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About the Change

Hamburg Ballet

‘St. Matthew Passion’

March 2003
Hong Kong, Kwai Tsing Theatre

by Kevin Ng

© Holger Badekow

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The Hamburg Ballet returned to Hong Kong last Friday with a four-hour long work "St. Matthew Passion", a 1981 ballet set to J.S. Bach's monumental work by their artistic director John Neumeier. Based on the apostle's account of the death of Christ, Neumeier's approach however is not a straightforward narration of the story, but more an abstract reproduction of the biblical events with all their religious and human impacts. Christ is the only permanently defined character, admirably danced throughout the ballet by the principal dancer Lloyd Riggins.

The ballet, performed for two nights at the Kwai Tsing Theatre, opened ambitiously with the cast of 41 white-clad dancers massing in four different groupings on the stage which had a raised platform on the back and a dais on the right. The religious fervour was emphasised by a lot of high-flung arm movements by the dancers who performed in solos, duets, trios, and quartets in this first half. Earlier on there was an expressive trio for two men and a woman who formed a human bridge, as well as an exciting male trio for the two principals Otto Bubenicek and Jiri Bubenicek and the young talented soloist Peter Dingle. And there was a violent, agitated solo performed by Carsten Jung. The choreography was more inspired for the men in general than for the women, though Silvia Azzoni impressed in a solo. The first half ended in the depiction of the Last Supper and Judas' betrayal of Christ. Ivan Urban was charismatic as the Judas figure.


John Neumeier's St. Matthew Passion
Photograph by Holger Badekow © and courtesy of the HK Arts Festival

The dark angst-ridden tone continued relentlessly in the longer second half which climaxed in images depicting the Crucifixion and the descent from the cross. It would have been better if there had been some lighter episodes as a contrast in dynamic range. The momentum sagged halfway through, which wasn't helped by the pompous style of Neumeier's choreography which became repetitive after a while; there was too much empty emoting at times and a lack of inventiveness and musicality in the steps. And I sometimes got the impression that some of the steps were only inserted to fill the length of the music.

However there were flashes of brilliance from some of the dancers. Ivan Urban dazzled in a solo showing off the rich plasticity in his upper body, and his airy jumps. Peter Dingle had a good theatrical presence, and his anguished solo in which he repeatedly beat himself was poignant. And Laura Cazzaniga was an expressive dancer grieving in her solo. The gangways in the stalls were used as exit points by the dancers at times, reflecting the original setting of this ballet in churches. The violent episode depicting the flagellation of Christ was quite theatrical. And the closing tableau echoed the opening section in the formations of all the dancers.

Overall it was undoubtedly an ambitious work, though over-extended in the second half. This week the Hong Kong public can see the Hamburg Ballet in two other full- length ballets by Neumeier - his widely performed "The Lady of the Camellias" (1978), as well as his recent masterpiece "Nijinsky" created in 2000.

(This review first appeared in the South China Morning Post.)

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