A seasonal classic
Barry C Chung
For the 14th year in a row, in what has become something of a Christmas tradition, Hong Kong Ballet's classic show The Nutcracker is back.
You don't have to be a fan of the art form to enjoy The Nutcracker, says Madeleine Onne, the institution's artistic director. 'You don't need to understand ballet to enjoy our performance,' she says. 'You go to a ballet and you can just enjoy it.'
Onne knows a thing or two about ballet. She started dancing at age four in her native Sweden and was accepted to The Royal Swedish Ballet School when she was nine.
Onne remained at the ballet for three decades before she became artistic director of the Swedish Royal Opera House in Stockholm. She began working as artistic director for Hong Kong Ballet last year.
Throughout the years, The Nutcracker has always been close to her heart. 'I was in [Russian ballet legend] Rudolf Nureyev's version in Sweden in 1969,' she says.
'I was nine. We were children in the first act, then we played the role of rats. I can still remember having this huge [rubber] costume and we had to walk up eight flights of steps. I had a hard time moving around with those short legs,' she adds with a chuckle.
Productions of The Nutcracker have been popular for children all around the world. The fantasy aspect of the ballet and its Christmas theme provides an ideal world for children to explore.
It doesn't hurt, either, that children themselves play a role in the performance. 'We use kids every year,' Onne says. 'We had 250 to 300 kids audition for roles in Hong Kong. We chose three casts - altogether we have 60 kids.'
The story is based on Alexander Dumas's adaptation of a classic tale. The ballet is set to composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's score and was first performed at St Petersburg in December 1892.
In the story, a girl called Clara receives a nutcracker doll for Christmas. At night, a magical spell sweeps through her house and her dolls come to life, including the nutcracker.
Over the years, the myriad ballets that have performed the story have often reworked it on stage. While Hong Kong Ballet sticks to the original in many aspects, it has also added modern elements. 'Our version of The Nutcracker is [considered] classical ballet, but not entirely,' says the ballet's principal dancer Jin Yao, who plays the role of Clara as an adult. 'The choreography is a little contemporary at times with pas de deux, transitions, lifting and steps that are a little different from traditional classical ballet.'
This year marks Jin's sixth performance in The Nutcracker. Before she joined Hong Kong Ballet in 2004, she also danced in another version of the Christmas classic on the mainland, where she was born.
'When I was with the National Ballet, I did a Chinese version of The Nutcracker,' she says. 'It was a Chinese story that took place during Chinese New Year, but we used the same music. My character was based on Clara, but she had a Chinese name.'
It's precisely such crossover appeal that keeps the old classic so popular worldwide. Ballet is primarily a Western art form, Onne says. To make it appealing for local audiences, she adds, performances often have to be adjusted to cultural contexts.
'To broaden our audience, we need to find themes that will attract people who have never been to a ballet before,' she says.
'They can see a Western art form and see that it's applicable to Chinese culture. We can combine them together. I'm constantly trying to find that fusion in more things.'
The Nutcracker will be performed at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre from Dec 17-27. For more information, visit hkballet.com.