The Ballet's strange new direction

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 May, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 May, 1993, 12:00am

TAKING to the stage at the Academy for Performing Arts (APA) next month are the dancers of the Hongkong Ballet in a work called The Strangers. And that, folks, is spelled I.R.O.N.Y.

Coming in the wake of the Great Purge, where 11 contracted dancers were either fired or chose not to renew their contracts, and in which artistic director Bruce Steivel announced the recruitment of seven APA graduates and six overseas talents, The Strangers smacks of too-good-to-be-true coincidence.

Consider the synopsis: The Strangers is an abstract commentary on Hongkong. Through three acts, a loose story unfolds where a dance rehearsal is influenced by outside forces. In one segment, mysterious, sunglassed individuals carrying suitcases interruptthe flow of the rehearsal.

''It's a little like living in Hongkong,'' said choreographer Helen Lai. ''All the changes that are happening: different people coming into one's space, exerting their own particular dominance. And these strangers appear to be threatening because they represent an unknown.'' Incredibly, Lai made those comments long before the changes took place. Even before the purge, Lai's involvement with the ballet raised eyebrows.

Although she is an experienced, award-winning choreographer, Lai is of the experimental persuasion - hardly the kind of artist associated with the conventions of ballet.

Steival said: ''The idea came to me that we should try to do something that had a Hongkong identity. It was a way of getting to see what Hongkong had to offer.

''And while it's difficult to find someone who can combine a modern approach with ballet, I've always admired Helen's work. She brings the two worlds together well and, unlike many modern choreographers, she has an entertaining style.'' Although Lai does have ballet in her background, most of her work has been with the City Contemporary Dance Company, most notably as artistic director from 1985 to 1989. It's no wonder The Strangers' concept is similar to the themes the dance company likes to explore.

Lai also has the luxury of music specifically composed for the performance. At her urging, Steivel commissioned a score from Chan Wing-wah, a professor of music at the Chinese University.

Chan has already composed four symphonies and various orchestral and chamber pieces - compositions performed by the likes of the Kronos Quartet in the United States and the Fires of London.

The Strangers will be the first of a long line of fresh, indigenous presentations from the ballet - a concept Steivel hopes will have a rejuvenating effect.

''I would hope to do something like this at least once a year,'' he said.

''The new ideas, the new concepts, are good for my dancers. Ballet dancers are more staid, more formal, and this allows them to broaden their perspective towards dance.

''We will continue to present classics like The Nutcracker or Cinderella. That's the financial backbone of the Hongkong Ballet. But I hope we will be able to do things like this as well.'' The Strangers is part of the Hongkong Ballet's Galaxy Programme, a collection of various performances at the APA from June 4 to 6.