Dance to the North Pole
Australian choreographer Paul Boyd was just four when he began his love affair with ballet. 'I was a little boy and all I ever did was dance,' he recalls.
Fast-forward 46 years. Boyd is still twirling around on his feet. This time he's choreographing around 70 youngsters in Hong Kong in his latest production, a Christmas-themed ballet based on the popular 2004 film The Polar Express.
Hailing from the Australian outback town of Wagga Wagga, Boyd came to Hong Kong last April to supervise an audition of children for the local production of a show that was first performed in Sydney. Dancers were judged not only on their technical skill and physical prowess but also on their ability to act naturally on stage.
Rehearsals only started around four weeks ago. It has been no easy task for Boyd and his three groups of performers, who range from six years old to Academy for Performing Arts students.
Professionals formerly with the Hong Kong Ballet also participate in the show, put together by The Hong Kong Ballet Group. Yet despite the presence of adults, it's still largely a children's show. 'You see the difference between the children, the almost-professionals and the professionals,' he says.
The show's lead dancer is Brian Yam Wing-nam, who is just 12. His intensive practice schedule has left little time for other extra-curricular activities, he says. 'I only have time to do homework after 2pm, when the rehearsal ends,' he says.
Yet he relishes his role in the production.
Brian's graceful and elegant movements testify to nearly a decade of hard work. He started ballet at the age of three, when he was inspired by watching dance videos. He's only one of two boys in his school's ballet programme.
During a practice session, Boyd needs to work hard at times to make a gaggle of the younger dancer pay attention to instructions.
It illustrates one of the problems he faces while working with children. 'Children don't have the concentration of adults,' he says. 'You have to let them know nicely, but firmly, what you expect from them.'
Yet he concedes that all the performers he's worked with in Hong Kong are very polite. He has yet to spot any of them exhibiting a bad attitude. Perhaps that's because this particular ballet was created for children, with children in the actual roles, he says. 'They're not adults trying to be children, or children trying to be adults - it's actually letting them be who they are,' Boyd explains.
Boyd thinks The Polar Express is the best ballet production he's ever done that features children. He insists that there is still a lot of untapped potential in the world of ballet.
'Swan Lake, Giselle, Sleeping Beauty - they're fantastic,' says Boyd. 'But there is so much more wonderful literature out there [that could be made into ballet].'
He cites The Polar Express as an example of this. A challenge in such productions is that music often needs to be composed from scratch, as opposed to established ballets by great composers.
To turn the animated movie, originally starring Tom Hanks, into a ballet, Boyd says he also had to 'balletise' the film. That means the plot needed to be changed. What has not changed is the magic of the story.
Local audiences can see that for themselves when the production opens this week.
The Polar Express will be staged at the Kwai Tsing Theatre Auditorium from August 23-24