Septime Webre, Artistic director, Hong Kong Ballet. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)
On moving to Hong Kong from Washington...
I was the director of Washington Ballet for 17 years. During my time there the company’s budget had grown from US$2.9 million to US$12.9 million.
When I came to meet the Hong Kong Ballet board last July, I fell in love with the city. I knew that the company had a history and a great repertoire of classical work. I knew I would bring a certain contemporary energy to the classical works. I knew I would bring a commitment to back up Hong Kong Ballet to reach the community in unorthodox and surprising ways. We are looking to build a global repertoire and at the same time value the energy of the city which is vibrant and forward-looking.
I knew I would bring an interest in developing full-length story ballets which connect with contemporary audiences in certain ways even as they remain classical but of the moment.
On his role at Hong Kong Ballet...
My contribution is as a producer, a motivator of energy, essentially stewarding the artists toward giving their personal best. In January we began working on a new ballet to the music of the Beatles. Fusing classical ballet with rock music and moments of our daily lives is a way of connecting the local community with ballet. Such experiments will take place over the next three years. Some times on a Friday night, commuters will see 50 dancers performing in an MTR station. That would be kind of cool.
On the community outreach programs on the anvil...
We would like to reach out to the foreign maids and underprivileged communities living in public housing estates. With the maids we would like to do a series of both workshops and performances, particularly on Sundays in Central. We’ll begin with informal classes, like just encourage them to do a round of guided moving and then treat them to a choreographed performance.
Imagine small guerrilla performances happening across Central and the space being transformed into a participatory dance class where everyone is moving.
On his vision and mission regarding Hong Kong Ballet...
I would like to enhance the classical standards of Hong Kong Ballet, by bringing a renewed energy, inviting international artists of the highest degree to join us, enliven the repertoire, make what is already excellent even better.
Second is to commission and create new works that are of particular relevance to our company, reflecting its special energy, works that would resonate with people at home and also have international impact. Hong Kong Ballet is going on a European tour in March. We’re presenting three ballets (Fei Bo’s Shenren Chang, Edwaard Liang’s Sacred Thread, and Jorma Elo’s Shape of Glow which brings musicality to life through movement), including two world premieres of pieces specially created for our company. These are contemporary pieces which will serve as ambassadors of Hong Kong to the world.
I want ballet to be really intelligent and at the same time let people in on it. The Music of the Beatles piece is a fiercely athletic, contemporary ballet but it allows people to let their guard down because the music is so familiar. It’s based on foot-tapping music but the work is a very serious one.
On making dance accessible to the uninitiated...
We have a Cuban saying: mi casa es tu casa (my house is your house). The idea is that you welcome guests into your house whole-heartedly, without formality. I would like to bring that idea to my curatorial work, maybe welcome my audience with a little bit of Cantonese, and say a few words about what they’re about to see. I’d like to demystify the theatrical experience for the local community.
I would like to develop ways in which Hong Kong Ballet could have an interface with the city of Hong Kong in unorthodox ways that make ballet-goers of average citizens. So that when they stumble upon a performance in the MTR or Lan Kwai Fong or a shopping center in the New Territories or a public housing estate, they are able to see it in creative ways, look upon the city as a cool place that has art everywhere.
I would also like to create lobby experiences for the audiences. Passers-by who stop to watch Music of the Beatles could get to know their neighbors this way. So the idea is to create a community belt through dance.
On reaching out to the younger generations...
We are reaching out to schools to encourage students to come see rehearsals. We are planning ballet teaching camps. We will in the next couple of years double our efforts in those areas. We are developing a new training program, a pre-ballet program to take place in community centers and public schools all over the city. It’s not meant to be a one-time exposure, but exposure to a series of training sessions that would be meaningful to them. That would be followed by an informal performance by a small part of our company, showcasing extracts from our repertoire. So it’s kind of a special program for the public, encouraging them to dance with us in ways that are informal, interactive and will surprise them.
On designing a participatory program for the elderly...
There are plans to develop a parallel program for aged people. They would share stories of some aspects of their lives, engage in ballet training and create a short dance piece based on their own story. They would also see us performing in an informal way that’s interactive. By 2030, a third of Hong Kong’s population is going to be over 65, so it’s certainly an important focus area for us. Beauty comes in every size and age. There’s something beautiful in seeing a roomful of men and women in their sixties and seventies dancing together.
I’m trying to draw up a comprehensive plan that looks to children, domestic helpers and to senior citizens with the same philosophical underpinning: Dance with us and then see us dance in an engaging way, a way in which what the audiences see becomes meaningful in their own lives. I think art becomes most powerful when people can see themselves in it.
Interviewed by Chitralekha Basu