衛承天 Septime Webre; 香港芭蕾舞團藝術總監 Artistic Director of Hong Kong Ballet;
攝 Photo: Calvin Sit
On opening night of Hong Kong Ballet’s Giselle, my friend rifled through the program and commented that, although this was her first main-stage performance, she felt that she already knew the company – in fact, she already had some favorite dancers. That sense of familiarity had developed over a season of attending the company’s pop-up events, open rehearsals, and educational forums, which have snowballed under the leadership of Septime Webre.
Earlier that week, I caught up with Webre, who is a little over a year into his tenure as Artistic Director. Interestingly, the Washington Post had just published an article about Washington Ballet, which Webre helmed for seventeen years before coming to Hong Kong, and for which he created a number of vivid story ballets.
Following are excerpts from our conversation, edited for clarity and length.
Carla: The Washington Post article describes you as a “showman” who “established a populist, of-the-moment style” that attracted newcomers to ballet, in contrast to your successor who is courting ballet aficionados and building a repertory to mirror that of the top companies in the world. What do you think of this characterization?
Webre: I do think I’m a populist but not one who dumbs things down. I believe that the definition of great ballet is broader than some directors might think.
Ballet is a fluid language that can be used to express a lot of different things. And I believe in ballet’s traditions – we’re presenting Giselle right now, and since I’ve been here we’ve presented Don Quixote and Le Corsaire, and next season we’re planning a Swan Lake – so I believe in this repertoire. But I also believe that audiences need to see themselves in the repertoire. They need to connect to it and they need to feel that it’s pertinent to their lives. And so, it’s important that the repertoire also reflects other things in addition to swans and peasant girls in Bavaria… that we use the language of ballet to reflect things that are a bit more connected to the lives of contemporary citizens of the world. And the language is as fluid as English or Chinese or Tagalog. The same language was used by Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson and Mad Magazine and a contemporary rap song. It’s important that we speak it fluently and in lots of different ways.
Even more specifically, I think ballet’s got to be open to everyone. And my philosophy in Hong Kong and at Washington Ballet was that we need to do all kinds of different ballets and that meant doing full length 19th century work, doing [George]Balanchine and [Jerome] Robbins, and it also means commissioning works of today. But the energy of the company needs to feel like it’s reflective of the energy of the city in which it lives.
In what ways are you doing this?
We’re doing pop-ups monthly – large-scale outdoor performances. Have you visited Tai Kwun [the restored Central Police Station and Victoria Prison compound, one of Hong Kong’s most important remaining historic buildings]? It’s outrageous. We’re doing a site-specific installation on a Saturday and Sunday [Nov. 17-18] that activates the whole place. It’ll be free to the public – [part of what we’ve called] Ballet in the City.
We’re also doing pop-up performances in the New Territories. We’re doing one in Central on a Sunday that will be narrated in Cantonese, English and Tagalog because that’s an area where so many Filipina domestic workers spend their Sundays. They’re an underserved population in the city, yet the city would stop without its domestic workers. We want to be pertinent and important to every aspect of the city.
We’re scheduling pop-up performances in various housing estates. We’re launching a project called Friday Night Barre in the MTR – because our process is so hidden from the world, we’re doing something to change that. We’ll install ourselves in different MTR stations on Fridays and literally do a forty-five minute barre with a live piano, as an art installation.
Then there’s Hong Kong Cool. The format we did a month ago featured seven world premieres by seven Hong Kong-based choreographers, each in collaboration with an artist – fashion designer, composer, painter, video artist, and so on. The works were under ten minutes long, a short format. Next year we will likely focus on fashion designers and composers, and have fewer choreographers, allowing each piece to be a little bit longer, to develop ideas a little bit further.
港芭在大館的演出 HKB’s performance at Tai Kwun;
攝 Photo: Conrado Dy-Liacco
港芭在大館的演出 HKB’s performance at Tai Kwun;
攝 Photo: Conrado Dy-Liacco
How is your funding keeping up with these ambitious ventures?
The Hong Kong Government has been really supportive since my arrival. We won two years of new funding to develop Ballet in the City – to get us out, to get people of Hong Kong to see us, for us to be a bit more in-your-face. That was the spirit of it.
In addition, the government has just recently announced a growth in their annual support to companies like Hong Kong Ballet. We are actually getting more now from the government in our annual funding than we did a year ago.
And, probably in part because we’re all around the place now, our subscriptions are up 127% from one year ago today.
And Giselle has sold better than Le Corsaire did last year and Don Quixote did before that. It’s not that the productions are more eye-popping; I think we’re starting to be successful in getting Hong Kong to feel that we’re a company on the rise.
攝 Photo: Conrado Dy-Liacco
《吉賽爾》Giselle; 攝Photo: Conrado Dy-Liacco
Is touring a priority? And is the touring focus on China, or the world’s dance capitals?
Our mission is global domination!
Our goal is to be cherished in Hong Kong and recognized as an international powerhouse around the world. We’re already one of the premier ballet companies in Asia; we would also like to be known as the most forward-looking.
And people can write about us all they want – but that impact on the global discourse about ballet is most effective if influencers in ballet can see us in different cities.
We just had a tour of Europe this past March that included Berlin, Bonn, and Madrid. We’ll be in Taiwan next month. Shanghai next fall. And we’re working on a four-week tour of North America for spring 2020.
Currently about half of the company are from mainland China. Of the principal through coryphée ranks, about 70% are from the mainland.
There’s a really good reason for that. The best training in Asia is there. And their work ethic is excellent.
Only six dancers are Hong Kong-born, three of them in the apprentice ranks. Do you have plans to grow that number?
Indeed, it continues to be a goal to have Hong Kong strongly represented among our ranks. To help mentor and support promising young pre-professional dancers in Hong Kong, we’ve developed a deep, new partnership with the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (HKAPA) to provide access to professional life while dancers are still training – this means masterclasses, mentoring, performing opportunities, repertory classes, and such – aimed at bolstering dance students’ preparedness for a career in ballet.
What do you look for in a dancer?
Exquisite technique. And great line.
I believe in diversity. So, I’m less of a cookie-cutter kind of guy in terms of what dancers look like. I come from the U.S. which was a melting pot. When I left Washington Ballet we believed we were the most ethnically diverse ballet company in the world.
Diversity here means something different. Hong Kong is a fusion city – Asia’s world city – that really pulses with modernity. Hong Kong Ballet should reflect who Hong Kong is and what Hong Kong is about.
Among the ways in which I think Hong Kong Ballet will reflect Hong Kong culture in its repertoire has to do with Hong Kong being an important exporter of great films, for example.
Your vision for programming ropes in choreographers from outside and inside the company.
Any given program is not going to tell the story of a company. But you want a whole season to do that.
Commissioning in-house choreographers is important to me. We have two really gifted choreographers – Ricky Hu and Yuh Egami. My predecessor Madeleine Onne really nurtured their talent over the last few years. They’re doing a big project with the Hong Kong Philharmonic at the end of this season, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, which I commissioned.
With commissions from the outside, I generally don’t look to those choreographers to make narrative work, because that’s what I do. I adapt great works of literature and film to full-length ballets using ballet language and technique, contemporary ideas of design and theater, and that’s my niche. So, I want other voices to come in to push our dancers in ways I don’t already.
It's a growing trend for ballet companies to commission works from choreographers who come from outside the ballet world. Are you doing this?
When I was a young dancer, ballet directors were looking to modern dance for ideas. Back in the day, they were looking to Paul Taylor and to Alvin Ailey. And Twyla Tharp was leaving postmodern dance and coming to ballet.
Ballet technique has advanced so quickly in the last twenty years – I feel that I have a responsibility to move our technique forward. And I think it’s really important that much of what we do that’s new challenges both the dancers’ artistry and technique, and helps them understand their physicality better; helps move the discourse on ballet, and helps bring ballet into the 21st century. So, I’m more oriented toward work that challenges the dancers’ ballet technique. For example, in about six months, we have a big triple bill with premieres by Justin Peck and Wayne McGregor, and the world premiere by Ricky Hu and Yuh Egami. Justin Peck is doing amazing stuff because he understands ballet technique so well, his work pushes it forward and pushes the dancers. And Chroma by Wayne McGregor, while he comes from contemporary dance, is in fact so technically based.
I’m also talking with Alexander Ekman to stage one of his big works here. He’s a guy from ballet, but in a cheeky way is a disruptor.
What is your single biggest challenge at the moment?
I want to push the envelope as much as I can in a manner that the audience comes with us and feels excited and feels part of things.
The company is financially stable, has a lot of support from the government and from the community, and that support is growing. We’re expanding the size of the tent. I need to figure out how to maximize the opportunity that’s there, striking the right balance of how much new to bring to the audience but not scare them off, make them feel welcomed.
「香港酷」中的《石碑》Monolith in Hong Kong Cool; 創作者 Creators: 尊尼芬．斯納 Jonathan Spigner and 曾敏富 Matthew Tsang Man-Fu;