Duo behind Asian Grand Prix hope to lift ballet to new heights

An international ballet showdown aims to give the artform a leg up in the city

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 August, 2013, 9:25am

The ballet school that So Hon-wah runs is in a grim industrial building just a short walk from Fortress Hill. The venue is strictly functional, no-frills. Visitors arrive via a service lift.

Once inside, the former Hong Kong Ballet dancer gently shoos his two children Hiroki, four, and Reina, two, out of a cluttered, windowless meeting room to make space amid the casually discarded bags, stacks of paperwork and a mini-bar stocked with energy drinks.

Many very famous ballet competitions in the world suffer [when they start]
so hon-wah, former hk ballet dancer

This, it turns out, is the nerve centre of operations behind this week's Asian Grand Prix International Ballet Competition, the city's only international ballet contest.

This year's competition has attracted more than 200 entries from as far afield as Australia and Russia. That's more than double the 80 hopefuls that lined up for 2011's inaugural event.

There's some buzz around the news that one of the entrants is a rising star at Moscow's legendary Bolshoi Ballet. The annual competition is all about creating opportunities to enable ballet to thrive in Hong Kong, says So, who broke barriers when he became the Hong Kong Ballet's first locally trained male principal dancer.

Everyone knows the story about the plucky ballet prodigy who overcomes prejudice and disadvantage to chase a dream to become a professional dancer, as portrayed in the British hit Billy Elliot (2000).

The ballet world is full of youngsters who can relate to that experience: students who may have quit, if not for the encouragement of a sympathetic teacher; the financial lifeline of a scholarship; or opportunities to showcase one's talent to a wider audience.

In So's case, it was a teacher who waived his fees while other benefactors helped him find sponsorships and got him much-needed exposure at international competitions.

"I was lucky because people helped me set up everything," he says. "I didn't realise that what I went through actually cost a lot of money."

"Opportunity is important if you want to be a good dancer," says Irene Lo Hiu-yan, a faculty member of the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts and former Hong Kong Ballet dancer who is helping organise this year's competition.

Lo recently returned from a 10-day trip to Cape Town where she had been invited to teach teenagers hoping to join a professional ballet company. Some of her students came from a township settlement, a legacy of South Africa's racially segregated past, where many of the country's poorest still live.

"They were all very eager to learn," she says, having found inspiration in the determination shown by students and teachers despite a lack of money and other resources.

While youngsters in Hong Kong may have access to more opportunities than dancers in other parts of the world, those hoping to go professional still face an uphill struggle.

A talented dancer here has to compete with rivals who are likely to have started intensive training much earlier. For example, the academy only takes high school graduates, whereas the Royal Ballet School in Britain accepts students from the age of 11.

This may help explain why only four out of the 44 dancers currently in the Hong Kong Ballet are actually from Hong Kong and why not a single one is a principal dancer or soloist.

This is where competitions such as the Asian Grand Prix come in, according to the organisers. An internationally recognised contest is an important part of the support infrastructure needed to foster ballet's development here.

Once again, it's all about creating opportunities.

The dancers benefit from a high-profile competition. A win could secure a coveted place at a ballet company or strengthen a dancer's case for promotion within a company, So says.

Hopefuls from around the world can learn from each other and use the opportunity to network. Although winning is fantastic, the chance to compete against someone who is better can still be inspirational.

"We need something that is magnificent," So says.

Meanwhile, teachers in Hong Kong can gain from the success of their students on an international stage, and the requirements of putting on a six-day event create work for people in a number of support roles. But setting up the competition is not without its challenges.

It's often a battle to win the trust of potential sponsors and competitors, says So.

There are misgivings that his students may get an unfair advantage (there's an international panel of judges), that the event won't be around for long (it's in its third year), that the competition isn't as prestigious as those held overseas (although grand prix entries have more than doubled from the first year).

For the first 10 years, "many very famous ballet competitions in the world suffer", says So, who undertook many hours of research before establishing the competition. Success doesn't happen overnight.

Ballet is one of those things that tend to inspire extreme reactions. It is criticised as being elitist and irrelevant, especially in times of austerity. After all, why should taxpayers subsidise something that's seen as being for the rich? (The government subsidises the Hong Kong Ballet, pouring in HK$35.4 million this year alone.)

In Hong Kong, this scepticism can often take on an additional dimension.

So recounts some of the responses he gets when he lobbies for support: "Ballet is a Western art. [Just] bring in the ballet companies from other countries" or "Hong Kong doesn't need [ballet]; it needs Chinese dance only".

Experiences such as these have convinced him that the future of ballet in Hong Kong lies in being financially self-sufficient.

While government funding for the arts is available, the application process is complicated and the available money is spread too thin, he says. The Asian Grand Prix International Ballet Competition is financed solely by entry fees (from competitors) and product sponsorships.

Self-sufficiency means creating new financial resources that can be ploughed back into ballet; building closer ties with sympathetic firms with a view to corporate sponsorships; and establishing relationships with ballet schools overseas to set up exchanges and scholarships, according to So.

The process of becoming a world-class ballet dancer is notoriously tough. There's years of training and conditioning before dancers can acquire the necessary strength, flexibility, precision and endurance. There are the restrictive diets to control body weight. There is the mental strength needed to conquer the niggling self-doubt and forge a path in a highly competitive environment.

The ones who make it are those who resist the temptation to skip a class when the accumulated pain and fatigue gets too much, Lo says.

"They need courage," says So, "to have the courage to believe."

So may need to follow his own advice if he's to achieve his dream for ballet in Hong Kong.