Ballet and Hong Kong: the fit’s not obvious. One is an art form centred on a series of classic European works created in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The other is a city that’s notoriously pragmatic, with a robust grassroots culture rooted in the habits and customs of Cantonese daily life.
For sure, Hong Kong has had a ballet company for nearly 40 years, and at dozens of schools across the city, young Hongkongers — mostly girls — take lessons and collect credentials. Yet still the gap between the dance and the city has often felt wide. Perhaps that’s because just four of Hong Kong Ballet’s 44 dancers are from Hong Kong. Or perhaps it’s just that there will always be something odd about a curtain rising to present a Galician village populated by Asians wearing 17th century European costume. So while the company’s shows have long been fun to watch, ballet in Hong Kong has also long felt like something apart from the city’s cultural mainstream – a bolt-on that has never quite settled.
Septime Webre, the 55-year-old American who started work as Hong Kong Ballet’s artistic director in July, seems determined to do something about this. He arrived in Hong Kong after spending 17 years shaking things up at the US’s Washington Ballet, overseeing a six-fold increase in its annual budget, from US$2 million to $12 million, while taking ballet lessons to 10,000 students at public schools across America’s capital, all on top of managing a highly praised stream of classical and innovative productions.
Just ten weeks since taking up his post, Webre has already completed two productions: a full-blown Don Quixote in August and a choreographers’ showcase, with seven works choreographed by dancers of the company, in September. Another production, the Asian premiere of Le Corsaire, is in mid-run. But more startling is the list of other projects he has already embarked on.
Under the rubric of “moving outside the confines of the theatre,” later this month sees the first of a “Ballet in the City” series with an evening of ten mini-performances following one after another at art galleries across Central. Next February will see “A Day in the Life,” a series of pop-up shows danced to the music of the Beatles at venues across Hong Kong ahead of a formal theatrical premier at the Cultural Centre in June. And then will come the launch of “Hong Kong Cool,” a three-year project of seven world premieres by Hong Kong choreographers working in partnerships with Hong Kong-based composers, fashion designers, film and video makers and visual artists.
Plans are also afoot for events at Tai Kwun, the former Central Police Station, after it opens in 2018; a ballet happy hour at the Asia Society, where people can watch a ballet rehearsal while enjoying a drink; more shows in the New Territories; a possible tie up with the Girl Guides; a residency for dancers at the Academy of Performing Arts, out-reach to other under-served communities such as Hong Kong’s domestic helpers (“I don’t think that community has been served very much by the cultural community,” says Webre), and, of course, events in the West Kowloon Cultural District when it finally opens its performance venues.
“What I bring is a natural inclination to open the doors of ballet – that’s just who I am,” says Webre. “The idea is to activate the city through dance so that people in Hong Kong can view themselves as ballet-goers by stumbling upon dance in the streets – viewing the city as a creative city where art is experienced everywhere.”
Alongside a reach into local life will be the task of raising Hong Kong Ballet’s international standing. “We’ve always been the most international of the ballet companies in terms of the dancers themselves,” says Webre. “We have a more international profile than any other Asian ballet company. Our goal will be to grow that reputation and establish ourselves even more thoroughly as the most forward looking of the Asian ballet companies.” Touring will be a big contributor: next year sees the company taking a month-long trip across Spain, Germany, Serbia and Bulgaria. And so will be projects of international significance – ones that attract the attention of the ultra-networked world of global ballet.
Helping Webre take ballet deeper into Hong Kong while also raising Hong Kong Ballet’s profile beyond Asia is the changed world in which ballet is danced. “It happens that our ballet past is Eurocentric, but our ballet future is global,” he says. “The new works that are being created aren’t really about young girls learning about their ne’er do well shepherds, they’re about real things around us, or about the books we read or about the music we listen to.”
Webre stresses ballet’s universal elements. “It’s always been aspirational. The themes we deal with are lofty, even in the contemporary work. There’s something noble about that. When the curtain goes up, we show the audience their idealised self. We’re younger than you are, we’re better looking than you are, we can jump higher, we can turn more, but we are you. This is how great you can be.”
He also highlights ballet’s capacity to communicate. “Ballet is a fluid language that can be used to express lots of things. A Bohemian village is one of them. Love between a swan and a prince is one of them, sure. But it can also be used to express a lot of things about today’s world,” he says. “For the last ten days, I’ve been binge-watching Hong Kong films and will undoubtedly develop a work in the next couple of seasons based on the great Hong Kong canon.” Other possible projects include an adaptation of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, working with that film’s art director, Tim Yip, on a Romeo and Juliet set among Hong Kong’s triad families and a large-scale narrative work based on one of Eileen Chang’s novels.
Webre wants to insert the company and its dancers into the social fabric of the city – from pushing the company to embrace social media as another means to becoming more engaged in daily life, challenging his staff to post at least once daily, to inviting teachers from Hong Kong’s large local ballet school community to watch company classes led by visiting stars. “If they come three times a year they’ll get to know the dancers, they’ll start to feel connected to the company,” he says.
As well as reflecting society, ballet can also shape it. During his 17 years at Washington Ballet, Webre grew the company’s dance school from 300 students to 1,500. Even more strikingly, in a city whose population is 50 percent African-American, he increased the number of black dancers from just four to nearly 400. The company is now the most diverse in the United States.
For Hong Kong Ballet, the challenges are different. “We’ll always be majority Chinese, whether from Hong Kong or the mainland,” says Webre. “But one of my goals in terms of the composition of the company is to be both more global and more local – to have more Hong Kong dancers, and more international ones.”
Making all these things happen won’t be simple. As recent years have shown, while Hong Kong’s government wants the prestige of being a global centre for the arts, it has struggled with the implementation. Over at West Kowloon, disagreements continue over whose interests the district is meant to serve. The irritation of Hong Kong’s Cantonese opera community at the recent appointment of Alison Friedman, an American, to head up the district’s performing arts division, highlights the dangers of bringing too much talent in from overseas. Meanwhile, the reappointment of Henry Tang Ying-yen, a former head of Hong Kong ’s civil service, as the district’s chairman points to a degree of risk-aversity that could also imperil the project.
Yet a successful West Kowloon cannot exist in isolation. It will require the support of wider creative community, drawn from both with and beyond Hong Kong. And, after several years of zero growth, the government has also just pledged to increase official spending on the city’s main arts bodies by 10 percent. “As recently as a few months ago we got an indication that we could expect flat funding for several more years, with no kind of growth. [This increase] is unique in the world,” says Webre. That’s especially true in comparison with North America and Europe, where arts funding is perpetually under siege.
And clearly, you don’t appoint someone like Webre unless you want things to change – whether it’s looking outwards to raise Hong Kong Ballet’s global profile by making it more international, or searching for ways to integrate ballet with new communities across the city. Yet such steps imply both a broadening of expression and a commitment to pluralism – both areas under siege in Hong Kong. Webre has a three-year contract, but plans that extend far beyond that period. We can all watch how long he ends up with to see them through.