The images blend ballet with martial arts, hip-hop, Chinese iconography — and compelling eccentricity. It’s a punchy new look for the company, which comes across as simultaneously hip and elder-approved, reflecting the modernity and history of its home city. But for some viewers, the vibe is undoubtedly familiar. Even though the video’s subject is half a world away, the style and attitude should ring bells for Washington Ballet followers.
It’s 100 percent Septime Webre.
Webre, who’s just wrapped up his second season as Hong Kong Ballet’s director-choreographer, brought the same contemporary wit and vigor to the Washington Ballet, which he led for 17 years before stepping down in 2016. As Hong Kong grapples with civil unrest, including weeks of violent protests against proposed extradition laws that could cede more power to mainland China, Webre’s leadership of the ballet has brought some good news.
The company’s subscriptions have spiked more than 150 percent since the 2017/2018 season, according to Nick Chan, Hong Kong Ballet’s director of marketing, and last season half the productions sold out. Outreach initiatives that Webre started, such as free “pop-up” shows outdoors, have attracted tens of thousands of spectators.
As for the demonstrations, Webre says that given the timing, they haven’t touched the company.
“As the protests took place during the dancers’ summer holiday, and we’re planning our next round of pop-up performances to launch in late August and continue through the fall, our activities haven’t been affected,” he says.
Webre is vacationing in India with his husband, Marc Cipullo; they’re midway through what Webre describes as an “eat pray love” trip that began on the beach in Bali. “Life gives you interesting paths you didn’t expect to find yourself on,” he says, his philosophical mood possibly influenced by the circumstances of our conversation. It’s evening when we connect on Skype, and they’ve just left the Taj Majal to drive to Delhi for a flight to the Himalayas. Every time the car goes round a bend the Skype connection dies, but with Cipullo at the wheel, Webre takes the interruptions in stride.
When he arrived in Hong Kong in 2017, Webre says, he found “a beautiful, classical company” and nearly 50 highly trained dancers. As he’d done at the Washington Ballet, he set about trying to raise the troupe’s profile and build its audience while stitching it more deeply into the city’s cultural life. To the existing repertoire of “Swan Lake” and “The Sleeping Beauty,” he added contemporary works by Justin Peck, Trey McIntyre and Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, and he staged some of the colorful, high-energy productions he’d created in his years at Washington Ballet: “Alice (in Wonderland)” and “The Great Gatsby.”
Webre says his chief challenge was “how do you retool the brand of the ballet so it remains Hong Kong Ballet but people think of it with a fresh energy?” He’s been implementing some of the same outreach measures he put in place in his final D.C. years, but quicker and more efficiently, he says. Some of the pop-up performances have been narrated in Tagalog, the language of the city’s Filipino community.
Last fall, a flock of origami crane puppets led crowds to five-minute shows scattered about the Tai Kwun arts and shopping complex, where a prison and police station once stood. “Over two days, about 30,000 people saw us,” Webre says.
He’s also forged partnerships with the city’s arts leaders. A program called Hong Kong Cool connects ballet dancers interested in choreography with local fashion designers, composers and visual artists. Seven ballets grew from its first year; the company premiered them in a black-box theater, drawing arts followers new to ballet to the casual space and air of experimentation.
“It takes a person with a very strong will and commitment to do these things,” says Anna Chan, who worked with Webre on Hong Kong Cool when she was head of dance for the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority. “He is actually transforming the Hong Kong Ballet into something more dynamic.”
“It's not easy for a company to allow this type of exploration when every six weeks they have a show to put on,” Chan continues. “ . . . His energy is so welcoming that whatever we propose, he just makes it happen.”
Chan has continued to collaborate with Webre now that she’s dean of dance at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts. The ballet company, which does not yet have a permanent home, has a residency there and offers master classes for the academy students. The ballet plans to create a new work there each year, offering the students the ability to observe the process.
If timing is everything, Webre has been especially fortunate. His arrival coincides with a growth period in Hong Kong, Chan says, particularly in theaters, and the company may finally find a home at a planned cultural center.
For the 40th-anniversary video, Webre tapped the D.C. firm Design Army, which had worked with him on Washington Ballet videos. Webre has more multimedia projects planned for an initiative called “Hong Kong Ballet Goes Viral.”
“We’ve received funding for dance videos to present Hong Kong Ballet in unexpected places,” he says. “Not just to expose people to the ballet but to remind them how beautiful the city is. People walk around with their eyes on their smartphones and then go down in the subway. But Hong Kong is such a place of creativity and beauty.”
The company gets about 65 percent of its funding from the government, Webre says, which allows for an enviable level of stability and frees him from much of the burden of fundraising. It also comes with the requirement for regular check-ins about the troupe’s plans and budgeting.
“Of course the funds must be used appropriately,” he says, “for the advancement of ballet in Hong Kong and the sharing of our work with the world at large. All of our plans and activities have been met with great enthusiasm thus far.”
Webre has led tours through Europe, and in 2020, plans a month-long North American tour, including Canada, Pennsylvania and the Carolinas. “I'm sure we’ll be in Washington soon,” he says, adding that he’s not supposed to reveal more.
When he was a child, Webre lived in the Caribbean and Africa as the son of a sugar engineer, and he says he always imagined he’d live an expat life. But while he never saw himself living in Asia, Hong Kong suits him. “It has a New York kind of energy, with the topography of San Francisco and this unique Asian culture.”
The Skype connection is holding steady, and Webre takes the chance to reflect further. Things could scarcely be better: His existing ballets are being widely licensed by other companies, and he’ll create his first premiere for Hong Kong Ballet in the upcoming season. It's a “Romeo and Juliet” set in 1960s Hong Kong; Webre was inspired by the nostalgic atmosphere of Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai’s poetic “In the Mood for Love.”
What’s been most rewarding, the director says, is having the chance to plow his past into the company’s future — and watching it grow before his eyes.
“Over the course of 17 years at the Washington Ballet and six years before that at American Repertory Ballet, I learned so much,” Webre says. “To go to a new company with a fresh perspective and implement with new efficiency the lessons I learned, and to be sensitive to the needs of a new city and new culture — it’s fun.”