Fall in step

After only weeks in his job as artistic director, Septime Webre has availed himself of the many inspirations that he discovered in a foreign environment to transform the Hong Kong Ballet in the coming three years.

Kelis Wong

Friday, August 11, 2017

After only weeks in his job as artistic director, Septime Webre has availed himself of the many inspirations that he discovered in a foreign environment to transform the Hong Kong Ballet in the coming three years.

"I am a literature person," the Cuban American said. "I've almost finished Eileen Chang's Love in a Fallen City. It's a story set in Hong Kong during the Japanese occupation.

"I am interested in that period because the world has changed in those five years of World War II. I am also intrigued by Hong Kong's martial arts film culture. So I know I will do a project of some sort related to it. There is something intrinsically spiritual about martial arts that is appropriate for the ballet form. The most iconic ballets are really spiritual stories."

Webre, 55, traded the stage for his first managerial desk more than two decades ago, but looks very much the dancer he used to be. The poise, natural charisma and ready smile are all still there, along with a first name that gives away his family's French ancestry.

His decision to relocate to the SAR after a 17-year stint at the Washington Ballet was as unexpected as the journey of him turning professional. What sealed the deal after a meet and greet with the dancers and the governors' board was Pina Bausch's performance staged during the Hong Kong Arts Festival.

Born in New Orleans, and raised in Texas and the Bahamas, where his sugar planter father conducted business, Webre went on pointe because of a chance encounter.

He secretly followed his baby sister to ballet classes. She was awful. He excelled.

He received intermittent training in his early teens as the family was always traveling. At 17, he began to entertain the notion of turning professional. However, he kept the idea to himself until he finished a pre-law program and got accepted by law school.

"My family left Cuba during the revolution. There were nine kids - eight sons and one daughter. We were expected to be a lawyer, doctor or engineer. But I went rogue. There are some semi-rogues but they are architects.

"I told everyone that I was going to law school. I kept my academic life going at a serious level, and trained about 30 hours a week in classical ballet. Most dancers go professional at 18. As I went to university, I didn't get my first job until I was 22."

His vision for the Hong Kong Ballet is to forge a deeper connection with the community. Ballet should be "a fluid language" that can be used by all people - from William Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson to the arcane humorists on Comedy Central and the common folk on the streets, he believes.

He also wants virtuosic technique and that too is something his dancers are working on; jumping higher and coordinating their arms with the body to form fine, ferocious lines.

The dancers are hungry for Webre's instructions, revising after his class ends.

"They are very strong technicians and hard workers," Webre said. "I'd like them to grow even better over time so that we will be viewed as a top company internationally."

There are two components that take a ballet company from good to great: distinguished dancing and repertoire, Webre said. And the repertoire will be an area where the ballet veteran is bringing his experience and talent in choreography to bear.

In his former role as artistic director at the Washington Ballet, he added a rich performance history, showcasing a mix of full-length classics and his own contemporary works, such as the Bowie & Queen rock show, a jazzy adaptation of The Great Gatsby and the children's favorite The Little Mermaid.

To reflect the social fabric of America, Webre introduced Latino culture to ballet, and invited Misty Copeland, the first African-American principal dancer in American Ballet Theatre history, to talk to schoolchildren in a personal art project called Halcyon Stage.

Hongkongers will get a glimpse of his vision when the new season opens with full-length classical ballet Don Quixote at the end of the month.

In June 2018, he will produce a ballet that brings together the works of renowned choreographer Alexei Ratmansky and Christopher Wheeldon. The beating heart of the program will still be classical ballet, but expect more contemporary productions and partnered projects with homegrown talents.

Webre said: "I would like the company to increasingly provide its own global voice. So there will be works made for the company which reflect today's Hong Kong.

"We will also launch a series of open rehearsals and pop-up performances so that audience can see us work in an informal way."