Playing it by ear
There's no false modesty when Stephen Baynes says he has no idea how many works he's created for ballet companies over the past two decades, from the major centres in his native Australia, to Milan and New York.
'I'm sorry, I really don't know how many new works I've done, but it's quite a few now,' says the resident choreographer of the Australian Ballet since 1995.
The softly spoken, self-effacing 51-year old is in town for his latest premiere - the 19th, just for the record - which is part of the Hong Kong Ballet (HKB) production All Tchaikovsky, to be staged in Sha Tin Town Hall later this month.
His piece The Way Alone is among five works set to the Russian composer's music; the others are Grand Pas de Deux from The Sleeping Beauty by Marius Petipa, Theme and Variations and Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux by George Balanchine and Pas de Quatre from Swan Lake Act I by HKB artistic director John Meehan.
Meehan, who made the commission, knew Baynes at The Australian Ballet in the 1970s and applauds his work as 'very fine, really beautiful and an extension of the Stephen I knew as a person'.
A new work wasn't Meehan's intention. He had his eye on Constant Variants, a work Baynes created for The Australian Ballet last year, also to Tchaikovsky's music. But when the preferred live accompaniment wasn't feasible, the company chose The Way Alone, which is tailored to recorded music.
If that differentiation between live and recorded sound seems pernickety, it makes sense when you appreciate Baynes' intense musical sensitivity. For the new piece, the choreographer says it has been challenging to fill the six scenes with 25 minutes of previously unused extracts of Tchaikovsky's music.
Baynes finally settled on rarely heard choral music, songs transcribed for cello and orchestra, and piano music from The Seasons and the Piano Concerto No1.
'It sounds a very odd combination but it's an organic compilation that I can hook on to,' he says. 'It's going to be a fairly lyrical piece but I'm trying to give it some dramatic intensity. I wanted to do something with a bit of edge to it, not too wafty.'
The work carries a bleak mood without being overtly narrative. 'In the end, you're on your own. That's what the title alludes to. However much you struggle through your life and you've got community, friends, whatever - ultimately the struggle is on your own.'
While Baynes' ear for music and sensitivity to mood found fulfilment in piano and drama classes, the urge to dance was just one step too far for parental blessing. 'Dad just said 'no',' says Baynes. 'His excuse was that I was doing too much already, but I think it was more for stereotypical reasons.'
Fortunately, travel broadened the mind. 'My mother had died when I was about 11, and my father took my brother and me on a wonderful trip overseas at the age of 13 or 14, which included Russia. I dragged him to ballet performances at the Bolshoi and the Kirov, and I think it changed his mind.
'He saw what a perfectly acceptable profession it was for the Russians and how they appreciated their artists. He could also see that it wasn't just a phase in me and that I was really committed. So, when we returned to Adelaide, he said: 'All right, go ahead.''
Starting ballet as a 15-year old was quite late, but Baynes was fortunate to be accepted as a student by Joanna Priest, a rare teacher who insisted on wide horizons for her pupils, including art and French lessons. 'Not many teachers in ballet schools had that breadth of artistic development,' says Baynes. 'In a way, she was almost more interested in the other stuff: we had to do drama and music classes, and go to the theatre and concerts.'
From Priest's school, Baynes was accepted into the Australian Ballet in 1976, where he stayed for five years, soaking in the talents of the company's principal artists of the day: 'Margot Fonteyn and Nureyev were also guest dancers with us quite a lot at that time and we did some wonderful tours with them.'
From 1981 to 84, Baynes performed with the Stuttgart Ballet, coming under the influence of a number of eminent choreographers.
'They still had all the dancers on whom [John] Cranko had developed his repertoire; Bill Forsythe was with the company at that time, before his move to the Frankfurt Ballet; and they also produced John Neumeier. Being in that cradle of creativity was a very formative few years, not that even then I saw myself turning to choreography.'
On rejoining the Australian Ballet after a year out in 1985, however, things changed. 'Straight away, I started creating. It was a matter of confidence - and maybe realising that I was pushing the wrong barrel with the dancing,' he quips. 'When I started choreographing, I found it just as fulfilling.'
Having spent five days rehearsing with the HKB, he's encouraged by what he's achieved already with his 14 dancers. 'What we've been doing so far is very difficult in partnering. We can spend an hour on producing 10 seconds of movement because the manipulating of a partner will be very, very hard. I'm asking them to do quite difficult things.'
The dancers have responded with challenging ideas of their own. 'What you notice here in Hong Kong is that there's a nice, relaxed atmosphere,' says Baynes. 'Sometimes you find a slight negativity in companies that are overworked - they perform so much that they get jaded. Here, the dancers don't seem tired in that way, so the studio is very productive.'
Asked if this upcoming programme of all classical and near-classical ballet is an indication of the HKB's artistic direction, Meehan's reply is more site-specific. 'We've found that in Sha Tin this type of programme is more appropriate for the local audience. There are many children who go to the shows out there, probably more so than at the Cultural Centre,' he says.
But will The Way Alone hold their interest against the tried and tested programmes?
'Stephen seems to be bringing out the best in the dancers, challenging both the men and the women with partnering skills,' says Meehan. 'It's exactly what I hoped it would be: very high quality, challenging in a subtle way and demanding a great deal of finesse. It should be riveting in the theatre.'
All Tchaikovsky, Sha Tin Town Hall, Mar 28 and 29, 8pm; Mar 29 and 30, 3pm. Tickets from HK$100 to HK$280. Inquiries: 2105 9724