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La Ballet du Siecle de Taipei

'The Little Mermaid'

by David Mead

August 3, 2012 -- Family Theater, City Hall, Taipei

After ABT’s visit in July, August sees Taipei’s local ballet companies pick up the classical baton. It’s an interesting fact of dance life here that, while contemporary or modern dance groups have little problem with pushing boundaries or exploring the new, almost all ballet groups are conservative and traditional in outlook. It’s a view that seems to be shared by a significant percentage of audiences and the local press. Indeed, when ABT announced they were bringing “La Bayadere”, one local journalist asked why they were not dancing “Swan Lake”. Yes, it can be that bad.

Taiwan’s ballet companies live a somewhat precarious existence, with funding and dancers hard to come by. They run largely on a sort of at least semi ‘pick-up’ basis, supplementing their regular dancers with university students and the occasional overseas guest as necessary. Given that, it is quite an achievement that they not only survive, but manage to produce performances with generally good production values.

Le Ballet du Siècle de Taipei was formed in 2006 by Li Lin Lili, who believes strongly that there is a place for classical ballet in its truest sense on the island. Since then they have staged at least two productions most years, including “Coppelia”, “Midsummer Night’s Dream”, “Aurora’s Wedding”, and, yes, “Swan Lake”. Latest in the line is “The Little Mermaid”, a traditional telling of the Hans Christian Andersen tale; incidentally, originally written as a ballet.

The production certainly cast a spell over the sizable number of young children in the audience; and how nice to see that. Matters were undoubtedly helped by a special ten minute introduction for those young balletgoers, but apart from that, and while this was undoubtedly a story and a ballet suitable for children, no other concessions were made to give proceedings a particularly child-friendly touch.

The story was told clearly, and told through dance without any resorting to mime, which again was pleasant to see. It was helped along by Alexander von Zemlinsky’s symphonic poem “Die Seejungfrau” (The Mermaid). His sweeping score may not have tunes that lodge themselves inextricably in the memory, but as a whole it fits the story perfectly. It certainly gave this “Little Mermaid” a voice. Quite why it is not performed more widely is beyond me.

Top marks to Qiu Sheng-feng for some excellent costumes. The mermaid design in particular was most effective. A turquoise colour that evoked perfectly the sea, it included long trousers that extended some four feet beyond her feet. They really did make it look like she had a fish’s tail. Everything said they should have been a nightmare to dance in, and come to that for her partner too, but Mermaids Chen Yi-ting and Wang Li-wen didn’t seem to have any problems. Pang Ji-xun’s stage designs were simple but effective.

Chen and Wang gave assured performances as the Little Mermaid (there was a scheduled cast change at the intermission). Both exuded a sense of innocence, gentleness and other-worldliness that fitted the story perfectly. As the Prince, Jian Liang-zhe was a solid partner with some good jumps and turns.

The ensemble dances were all well-structured. The ladies generally showed clean lines and tight pointework. The men’s technique was less complete, with one group dance in the first half managing to show up their weaknesses a little too much. Male ballet dancers are hard to come by in Taiwan, and if there is one dance form that exposes even average technique, it surely is classical ballet. Best of the ensemble pieces, and one that showed the men at their best, was that which opened Act II and that included the appearance of the Sea Witch (Mathilda Hsu). Although still most definitely rooted in the classical, here the dance was a touch more contemporary with an ebb and flow in the movement that reminded me of those shaggy mats of thick-stemmed seaweed one often sees clinging to rocks underwater.

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