Hong Kong Ballet's Artistic Director Septime Webre On Reimagining Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet
Wooden rods hammering the studio floor sound like the thump of a beating heart within the cavernous Xiqu Centre, Hong Kong’s futuristic performing arts space. A group of young men chant and pound the ground, creating tension as they circle two fighters. One of them, unleashing a combat shout worthy of Bruce Lee, rushes forward wielding a baton in each hand and brings them down on the head of his adversary, who, tumbling backwards, lands on his own weapon. Oscar Lam, a martial arts coach, whose light-footed agility and bald head bring to mind a Shaolin monk, attempts to shape the mêlée. “Imagine yourself as a tiger,” Lam barks at the fallen fighter. “Lunge at him!”
In fair Kowloon, where we lay our scene, these ballet dancers are training for the opening street brawl between the enemy Montague and Capulet families that begins the story of Romeo and Juliet. Lam, a master of the martial art hung kuen, has been brought in to teach the cast how to infuse fighting moves into the choreography.
Since March, throughout the challenges of social distancing amid a raging global pandemic, the Hong Kong Ballet cast has been preparing to perform a unique reimagining of William Shakespeare’s classic play, styled as Romeo + Juliet, set to premiere in September. Instead of Verona, this version of the tale of two star-crossed lovers takes place in the atmospheric world of 1960s Hong Kong, with an aesthetic that is inspired by the city’s history of cinema classics and a dance style that blends classical ballet with martial arts.
When The Going Gets Tough
For this ambitious new staging, devised by the Hong Kong Ballet’s innovative artistic director Septime Webre, the title characters, portrayed by principal dancers Li Jiabo and Chen Zhiyao, are reimagined as the children of two competing local tycoons who fall in love during a turbulent era clouded by triad street fights, money laundering and arranged marriages.
Considering New York’s Broadway theatres have been dark since March and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London faces the prospect of permanent closure, the fact the Hong Kong Ballet is pushing ahead with a new production is a bold move. The company has already postponed the show’s premiere and there is no guarantee that social distancing measures in the city will be lifted in time for its September scheduling. However, Webre is adamant that the operation must proceed—whether or not the stage curtain rises on that first night. “It’s the journey that is important, more so than the destination,” he says. “The process of creating work is central to an artist’s identity.”
Principal dancers Li and Chen have never rehearsed for a performance while wearing face masks before, and having to do so for Romeo and Juliet at the height of the pandemic took its toll. Even walking in a mask in the humidity and heat of Hong Kong is an uncomfortable experience; performing strenuous physical activities in them is stifling.
Li, who also played the lead role in a rendition of Rudi van Dantzig’s Romeo and Juliet guest-staged by André Lewis for the Hong Kong Ballet in 2015, says that Webre’s choreography has more lifting than the classic production. He says having to wear face masks made training especially exhausting, while Chen found it challenging having to practise outside the usual studio setting. “During quarantine, we tuned in on Zoom for ballet exercises to keep our bodies in shape,” she says. “It took us a while to adjust when we returned to the studio.”
Reinventing A Classic
Webre, who made his name during a 17-year stint as artistic director of The Washington Ballet in Washington DC before moving to Hong Kong in 2017, says his new adaptation is itself a love letter to his adopted home. He also pays homage to his favourite Wong Kar-wai film, In the Mood for Love, which turns 20 this year and is credited for widely shaping what the rest of the world imagines Hong Kong to be, with its influential soundtrack, colour-saturated cinematography and tale of understated romance performed by Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung.
The American-born choreographer and teacher remembers the impact Wong’s film left on him when he first watched it shortly after its release. “I was completely blown away. It was so stunning, so evocative. In the Mood for Love opened up a whole other avenue of Hong Kong film that was not martial arts-oriented but poetic and artful,” he says.
Dipping Into History
Set in 1962 at a time of economic expansion and mass immigration from China, the movie’s plot centres on characters living in an exiled Shanghainese community in Hong Kong. Leung’s suave neckties, Cheung’s tight qi-pao dresses and the dark alleys in Wong’s romanticised depiction of the city all stayed with Webre.
“I’m fascinated by the effect of the Shanghainese immigration to Hong Kong: what happened after the Cultural Revolution in China and the collision of so many different aspects here: expat influence and old-fashioned Chinese values, the Kowloon Walled City and the new wealth that was growing,” Webre says. “The optimism in Hong Kong was boundless, but there was also a dark story behind some of the new wealth,” he says. “All of these things are appealing and alluring, and the designs fascinating and beautiful. There’s a nostalgia that Hong Kong people have for this era.”
To bring that period to the stage in a way that felt authentic, Webre called on a team of craftspeople who lived through this era of the city themselves. Set designer Ricky Chan was born in the early 1960s and grew up in a seven-storey tenement building in Wong Tai Sin, an area of northeast Kowloon, where he recalls hawkers sharpening knives, neighbours hanging clothes on long bamboo sticks extended from their windows, dai pai dong—open-air food stalls—serving sweet soups, and Chinese opera staged inside bamboo theatres, makeshift temporary stages built during festivals.
Many of the production’s props and sets are inspired by Chan’s childhood memories, such as bamboo racks and theatre materials, neon lights and hanging signs, and “aeroplane olives”, the local name for the olive-shaped marinated herbal snacks that hawkers threw up from the streets to customers in tenement buildings. These immersive details, some of them “vanished and vanishing sights and objects” in Hong Kong, as Chan puts it, will spark nostalgia and transport audiences to a bygone era.
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Flair And Function
In any rendition of Romeo and Juliet, the famed balcony scene, in which Juliet calls down to her lover, forms a centrepiece. Chan’s challenge was to create a backdrop that evokes a wealthy Hong Kong befitting Juliet’s high status. Inspiration came from the historic King Yin Lei mansion on The Peak, Hong Kong’s most upscale neighbourhood. The house’s green roof tiles and the balcony design showcase influences from a succession of wealthy residents and ticked all the boxes on Chan’s brief. From drafting, creating scale models and colouring to construction and installation, each set takes at least a month to complete, often involving Chan working 14-hour days.
At the opposite end of Kowloon, in San Po Kong, costume designer Mandy Tam faced her own challenge: designing a qipao that Chen and the other female dancers are able to move freely in. She sits in her workshop and redraws Juliet’s outfit, surrounded by a kaleidoscopic array of beads and ribbons, as well as more than 100 pages showing the development of her designs. And those are just the ones Webre didn’t reject.
“Septime has high standards,” she says. “I lost count of how many drafts I have.” Known for its slim-fit cut designed to show off a feminine silhouette, its narrow collar and side openings at the thighs, the qipao couldn’t be further from the tutus or flowing dresses of previous renditions of Romeo and Juliet. “The key for costumes in this production is to simplify the design but keep the silhouette and embroidery patterns, so that the audience can identify the roles and historical period,” she says.
Tam, one of the few experts in period drama and Cantonese opera costumes, says the disappearance of traditional crafts techniques, such as embroidery and qipao dressmaking, made it difficult to settle on designs for Romeo and Juliet. “As tailors from the older generation are passing away, nobody in Hong Kong knows how to make [qipao], and there aren’t references to ballet costumes for 1960s Hong Kong,” she says. It took her three months to find suitable fabric, a task made even more difficult by the closure of Mainland Chinese factories during the Spring Festival in late January, followed by the Covid-19 lockdown that shuttered the Sham Shui Po fabric shops Tam normally relies on.
Tam settled on a mix of silk, nylon, rayon and Lycra for durability, flexibility and elegance, then cut the qipao in a way that allowed for the ballerinas’ sweeping battements. She incorporated a widened collar that lets the dancers to breathe more freely, with seams woven in a way that gives a greater range of movement for high kicks.
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The costumer also advised Webre on period garments and how social class would have played into Hongkongers’ attire at the time of the story. “Septime is obsessed with Maggie Cheung’s qipao, but sometimes I have to explain to him some of our traditional customs, such as what locals wear at fights, weddings or funerals,” she says with a laugh. “The 1960s is about more than qipao worn by the upper or middle class, like Maggie Cheung’s secretary character. In our production, we also have hawkers, mothers and children, and manual labourers.
“For example, we came up with A-line doll skirts and leggings in a more Audrey Hepburn style for the fei nui (female hoodlums). We have strong, bold colours for the lively street scenes, red for the grand ballroom scene, and white and grey for the funeral.”
Romeo and Juliet is special to Webre. Twenty-five years ago, in his first directorship for the American Repertory Ballet, he created a classical Romeo and Juliet production, which he then adapted for The Washington Ballet. Throughout his career, Webre has built a reputation for unconventional and progressive ballets inspired by American literature, including a jazz and tap dance-infused adaptation of F Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great Gatsby, which premiered in Hong Kong last spring.
Originally written around 1594, Shakespeare’s most famous romantic tragedy has been a popular subject for creative adaptations, ballets especially, since 1934, when the Kirov Theatre in Soviet-era Russia commissioned choreographer Leonid Lavrovsky and composer Sergei Prokofiev to create a dance and score based on the story. Numerous other versions have followed. For Webre, it was Kenneth MacMillan’s choreography for the Royal Ballet that stood out as the most compelling. The British production premiered in London in 1965 after the Soviet Union refused to allow Lavrovsky’s show to be performed in the UK.
“I’ve seen it 25 times and MacMillan’s remains my favourite,” says Webre, in a rare moment of stationary reflection for the 58-year-old choreographer. He has spent the afternoon in rehearsals, where he didn’t let the fact he was wearing jeans stop him from leaping around and gyrating as he demonstrated how Juliet’s hip movements could be used to seductive effect. “You’re 16! You’re in love!” he instructed Chen.
Traversing The Globe
The seventh of nine children, Webre was born in New Orleans to a Cuban-American family and spent his childhood in the Bahamas, Sudan, Côte d’Ivoire and finally the US. He grew up around dance and took his first ballet lesson when he was 12, after the family relocated to Brownsville, Texas. Although he later embarked on a more conventional academic path, and once pursued a law degree, he surprised his parents when he moved to New York City in his early 20s to train as a professional dancer. By the age of 30, he had become the director of the American Repertory Ballet in Princeton, New Jersey, where he stayed until moving to Washington DC in 1999.
In 2016, Webre’s agent submitted his portfolio to the Hong Kong Ballet, which was looking for a new artistic director. Webre had already been impressed by The Last Emperor, a Hong Kong Ballet production that toured North America in the early 2000s, and the idea of bringing “the charm of old Hong Kong” to ballets staged in the city set his imagination alight. He landed the gig.
“Hong Kong clicked with me right away. I wanted to be inspired by some elements of my new home; my new Valentine,” he says. Webre turned to Hong Kong film and 20th-century literature. “The idea for this production was to take a classic and ensure people could recognise themselves in it, because that’s when art is the most powerful. In the Mood for Love is so iconic that it helps describe what [the 1960s] looked like for Hong Kong people,” he says. “Romeo and Juliet is a classic western story but it has elements that are universal, so it can be adapted in different places. In Romeo and Juliet, there is a lot of action; In the Mood for Love is about inaction, but the love in the film is long-lasting and that’s important.”
His new vision marks not just the pinnacle of his career in ballet to date, but also the melding of a lifetime of finding inspiration for choreography in the most unlikely places—even martial arts. “When I was about eight years old, I asked my mother to buy me a yellow tracksuit because I was obsessed with Bruce Lee. That was what I largely knew about Hong Kong films,” he says.
From Dancers To Martial Artists
In the studio at the Xiqu Centre, the fight scene choreography is gradually taking shape. Luis Torres, ballet master and Webre’s second-in-command, observes the unconventional rehearsal led by Lam. “You guys look like you’re drunk in a club,” Torres lodges a critique at the dancers, who are dodging their partners’ sticks. Webre’s contemporary direction emphasises the dancers’ natural movements, a contrast with more traditional ballet, which tends to be more stylised and pantomime-oriented.
Torres and the cast members watch and learn as the martial arts master crouches to demonstrate how to move in combat. “In ballet, we extend our bodies upwards to elongate ourselves,” Torres says. “Three weeks into our martial arts training, our glute and inner thigh muscles are tired, as we’re not used to training these muscles.”
Torres points to the dancers’ aerial turns as an example of how small tweaks to classical dance moves can convey a different energy. “That’s what we call a barrel turn in ballet. Our legs usually turn out at the second and fourth positions, but we now turn them inwards for martial arts,” he says.
The ballet also brought in Hing Chao, the founder of the Hong Kong Culture Festival and an advocate for martial arts studies and the preservation of intangible cultural heritage, to advise on the use of hung kuen, or “hung fist”, the southern Chinese martial art that is employed in the production and has deep roots in Cantonese culture. “It has been widely practised by many people in Hong Kong since the 1920s,” Chao says. “It can be very much deemed the Hong Kong kung fu.”
The style, noted for its strong hand techniques, originated from ancient Shaolin kung fu disciplines, and was brought to Hong Kong in 1928 by Lam’s father, Lam Saiwing, who himself was an apprentice of legendary hung kuen fighter and Cantonese folk hero, Wong Fei-hung.
Although Li, as he learns Romeo’s role, admits he has never watched In the Mood for Love, he was excited to train with one of the city’s most prominent martial arts teachers. “Every child in China grows up watching Jet Li, Jackie Chan and Wong Fei-hung movies,” the dancer says. “I haven’t found it very difficult to learn martial arts; I pick up the steps pretty quickly because of my ballet training.”
At the end of the session, the group performs the moves they have learnt one last time for their teacher’s approval. After batons are downed and sweating limbs become still, pride registers across the breathless faces of the ensemble as a rare compliment from Master Lam sinks in. With a nod, he says: “You boys look like you’re the real deal.”
Romeo + Juliet will be performed from September 18 to 20 at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, 10 Salisbury Road, Tsim Sha Tsui. Visit HKBallet.com for more information.
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- Photography Amanda Kho