Allen Yu (余能盛) feels a close connection with Peter Tchaikovsky. The Taiwanese ballet dancer and choreographer says he loves the 19th-century Russian composer's music, which he has frequently used in his own choreography, and he has read lots of biographies of him.
Last year he gave us a glimpse into the tortured composer's life by restaging his 1998 ballet, Tchaikovsky - None But the Lonely Heart for the Water Reflection Dance Ensemble. This year he is expanding on some of the themes raised in that work for When Ballet Meets Tchaikovsky at Taipei's Metropolitan Hall.
He's been hard at work for the past month, using his vacation time from the Opera House in Graz, Austria - where he is the deputy ballet director and choreographer - to put the finishing touches on three new pieces that make up Ballet Meets Tchaikovsky.
Yu is also a man with a mission. He wants to raise the standards of ballet dancers in this country; standards that he says have sadly declined in recent years.
The situation "is even worse than 20 years ago before I went to Europe. Full-length ballets - no one does them here anymore so ballet dancers don't have the experience, the technique," he said. " We need to build up the dancers here, so I am doing my best to help build up the system."
For the dancers who auditioned for him during a brief visit he made in April, that has meant a lot of hard work. He selected 19 dancers and since he came back to Taipei at the beginning of last month, they have all been putting in long days. He said he told them to drop everything else, no outside classes, no other jobs.
"From 9 [am] to 10:30 [am] we have daily class. After that we have rehearsal until 5pm. The movements [in his ballets] are very fast, so you need strong feet and strong technique," he said. "This is how we dance in Europe. But the dancers here aren't used to this."
What: Chamber Ballet Taipei - When Ballet Meets Tchaikovsky
When: Tonight and tomorrow at 7:30pm, Sunday at 3pm
Where: Metropolitan Hall (城市舞台), 25 Bade Rd Sec 3, Taipei (臺北市八德路三段25號)
Tickets: NT$400, NT$600, NT$800, NT$1,000
and NT$1,200; available online at www.artsticket.com.tw
Tuesday, at 7:30pm, at the Cultural Affairs Bureau of Hsinchu County (新竹縣文化局演藝廳), 146 Hsiancheng 9th Rd, Chupei City, Hsinchu County (新竹縣竹北市縣政九路146號)
Aug. 11 at 7:30pm and Aug. 12 at 3pm, at the Tainan Municipal Cultural Center Performance Hall (台南市立文化中心演藝廳), 332 Chunghua E Rd Sec 3, Tainan City (台南市中華東路三段332號)
As he did last year, Yu has brought his soloists from Europe. Philippines-born Ardee Dionisio, who is a soloist with the Graz Opera House, was a standout in last year's production. Daniel Cimpean, a Romanian soloist with the Darmstadt Staatstheater in Germany, danced here several years ago in Yu's production of The Lady of the Camellias. Two new faces are from the National Ballet of Hungary: Bajari Levente is a principal dancer with that company and Pazar Krisztina is a soloist.
Tchaikovsky's music has long been a favorite of ballet masters and choreographers. Yu selected some pieces that will be familiar to ballet audiences, and one that is not. The first piece he used is the Concerto for violin in D, also known as Serenade, which George Balanchine used for his famous work for the New York City Ballet. The second piece is the Piano Concerto No 1 op.23, and the third is Symphony No 4 in F minor op.36, which Yu said gave him the biggest challenge - and headaches.
The three ballets that make up When Ballet Meet Tchiakovsky each tell a separate story, but Yu says that by the end, their connection is clear.
The first is a meditation on spiritual love, of living your life hemmed in by society, "like a bird in a cage," Yu said.
In the second piece, he said, the soloist is "like a bird looking for its way to freedom." In the third, the bird is finally free to fly away from its cage, he said - but not necessarily happier for it.
Yu says he loves Tchaikovsky's music for its combination of romance and sadness and because it provides him "with limitless imagination."