Cover Heidi Lee (Photo: The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts)

Heidi Lee has spent the last 26 years at the forefront of the performing arts industry working for major cultural and arts institutions in Hong Kong and China, including the Hong Kong Repertory Theatre, Hong Kong Dance Company and Hong Kong Cultural Centre. Now at the Hong Kong Ballet, Lee tells Tatler about her journey to success

Anyone who has been working in the same field for almost 30 years would be at risk of going through the motions and lacking in zest for their job. Not Heidi Lee, though. As the executive director of the Hong Kong Ballet, Lee has seen (and done) it all, yet comes to work every day with the same enthusiasm she had when she first started working in arts and culture in the mid-1990s.

Since joining the organisation in 2020, Lee has taken responsibility for the success of the Hong Kong Ballet, navigating the organisation through the trials and tribulations of the pandemic. She put together the first-ever TV screening of Hong Kong Ballet’s The Nutcracker on TVB Jade on boxing day; kickstarted the Hong Kong Ballet Workshop, a new, educational ballet programme; and launched Hong Kong Ballet @ Home, screening 90 entertaining, ballet-themed episodes, ranging from informative talk shows to online barre classes, ensuring ballet-lovers could still marvel at the extraordinary level of talent within the organisation during the height of the pandemic. With more than 1.5 million views, the project turned out to be one of Lee’s most successful endeavours.

Before joining the Hong Kong Ballet, Lee worked as the director of arts and cultural development for the Li Ka Shing Foundation in Guangdong province. Though Lee says the performing arts industry is largely male-dominated, she proved her prowess as a female leader and served as a conduit for cultural exchange between Hong Kong, Shantou and other countries. It was at this institution that she founded the STU Art Season, which she later transformed into the New Wave Arts Festival. The festival attracted 20 performing groups from ten countries and was attended by more than 50,000 visitors.

Her passion for the arts is infectious, and she hopes to spread her message to others through her speaking engagements. Last year, she gave a presentation on lessons learnt through reopening post Covid-19, the branding of ballet and the health and well-being of the ballet industry. She was also awarded the "Women of Influence 2021 – Master of the Art” prize by the American Chamber of Commerce.

Lee shares her journey to the top with Tatler below:

Describe what you do in one sentence.

I build an innovative ecosystem to engage creative people on their dream-chasing journeys.

How does your business make a difference?

Ballet as a performing art is a beautiful language that expresses life and drama through multiple perspectives. The performing arts are about being creative. Having people within society who can express themselves creatively is important. Anthropologists have argued that the formation of creativity was the most crucial step in human development, and therefore, we are naturally drawn to art as a form of expression and communication. These intangible qualities enhance a society’s ability to adapt, change, think creatively and collaborate with others. Art also enables people to spark healthy discussions that lead to improvements across society and allows us to respond to, analyse and create social change.

What do you put your success down to?

Dedication, commitment and the pursuit of perfection.

What are the top three ingredients for a successful business?

Faith, excellence and teamwork. I believe that art is all about truthfulness, goodness and beauty. Through art, we influence people with honesty and help them see the beauty in our lives. I am lucky that I have an excellent business partner in [Hong Kong Ballet artistic director] Septime Webre, a devoted team and a supportive board of directors. Through teamwork, we make our world a better place.

Do you have any mentors? If so, who are they and what is the best piece of advice they have given you?

I am lucky that I have had many mentors in my life: my teachers when I was in school, my supervisor and several boards of directors along the way. But the most important mentor in my life is my grandmother. She taught me to focus on helping others. Even when she had very little, she gave. She is my role model and has inspired me to pursue selflessness.

What qualities do you look for in a potential employee?

Someone who is devoted, ready for change and believes in the value of art. I enjoy working with team members who share the same values as me and keep the company’s goals in mind.

What has been your biggest career obstacle to date? How did you overcome it?

As a professional ballet company in a vibrant metropolis like Hong Kong, I am surprised that ballet doesn’t have a home, like other ballet companies in the world. For example, David Koch Theatre is home to the New York City Ballet, and the Bolshoi Ballet has its own Bolshoi Theatre. It is important to have a space where we can create, hold rehearsals, train, conduct workshops and do administration work under the same roof for the best results in creation and communication.

To improve the performing arts ecology in Hong Kong, a resident space would be a platform to nurture local dancers, incubate high-quality performances and facilitate cultural exchange. We must convey the importance of having a home to our venue partners. This is a must to be on par with foreign countries.

Do you have any business regrets? If so, what?

I only regret what I haven’t done. Fortunately, I don’t have any business regrets. So far so good, as I have consistently been exploring and experimenting.

How do you plan to develop your business over the next five years?

I wish to heighten our visibility within Greater China and overseas and foster more international partnerships with other creative practitioners and organisations. To connect with audiences and the wider community, the plan is to establish [our own] dance style that is influenced by ballet and is graceful, beautiful and creative. I [also] plan to advocate for the value of ballet, as a form of dance, among the private sector and individuals so that the art form can become more financially sustainable and flourish.

What is one surprising thing about you that most people don’t know?

I am less inclined to speak with strangers, especially in situations unrelated to my beloved art and business universe. Luckily, I have been learning and have tried to keep improving.

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