One thing that artistic director Septime Webre has learnt from a series of less-than-ideal scenarios during the pandemic, including the cancellation of his new Hong Kong-inspired staging of Romeo and Juliet last summer and The Orpheus Cabaret’s online-only premiere in March, is the resilience of the Hong Kong Ballet through repeated challenges. Undeterred by lingering uncertainty, the company returns to the stage this month with the Hong Kong debut of Jewels, performed as a part of the city-wide festival of arts and culture, Le French May.
Rather than taking his ballet’s return to the stage gently, Webre is aiming high. The notoriously complex and demanding Jewels was inspired by original choreographer George Balanchine’s visit to Van Cleef & Arpels on New York’s Fifth Avenue in 1966. The “father of American ballet”, who co-founded the New York City Ballet, created the performance, which comprises three acts: Emeralds evokes the French romantic style, Rubies celebrates American exuberance and Diamonds presents Imperial Russia’s grandeur, mirroring Balanchine’s own journey.
“Jewels is a mash-up that celebrates the international ballet traditions from France, England and Russia,” says Webre. “Balanchine came of age artistically in St Petersburg, choreographed for ballet groups all over Europe, and emigrated to New York.” Since its premiere in 1967, Jewels remains “one of the toughest ballets that only the biggest ballet companies in the world are given permission to tackle”, Webre says.
The Hong Kong Ballet has performed the Rubies act of Jewels twice, in 2008 and 2011. For the full show, two advisers from the George Balanchine Trust travelled to Hong Kong from New York this spring to advise on how to follow the choreography that Balanchine set out decades ago. Webre and his team will have a little room to add their own flair, however.
“My intention with Jewels is to have Hong Kong Ballet’s unique face reflected,” Webre says. “We’re a fusion but also Asian company. Our dancers are fine technicians, but they haven’t done a lot of Balanchine. What Balanchine did was turn up the volume and speed of classical ballet. Over the last three years, I’ve been focusing on the dancers’ speed, attack and musicality. Our dancers’ technique is at the highest level. There’s also a youthful energy and buoyancy. This will be reflected on stage.”
He also hopes that after a year spent cooped up at home, practising mainly on two-metre-square portable dance floors, the dancers will explode with pent-up energy on stage.
The team is joined by the Dutch National Ballet’s former principal dancer Daniel Camargo, who will dance the lead male roles in both Diamonds and Emeralds. The costumes, which are inspired by the colours of gemstones, are made according to the original designs by Barbara Karinska, New York City Ballet costumer and long-time Balanchine collaborator.
“Jewels addresses what the role of classical ballet is in the contemporary world,” Webre says. “Its presence in the repertoire signifies Hong Kong Ballet’s artistic growth.”
Jewels will be performed from May 21 to 23 at Lyric Theatre at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts. Visit hkballet.com for more information