Five and a half years into his artistic directorship of Hong Kong Ballet, Septime Webre’s ambitions and energies remain very much intact. Despite three years of Covid restrictions and the city’s social and political upheaval, he believes Hong Kong remains a place with great scope for doing interesting and exciting artistic work.
Certainly his modus operandi — driving forward on multiple fronts at once — is a recipe that has kept Hong Kong Ballet’s appeal expanding. Since 2019, tickets for all its shows have sold out before their opening night. For its latest work, Coco Chanel, every seat was snapped up within two days of the box office opening. “I hope that’s because the quality of work we’re doing is at a high level and that the repertoire we’re presenting resonates with what people want,” says Webre.
His approach helped Hong Kong Ballet emerge from Covid with some significant achievements under its belt. For all the disruption the pandemic caused, it never brought the company to a halt. When its principal home, the Cultural Centre, closed its practice rooms as well as halting performances, the company used GoGoVan to deliver dance floor material to each of its dancers. Daily Zoom sessions kept everyone in shape until alternative rehearsal venues were found across the city. Member’s club Soho House became one such place, with dance decks installed on two empty floors at its Sai Ying Pun location.
Despite multiple postponements, the company kept on launching works. Webre’s own brand new versions of Romeo and Juliet and The Nutcracker, both given Hong Kong settings; the company’s first-ever performances of George Balanchine’s Jewels; and The Last Song, choreographed by Ricky Hu, the company’s choreographer-in-residence since 2019.
Webre redirected resources from its Ballet in the City pop-up performance series to videos, among them a short Romeo and Juliet piece set in Sheung Wan and Tsim Sha Tsui, and Amadeus, a cyberpunk work centred on a white-tee-shirted young Mozart stumbling his way through some neon-lit streets. “One thing the pandemic did for just about every choreographer worldwide was force you to become a filmmaker,” says Webre.
To keep in touch with its supporters, the company upped its social media presence, pushing online classes and videos of its activities. It restaged its hugely popular Alice in Wonderland, another of Webre’s works. “Unlike in places like the US where dancers had to be laid off, here the government really did ensure the company’s stability,” says Webre. “We did a lot of work. Looking at the big picture, Hong Kong was a good place to live out the pandemic.”
With Hong Kong’s Covid restrictions finally lifted, Webre’s energies are once again being directed at advancing on multiple fronts simultaneously. Among the top priorities is continuing to raise the company’s classical standards: “We’re investing deeply in the classical wing of our repertoire, with La Bayadère in June and plans for big productions of classical works each season for the next three seasons.”
First up, this June, is the company’s first-ever production of La Bayadère, a 19th century Russian classic set in the jungles of India. The show will feature guest appearances from the Royal Ballet’s Marianela Núñez and Vadim Muntagirov, and Iana Salenko from Berlin State Ballet. “All three are celebrated artists who will serve as role models for our dancers, setting a gold standard for what they can achieve,” says Webre.
Of equal importance is strengthening the company’s Hong Kong identity. Before his arrival, says Webre, Hong Kong Ballet occasionally produced Hong Kong- or Chinese-themed works, but none established themselves as part of the company’s repertoire. He hopes his Romeo and Juliet and Nutcracker have permanently changed that, as should a third Hong Kong-based work for young audiences scheduled for this summer.
Webre is also pushing more local talent. As well as appointing Ricky Hu as company choreographer, he has launched a new Hong Kong artist-in-residence programme, to be filled this year by choreographer Justyne Li, whose previous experience has included working extensively with City Contemporary Dance Company, and next year by costume designer Ricky Lai.
Since 2017, the number of local dancers in the company has doubled, from five to 10. And the company is exploring new partnership forms. Currently two dancers from the company are working with French choreographer Christian Rizzo and dancers from Hong Kong contemporary dance groups on a piece titled You and You and You and Me and You and Us and You… to be performed in May. “It’s quite an unusual collaboration,” says Webre. “The choreographer expects a whole lot of improvisation and input on the part of the dancers, which is highly unusual in the ballet world.”
With restrictions on travel to the mainland now lifted, the company is preparing to work more with dance organisations in the rest of China. “Because of the pandemic, [the mainland] was closed off to us. Now, our plan is to tour there every year and to develop workshops and education programmes, so we’re connecting as a cultural family, not just showing up and doing a show,” says Webre. Tang Min, the company’s ballet mistress from 2009 to 2021, is now its Chief Representative, responsible among other things for recruitment in China, and former principal dancer Shen Jie is now looking after the company’s educational initiatives, with a special focus on the Greater Bay Area.
To enhance the company’s standing beyond Hong Kong’s borders, international touring will continue to be important. In January this year it visited New York and cities along the US’s eastern seaboard. Another tour to the West is planned for 2025. Raising the company’s artistic credentials are the company’s productions of new contemporary works, whether by Webre himself or with specially commissioned pieces, such as Coco Chanel, which was created for the company by Netherlands-based Belgian-Colombian choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa.
While Hong Kong has changed since his arrival in 2017, is it still a place where artists can find new avenues of expression to explore? “I still think so,” says Webre. “I still feel that way. Right now, I’m jazzed about Coco Chanel. That’s a really daring ballet which makes statements about gender and the price one pays if you’re a woman in the first half of the 20th century who’s going out on her own: what choices can you make and what you do when you make a mistake. There’s freedom of expression in those kinds of stories.”
Now 61, Webre’s energy levels show no signs of diminishing. His current contract runs to mid-2025. Will he renew? “We haven’t started discussions,” he says. “But I’m certainly having a great time in Hong Kong. You imagine that, that when things are going well, then you go on.”
Tickets for performances of La Bayadère from June 2 to 4, 2023, will be available through Urbtix from early April.