WHEN IT COMES to the Hong Kong Ballet, anyone who knows anything about dancing seems to have an opinion. Some trash its repertoire as poor, its artistic direction as too conservative or uninspiring, and its techniques, at best, mediocre. Others hail the company for its originality and creativity, vision and world-class dancers. I once held quite a critical view of the company. Not that I'm in the position to comment on its recent works or techniques since the last time I saw it perform was so long ago, my memory of the show is but a distant blur. But what really got me was its unimaginative annual Christmas offering, which has been, year after year, The Nutcracker. Next week, the Hong Kong Ballet will announce its 2005/06 season line-up. It will be artistic director Stephen Jefferies' last with the company after a decade-long tenure. Will this season signify an end or a beginning of an era? December: The Nutcracker. No big surprise there. But for the rest of the line-up, even its sternest critics would agree the Hong Kong Ballet has come a long way since it was established a quarter of a century ago. Of the eight full-length productions, five are original works: The Emperor and the Nightingale (choreography by Domy Reiter-Soffer), Turandot (Natalie Weir), The Last Emperor (Wayne Eagling), Madama Butterfly (Weir), and the tentatively titled Suzie Wong (Jefferies). The last two are new works. Spartacus, to be staged on March 25-27, is also a new piece, with choreography by Irek Mukhamedov, who danced in the original with the Bolshoi Ballet. Of the two classical pieces, Giselle and The Nutcracker, the latter, a real crowd-pleaser and money-spinner, is regarded as 'almost original', given the spin Jefferies has put on the production. Indeed, under Jefferies' artistic direction, the ballet's repertoire now boasts nine original full-length pieces, of which six have new, commissioned scores. What's more, the former senior principal with the Royal Ballet has helped raise the company's profile, taking it to Europe, North America and the mainland with its own works. Between August and September, the company will go on the road in Spain with Turandot and The Last Emperor. Chief executive Helen Ng Han-bing says the tour will be less taxing than previous ones because the company now has room to bargain for better conditions. In 2000, the company made its European debut with The Emperor and the Nightingale. The next year it went on a gruelling tour, first with Romeo and Juliet to seven mainland cities, including Beijing and Wuhan, before performing The Last Emperor in 24 US cities. 'I really admire Stephen, who puts up with the most adverse conditions in order to bring our works to the mainland,' says Ng, who has been with the company for eight years. 'That determination and dedication is really hard to come by. We can be more selective now. In Spain, the touring conditions will be a lot better.' Getting the Hong Kong Ballet seen, heard and known abroad has been one of Jefferies' biggest contributions. The others involve turning what he describes as 'a very poorly run and shoddy company' into a professional one. The many problems and resistance he faced when he arrived have been well documented: the lack of talent, discipline, original works and space. Jefferies - who is known as 'the mad gweilo' - managed to turn most of that around. The company, which receives an annual grant from the Hong Kong Arts Development Council, now has 38 dancers: 10 from Japan, eight from the mainland, six from Hong Kong and the rest from Korea, the Philippines, Malaysia, Australia and the Americas. Jefferies, 53, says his 'dream team' is now in place. Principal dancers Faye Leung and Nobuo Fujino were guests at Miami Hispanic Ballet's IX International Ballet Festival of Miami last year. Next month, they'll dance at the Benois de La Danse Competition in Moscow and, in August, Leung and Zhang Yao will dance at Vail Festival in Colorado. Jefferies has always been on the lookout for opportunities for his dancers. 'Now, they can stand on their feet,' Jefferies says. 'These dancers have developed over the years. From the North American tour [last year], we are recognised as international players. For me, that's a great place to be. The company is now very confident and technically competent.' Jefferies' biggest disappointment has been the lack of a permanent home. 'We haven't got enough space. I don't blame the Chinese for this. I blame the British. They brought the bureaucracy to Hong Kong.' There was so much misunderstanding and miscommunication between the company and the authorities that it was a miracle it got anything done at the end of the day. 'I would have liked to establish a school for the Hong Kong Ballet but we don't have our own premises,' Jefferies says. If nothing comes to fruition from the West Kowloon project, the ballet will continue to be a 'gypsy company', he says. Still, by the time Jefferies departs next year, the company will be ready to move to another level. 'I've exceeded my own expectations,' he says. 'Four years ago, the ship was up and running. All it needed was good productions, dancers and staff.' Ng says the search for a new artistic director has already begun, with advertisements in major international dance magazines last month. Yuri Ng Yue-lit, artistic director of the Hong Kong Ballet Group, says Jefferies has given the company an identity through its unique repertoire. He says the standards are much improved. 'Where the company will go from here will depend on the successor's vision,' says Ng, who choreographed the original piece In the School of the Dolls for the company. 'Having a good vision and marketing strategy is very important. 'I see the new beginning being positive, and congratulations to Stephen Jefferies for doing what he did.' Graeme Collins, head of ballet at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (APA) school of dance, says the company 'has gotten better', although he'd like to see it do more triple-bill programmes. 'They don't sell very well, but that does give dancers a challenge.' A challenging repertoire would attract more quality dancers to the company, he says. Collins, who sits on the artistic advisory committee of the Hong Kong Ballet and has collaborated with the company, also hopes the APA and the company will work together more to develop local dance. 'I don't see why Hong Kong Ballet can't be a leading company in the region and a world-class company,' Collins says. 'It has good teachers. Yes, the repertoire could be more challenging at times, but I know dancers who want to come. Hong Kong Ballet is an option.' But it will be a while before it joins the ranks of the Kirov, Bolshoi and Royal Ballet. 'I think it's a long shot because Hong Kong will always be Hong Kong,' Jefferies says. 'Unless the city changes, Hong Kong will always have the stigma of being a outpost.'