Classical reinvention

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 January, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 31 January, 2010, 12:00am

The tunes from Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's famous ballet The Nutcracker are usually a sign that Christmas is on its way. But this week, the pieces form the backdrop to the most important Chinese festival, in Hong Kong Ballet's Firecracker.

The troupe's spin on the famous show reinvents the characters by transplanting them into a new setting - 1960s Hong Kong - and moving the timing to Lunar New Year. It promises to take the audience on a tour of the city's past using a mix of modern dance and ballet moves that conjure up people and events from history.

The show is the brainchild of Hong Kong choreographer Yuri Ng. He came up with the idea for a ballet to mark the festival when he was a dancer in the 1980s. A member of a ballet company overseas, he'd often perform the perennial Christmas show away from his family.

'I had performed the classical Nutcracker outside Hong Kong many times,' Ng says. 'I thought: 'Why I don't do something new?' The Nutcracker is a popular show in the West over Christmas. I thought we might actually have an equivalent for a major Chinese festival.'

In Ng's Firecracker, the spotlight shifts from Clara, the lead role in the original, to the elderly uncle who buys her the nutcracker. He travels to his past, encountering events and people that form his memories.

The dancers combine modern dance elements with classical ballet in their portrayals of the movie stars from black and white films, visiting royalty and participants in parades that marked 1960s Hong Kong.

Ng says the project presented many challenges, from coming up with moves suited both his storyline and Tchaikovsky's classic music, to finding time-appropriate set pieces.

'There are many minutiae in the gestures of people from the period,' Ng says. 'And to conjure up the ambience, we needed lots of old items as props, which are not easy to find. We've just found a wire fruit basket which was popular at that time. We spent a lot of time searching for one.'

The show's title not only conjures up images of the Lunar New Year, but also alludes to the city's ban on firecrackers following the 1967 riots. Ng says he wanted to learn more the events that happened when he was three.

'I only have vague recollections of what happened back then,' he says. 'My mother told me there were homemade bombs everywhere during the riots. I'm still curious about the era.'

Firecrackers were traditionally used to see in the Lunar New Year. The ban came after pro-China mobs placed bombs throughout the streets of the city in protest of the then British colonial rule, injuring many.

Ng says he wanted to deal with a serious theme, but incorporated stars and images from yesteryear to attract audience members.

'The audience will find the 'oldies' interesting if they lived in that era. But the core questions of the show are about how people come to terms with the passage of time,' he says.

Ng hopes the audience will be inspired to think about the meaning and importance of memories. 'Traditionally, Hong Kong people spend time with their families during Lunar New Year,' Ng says.

'The main character, a lonely old man, cannot be with his family, so he thinks about his past - and his own existence.'

Firecracker is showing at the Cultural Centre, from February 5 to 7. Tickets available from Urbtix on 2734 9009.