Turandot, by Australian choreographer Natalie Weir , was created for the Hong Kong Ballet in 2003. It is one of the more successful works of the company from the past decade. Based on Puccini’s opera, the three-act ballet tells of the beautiful but cold-hearted Turandot setting three riddles to all her suitors, with the threat of condemning them to death should they not solve them.  Calaf however succeeds to solve the three riddles, and his love melts Turandot. 

Zhang Siyuan as Turandot and Li Jiabo as Calaf. © Tim Rummelhoff
Zhang Siyuan as Turandot and Li Jiabo as Calaf.
© Tim Rummelhoff

The ballet is unexpectedly short and only lasts for 1 hour 45 minutes - including an interval.  Conciseness is, after all, sometimes a virtue. After all, there is no point for a choreographer to resort to padding just to extend a ballet to an expected length. So Act 1 starts with a prince being executed by Turandot, and introduces Calaf who has a blind father and who is loved by the beautiful slave girl Liu.  It ends with Calaf, who has fallen in love with Turandot, eager to solve the three riddles. Act 1 is slightly diffuse with various threads, and the narrative lacks sharp focus.  The other two acts have more urgency and are more compelling.  The short Act 2 shows Calaf succeed in solving the riddles against all odds. The depiction of his solving of the riddles by means of dancers holding the alphabets is rather clever. And the final Act 3 is about Turandot being transformed by his kiss, and ends with a climatic pas de deux. 

Weir has pared down the complicated story to its emotional essence, mainly conveyed in various pas de deux and pas de trois. The corps de ballet is constantly on stage, functioning as a chorus in a Greek play accompanying the action in various guises. Weir’s choreographic style, though successful overall, is very dated, reminiscent of the dance theatre style of the 1970s. Choreograhies by Maurice Bejart and Martha Graham occasionally come to mind.  Furthermore, Weir’s vocabulary is pretty narrow in range and lacks variety. This is certainly not helped by Puccini’s opera music which is too powerful on its own and is not particularly suited for dance in the first place.

However, Calaf’s big solo in Act 2 , set to the famous aria “Nessun Dorma” is quite moving.  In Act 3, the final pas de deux contains lots of overhead lifts and and includes a one-handed lift - in Bolshoi fashion - which is suitably ecstatic. The depiction of Liu’s suicide by means of a red fabric falling down however is rather predictable, and somewhat cliché

Hong Kong Ballet in <i>Turandot</i> © Tim Rummelhoff
Hong Kong Ballet in Turandot
© Tim Rummelhoff
In the title role, newly promoted principal Zhang Siyuan was convincing as the cruel Turandot, but lacked warmth in Act 3 after her transformation by Calaf. Dramatically, Li Jiabo was more impassioned as her lover Calaf, and he danced his heart out in the solo “Nessun Dorma”. In the supporting roles, Dong Ruixue was passionate as Liu, while Ricky Hu drew sympathy as Calaf’s blind father. The whole troupe danced commendably, and with commitment. Nevertheless, there are certainly more outstanding ballets in Hong Kong Ballet’s repertoire, which are far more deserving to be revived than this Turandot.