Hong Kong Ballet: Bamboos and Tutus

by AFP/Mark McCord, Mar 29, 2004 | Destinations: Hong Kong / China

Hong Kong, March 28, 2004 - A ballerina sweeps gracefully across the floor in a flurry of pirouettes and leaps. Her leading man practices his prances as the corps perfects its twirls before a huge wall mirror.

The Hong Kong Ballet's rehearsal room is like most other ballet practice spaces: a mess of discarded clothes, costumes and props; young dancers talking excitedly as their colleagues are put through their paces.

But in a departure from the classical Western form, they are not rehearsing to the bold strings of Tchaikovsky or Prokofiev. Instead the stereo emits the haunting strains of an erhu, guqin, pipa and dizi, classical Chinese instruments.

While the dance is decidedly Western, choreographer Stephen Jeffries has created in the ballet's latest production, The Legend of the Great Archer, a performance that is grounded in Chinese lore.

"It's a story that every Chinese schoolchild knows, it's one of the great historical tales," said Jeffries during a break in rehearsals at Hong Kong's Cultural Centre.

"And it's perfect for touring in China."

When Royal Ballet-trained former balletist Jeffries came here as artistic director eight years ago, his aim was to improve the troupe's reputation overseas.

To do that, he figured, he needed to tour. To make that a viable proposition, he had to broaden the repertoire to include original works. And, importantly, they needed to incorporate elements of Hong Kong's Chinese heritage.

"A medium-sized company like ours will struggle taking the likes of the Nutcracker overseas. So it seemed to me the obvious thing was to make productions that incorporated the things that make Hong Kong unique: Chinese themes.

"It goes without saying that audiences in Paris are not going to go and see us play Swan Lake, but they will when we do a Chinese-themed production."

So he put together such Chinese-themed productions as Mulan and The Last Emperor. Later this year he'll begin work on his next Sino-ballet: a dance interpretation of "The World of Suzy Wong", the famed story of love in old Hong Kong.

His policy has endeared the troupe not only to audiences in other parts of the world, but also to those much closer to home.

"Many people will tell you that you can't have a decent company unless it has been seasoned in the classics," he says. "But we had this huge touring hinterland of China on our doorstep, and to tour that we really needed to give audiences something they could recognise."

The Hong Kong Ballet has gone from a small-time concern that was performing just 30 shows a year when Jeffries took over in 1997 to one that he believes is "on the cusp of the big time".

In this its silver anniversary year the company has more than 100 shows booked at home, Europe, China and the US.

Its rising fortunes have been noticed in the highbrow ballet press. Jeffries himself was named among the top artistic directors by Dance Europe magazine, and the hugely respected ballet critic Clement Crisp gave the company's Christmas production of the Nutcracker four stars out of five.

Jeffries, who in 30 years of dancing was paired with the legendary Margot Fonteyn and made Senior Principal dancer with the Royal, is delighted with his company's growing reputation.

"We have really been helped by the easing of restrictions on hiring dancers from China," he says. "It used to be such a chore, but now things are much easier.

"There is incredible potential in China, some wonderful talent, and it will only be a matter of time before it produces its own Fonteyn."

In the meantime, his own dancers, almost half of them from China and most of the rest Hong Kong Chinese, are putting the final touches to "...Archer".

The performance is described as "sexy" and "spicy" and goes on tour in the US after a short run at home this weekend.

The production is complemented by multimedia visual effects, including a two-minute film and laser lights.

Led by principals Faye Leung, Liang Jing, Nobuo Fujino and Ayako Fujioka, the company begins its first practice to a recording of the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra's interpretation of the score, but there are still a few loose ends.

Some of the moves practiced to piano and synthesiser are difficult to mould around the arched and often jarring sounds of the Chinese instruments.

Commissioned for the show from Kuan Nai-chung, a former musical director of the Chinese Orchestra, the score underpins Jeffries' vision of an east-meets-west production.

Thus, the slight mismatch is something he says the company is well-equipped to cope with.

"This is Western classical dance put to Chinese music and through it we have created a whole new language of dance. But it is a language that the dancers have developed as much as me. They adapt intuitively."

Jeffries says the only problem the company had with the adaptation came with thinking up an end to the production.

"Like many old stories that are handed down over the centuries, nobody can agree on how "... Archer" ends. So we have taken the story and rewritten it a lot, and concentrated on the characters and the themes of love, jealousy and betrayal."

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