. Another moment in silence at the end of Act I similarly seemed rather odd, although it was notably less annoying that the tedious end of Act full curtain call that followed.

Yu’s choreography for his ensemble sections may not have been particularly demanding, but it was always bright, breezy, interesting, well-structured and, importantly, complimented the main action well. His corps of local dancers, many still vocational students at one of Taiwan’s arts universities, looked far from out of place, with the ladies showing neat pointework and the men some impressive leaps.

Costume designer Keith Lin’s Act I period dresses for the ladies were sumptuous, while the men looked most smart in their smoking-style jacket and trouser ensembles. His white tutus with vivid green designs in Act II sparkled gloriously and added to the energy of the dance.

Unusually for local ballet in Taiwan, the music was live. In Taipei the company were accompanied by the Taipei Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Dutch guest conductor Antony Hermus who kept up a cracking pace for the “Serenade”, which is all too often played a little too slowly. In the Violin Concerto the soloist was Tseng Yu-chien.

Under Yu’s leadership, the six-year old Chamber Ballet Taipei has gained a deserved reputation for being Taiwan’s leading classical ballet company. All this year’s performances in Taipei, Taichung and Tainan were sold out or close to it, showing that there is a place for Taiwanese ballet, despite what some may claim. Speaking with Yu, his enthusiasm and passion for ballet in Taiwan is plainly evident. He wishes he could do more, but commitments in Austria where he is ballet master and choreographer of the dance company at the opera house in Graz preclude staging more than one production a year. Even so, as part of this year’s season he held a range of talks and masterclasses to promote the production and the art form generally. Good training and contact with top class dancers is vitally important, he thinks, making the latter especially important. The problem, as he rightly points out, is that such training and opportunities need to be available year round, not only in the summer.

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