Hong Kong Ballet Group continues to inspire

Fifty years after it was formed, the group is still helping its young performers soar

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 August, 2014, 6:25pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 August, 2014, 5:07pm

What's in a name? Quite a lot if you're the Hong Kong Ballet Group. Even after half a century, "people are always confusing us with Hong Kong Ballet", the group's chairwoman, Helen Tseng Wu, says ruefully.

To set matters straight, the Hong Kong Ballet, the city's only professional ballet company, started 35 years ago as an offshoot of the work done by the non-profit ballet group, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

The group was created by ballet teachers "to enable students from different ballet schools to perform together, which otherwise they had no chance to do", says founding member and former chairwoman Joan Campbell, who's been teaching dance in the city since 1956.

This continues to be one of its prime functions; its production of The Sleeping Princess - to be staged at Kwai Tsing Theatre on August 29 and 30 - brings together more than 180 participants from 32 schools.

Independent dancer-choreographer Yuri Ng Yue-lit and musician-dancer Stephen Xavier, both alumni, have returned to stage the work. They have served as artistic directors of the group and have maintained a close connection with it through the years.

It's striking how much loyalty the group inspires in its alumni; Wu and other board members danced in its productions as youngsters, as did Renée Tsang, who recently returned as administrator. Tsang says it was thanks to the group that she discovered the arts and found her career path.

"Even though I'm not a dancer myself, I can still be part of dance."

Among former members appearing in The Sleeping Princess are Natalie Chung (formerly of the Guangzhou Ballet) in the title role and Cliff Lui, the group's first-ever scholarship recipient in 1976, as the wicked fairy Carabosse.

In an original twist, the first half of The Sleeping Princess will be staged as a rehearsal, accompanied by a pianist and complete with corrections from teachers and répétiteurs. The second half will be the finished performance. The idea is to make the audience understand how much blood, sweat and tears goes into putting on a ballet, and how demanding it is for the dancers.

Ng - who received the group's Heinz Bosl scholarship to spend a year at the Royal Ballet School in London when he was 16 - feels that it will give students more confidence if they can practise on stage with an audience before they "perform".

Over the decades, the group has staged more than 40 productions (in its early years, these were the only full-length ballets staged locally), and given dozens of scholarships for study at prestigious schools overseas.

In 2001, it launched Hong Kong's first open ballet competition, the Young Ballet Stars Award.

These activities have given thousands of students aged from six or seven to their early 20s performing experience, and have helped to nurture many of the Hongkongers who now work professionally in ballet or dance.

A major turning point came in 1973 when the legendary Dame Margot Fonteyn agreed to be the group's patron. Called to meet with her, Campbell was stunned when Fonteyn picked up the phone, called Heinz Bosl, the male star partnering her on an international tour, and told him that they'd be stopping off to perform in Hong Kong.

When the great ballerina arrived at the Lee Theatre for the show, Campbell recalls how "the children had painted hearts all over the door". Tragically, Bosl died of leukaemia two years later and the group founded a scholarship in his name.

Fonteyn spent her childhood in China, including a spell in Hong Kong, and Campbell says that she felt a special connection with the region.

Above all, however, "she was a person who genuinely wanted to promote ballet. She was an angel".

Times have changed. The group started as a way to bring different schools together, yet nowadays some schools won't let their students participate.

While that's partly due to scheduling conflicts (since the summer holidays are the only time students can rehearse, each August is packed with events), the fear of losing students, the schools' bread and butter, to competitors is also a factor.

It's a shame, says Ng: "When we were kids we didn't think about who went to which school. We were just friends who spent the summer together."

He is frustrated that while ballet schools now proliferate they are treated purely as a business, and many teachers don't even attend dance performances.

"To teach dance or other arts, you can't just teach the syllabus," he says. Except for what he calls the "crème de la crème of certain schools", students don't get challenged enough. So the opportunities the group offers to perform or compete remain vital.

His aim is to create an environment where the students feel free to make mistakes, and also to ask questions, something many find hard. "We need to make them less shy, more determined," he says.

To illustrate the point, Ng recalls a performance of Napoli when, halfway through one number, the music stopped - but the nine to 13 year olds dancing carried on undeterred.

"I was so moved. They didn't give up. They kept going to the end."

Of course the group (and ballet in general) must also compete with the plethora of options today's children have available to them. In the old days, there was little chance to see ballet in Hong Kong. Now, there are many live performances plus a wealth of material on the internet, and Xavier is disappointed by the students' lack of curiosity.

"They don't even recognise the music of Swan Lake," he says. "I find that shocking." On the other hand, Ng reckons, "the fact that they're coming here instead of staying home" is a good sign.

Wu notes that Hong Kong students are quite passive: "They won't do anything unless their teachers push them."

Teachers are the key, and the group started workshops for teachers a year ago to prepare for The Sleeping Princess.

Providing more training and support for teachers is one of the group's aims. "We can't reach all the students," says Ng. "So we need to reach the teachers."

So what else does the group have in mind for its next 50 years?

"We did a lot of soul-searching about what we should do - what we can do," says Wu.

One project is creating an archive of the group's work and history, which mirrors the development of performing arts in Hong Kong. "So at least these things won't be lost," Wu says.

Part of the collection will be placed in the Central Library as a resource for scholars here and abroad, and Wu hopes the archive can serve as a prototype for other local arts groups.

The Young Ballet Stars Award will return next year, probably with a revamped format. Ng would also like to see the group produce more original, Hong Kong-themed work.

The most important thing, says Ng, is that young dancers benefit from the experience of working with the group, even if they don't pursue careers in dance.