Cover Photo: Courtesy of the Hong Kong Ballet

Don't miss the world premiere of the Hong Kong Ballet's brand new Christmas production, 'The Nutcracker' inspired by early 20th-century Hong Kong, from December 11 to 26, 2021.

When Hong Kong Ballet’s artistic director Septime Webre first arrived in Hong Kong in 2017, he was fascinated by the cityscape. But rather than the skyscrapers lining the harbour, the building that made the greatest impression on him was near his new Mid-Levels home: Kom Tong Hall, which now houses the Dr Sun Yat-sen Museum. “Every day I walked by the beautifully restored mansion built in 1914 by the younger brother of Sir Robert Hotung, one of the founding fathers of Hong Kong,” he says. “Inside, there is a very grand white and gold ballroom, and these giant windows that [used to] overlook Victoria Harbour. Now the views are of buildings. Just walking by and wandering through the building makes me wonder what life was like in early 20th-century Hong Kong.”

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That curiosity planted the seed for Webre’s reimagining of The Nutcracker in a setting closer to his current home. “The Nutcracker production we had been dancing by Terence Kohler is now nine years old. Upon coming to Hong Kong, I knew that we would need a new one,” Webre says. “The Nutcracker is the most important ballet in repertoire that we dance every year.”

But with his reputation for creating innovative versions of classic repertoires, he doesn’t believe the most traditional interpretation needs to be danced everywhere in the world, every year; the show can be customised. “I love Hong Kong so much. I’m inspired by its natural beauty and rich culture and history,” Webre says. “The early 20th century was a period when Hong Kong just started to become a cosmopolitan city but was still old enough to look like a very traditional Christmas. It would be a really beautiful combination as Kom Tong Hall was the perfect location for it, and Hong Kong has a beautiful setting for it.”

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Webre has retained the classical steps and the story of Clara and her nutcracker doll, who comes to life on Christmas Eve and defeats the evil Mouse King. But the setting has shifted from 19th-century Europe to 20th-century Hong Kong. To build this wonderland from scratch, Webre invited award-winning set and costume designer Gabriela Tylesova, known for her lavish, couture-inspired designs such as her work for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 2011 musical Love Never Dies, to take on the ambitious project.

The Hong Kong production features some instantly recognisable Hong Kong imagery: as well as Kom Tong Hall, there are six metre-tall bun towers inspired by the Cheung Chau Bun Festival; a five-metre-tall clock tower; a bamboo forest, which replaces the Kingdom of Snow; an origami boat made of an old Chinese newspaper that takes Clara to the forest; and an enchanted garden set next to Victoria Harbour. For the first time in Webre’s tenure, the ballet company is collaborating with the Hong Kong Museum of Art, which will showcase 15 paintings from its permanent collection onstage.

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Albert Au, Hong Kong Ballet’s associate set and costume designer, is in charge of bringing Tylesova’s set designs to life. “There are a lot of historic buildings which have been demolished now,” he says. “Activities like yum cha and the Bun Festival, lion dances and erecting bamboo scaffolding are a part of our daily lives, and it was a great joy to work with talents like Septime and Gabriela on finetuning the details to bring out their artistic vision, such as by advising them on how bamboo scaffolding is made.”

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Joanne Chong, the company’s director of wardrobe for the past eight years, says that this production of The Nutcracker is one of the biggest projects she has worked on. “The previous classic Christmas productions had around 180 costumes, but this time we have 240 in total. Each piece was sewn by hand, including the 30 butterflies sewn on to each of the Butterfly dancer’s tutus. Septime was annoyingly demanding,” Chong says with a laugh. “He rejected the designs many times because he wasn’t pleased with some tiny details.”

Many of the outfits are inspired by Hong Kong’s natural elements: butterflies, a wild boar, yellow-crested cockatoos, tigers, which were common until the 1960s, white cranes and Chinese peonies, which are common motifs in Chinese ink paintings, and Bauhinia flowers, the Hong Kong emblem. Webre has a special fondness for the peacock costumes, which will replace the Spanish dolls of the original, and their long blue and green tails that flap when the dancer leaps. The majestic bird with the iridescent plumage, an imported species, made an impression on him when he visited the Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens on the day he landed in Hong Kong.

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The team has also incorporated Chinese cultural elements into the costumes. Chong changed Clara’s iconic nightgown into a high-necked qipao, while the Nutcracker’s familiar red uniform is re-envisioned in light blue with an embroidered Chinese vase pattern. Meanwhile, Mother Ginger from the original will be reimagined as Mother Dim Sum, “a Chinese woman wearing a giant dim sum basket as her skirt, which is about two and a half metres high and five or six metres wide. The dim sum basket flips open and dancing dim sum clowns slide out on two-and-a-half-metre-high Chinese spoons,” Webre says with a beam as he recalls how he came up with ideas for the design over his favourite black sesame rolls and xiao long bao with Tylesova back in May 2019.

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Webre hopes this new version, which opens on December 11, will become a Hong Kong classic. “This is a spectacular and entertaining ballet, but also encoded into the production are our collective history and culture,” he says. “I want grandparents to bring their grandchild every year. I want it to feel like a holiday tradition here.” With a bit of Sugar Plum Fairy magic, there’s no doubt his Christmas wish will be granted.

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