The Ugly Side of Hong Kong Ballet that No One Wants to Talk about Publicly

It’s been a long time since I wrote my last post. I was planning to do another review on Hong Kong Ballet’s other performances, after having been motivated by the high quality of the last performance, Pinocchio. But alas! A series of events have let me down, so much so that I have now put a sanction on the company’s shows “until further notice.”

“Why so drastic?” you may ask. Well, first of all, I have made an agreement with the marketing manager of the company to give me a complimentary ticket for each of their shows so that I can write reviews without having to dip into my shallow pockets. So for their Young Choreographer’s Showcase, I requested a ticket. No reply. I followed up. No reply. I started to feel that they didn’t really care about reviews by this blogger, who happens to have quite a following among balletomanes, and in particular, ballet students and dancers in Hong Kong and even Taiwan.

But I stopped fussing about my own feeling of being offended when I got to know what the company had done later on, just prior to their Romeo and Juliet show. One day, I was alerted of the fact that the company’s newest soloists, hired with expensive sums of money from Italy and Cuba, Vittorio Galloro and Arianne Lafita Gonzalvez, had left Hong Kong after their short stint with the company. There was a great deal of disappointment that fueled their decision to leave. Despite the warm welcome by the Hong Kong public, these two accomplished artists found themselves in a strange situation in which they were not appreciated for the talents and rank that they deserved. Apparently, they were left on the sideline to idle through the rest of the season, getting corps roles at best. I couldn’t help but scratch my head: What kind of treatment is this? This beautiful dancer couple was smart enough to pull the plug as quickly as they landed, while the iron is hot—they still have an enthusiastic following in Europe and beyond.

What puzzled them is also what has infuriated many of the Hong Kong Ballet dancers who have left the company en masse during the reign of Artistic Director Madeleine Onne. I have heard, first hand, from dancers who have left the company, that the artistic director has a terrible taste in the choice of what goes into the repertoire, boring capable dancers who could have benefited from more challenging roles and more interesting ballets. Many of them felt that their talents were wasted. In addition, resources—which include the taxpayers’ money—are constantly being wasted as stand-by dancers and extras are hired to do nothing.

The main problem with the company is how it is being managed. While most other major ballet companies in the world are run mainly by their artistic directors, decision-making at Hong Kong Ballet goes to the board of governors, which consists mainly of people who have nothing to do with art—the majority are socialites that grace the glossy pages of Hong Kong Tatler. Worse still, as in the case of the Dreams of the Red Chamber incident a few years ago, political concerns had led to self-censorship in artistic expression, causing a scandal that the board tried to cover up.

And the latest marketing efforts to sell The Nutcracker tickets? Read this headline: “China Everbright Ltd. Proudly Presents: The Nutcracker.” It makes me puke to hear the association between the ballet company and the scandal-stricken trading company (formerly run by the brother of the corrupt Chinese Community Party provincial chief Bo Xilai). Also, using “hooks” like complimentary champagne and Repetto discounts just seem like a cheap marketing trick to me.

I have stayed away from grinding the axe so far but I can’t keep quiet anymore. In Chinese society one often thinks about how to “save face” for oneself and others, especially if the latter are considered hot shots. But I have absolutely no personal interest in this company—not the least those complimentary tickets. In fact, I wouldn’t miss anything if I don’t go and watch their shows or do reviews. Honestly, I am fed up with this homegrown ballet company, whose quality and management keep on going downhill. Too bad for Hong Kong, but what do you expect from a place where real art is not appreciated by the majority of the citizens?

Feel free to share your comments. We do have freedom of expression here.

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31 thoughts on “The Ugly Side of Hong Kong Ballet that No One Wants to Talk about Publicly

  1. I couldn’t agree more! Being a follower to HK Ballet and a supporter for local art/cultural scene for years, it’s sad to watch this local dance company goes downhill because of management’s spineless attitude and quality. This is exactly how HK become a “cultural desert”.

    • Thanks, Margaret, for your comment! I appreciate your sharing. A cultural institution simply cannot live in its own cocoon and thrive without the support of discerning art lovers. I hope our constructive criticism can help to wake up its management somehow!

  2. As an ex artistic director of the co
    In the early eighty’ so am saddened to hear what is going on I had 15 dancers and by the time I left I had 21 dancers and Hong Kong ballet did their first nutcracker with my choreography incorporating for the first time the local schools . I don’t know madeleine Ohne very well but know she ran the Swedish ballet where I have done lots of t eaching and choreography’s but not for the co she ran !! Sad news

    • It is an honor for me to receive a comment from you, Mr. Etheridge. I wasn’t paying very much attention to ballet in the early 80s, when I was a child, but I do remember watching a Swan Lake performance by the company. It must have been directed by you then! The company has gone through a lot of ups and down over the years and I am sure that as a former artistic director, you would feel disappointed to hear about this unfortunate development, which has actually been going on for about a decade, or possibly longer. Let’s hope that there will be some change in the way the company is run in the future.

  3. I had some opportunity to worked with the company, while I worked at there, I observed something. There has a lots of very talented artists, but they didn’t have the way they should treat. Some people get promotion or get the role because of they are very good at ass kissing, or they are related. And saw many great dancer left because of disappointment or politics. Which I feel really sad.

    • Thank you for sharing your insider’s view. Indeed, it is unfair for dancers to subject to this kind of treatment. Of course, things like this are not limited to Hong Kong Ballet, but since the company has yet to establish its position on the world stage, allowing dirty politics to lead the direction of art is detrimental to the development of the company.

  4. As a former Artistic Director of the Hong Kong Ballet I also find it very sad that Hong Kong Ballet has not developed in the way it could have. When I left the company there were 34 dancers, a new home, an orchestra for all performances and several new full length ballets in the repertoire – all of which have been removed – and more one act ballets including Balanchine and Sir Fredric Ashton – non of which are still performed. The Artistic Director that took over after my reign was too engrossed in himself, dancing many of the roles and firing some of the more talented dancers of the company. A lot of the other dancers left of their own accord. I saw the company perform Pinocchio this past summer and was impressed by the dancers although the ballet which was sold as a children’s ballet was not in my opinion choreographed with children in mind. When looking around the theatre a lot of the children were asleep and a lot left during intermission. I have met some of the staff and was impressed with their knowledge of the ballet world and what Hong Kong needs. If only the board of directors would listen to them and let them do their jobs. As in most cases with ballet companies the Board of Directors seem to have lost the reason they are there – to support the Artistic Director and to act as spokespersons for the company generating interest and excitement within the company. They should also listen to the dancers – if the majority have the same complaint there is usually a lot of truth in what is being said. Hong Kong is a major International City and needs a major ballet company. Let’s hope the Board of Directors will wake up and do what is needed.

    • Mr. Steivel, I appreciate your honest sharing very much! It’s an honor to receive your comment. I agree totally with your observations, including your assessment of Pinocchio. You have pointed out exactly where the problem is. I am not sure how and when the company will be run in the way that it should be run. Such unfortunate developments have been going on for a decade or so, and I think the discerning public is starting to get fed up with the see-saw changes and unstable quality of the productions, let alone the idiosyncratic style of marketing and positioning. Hong Kong has been viewed as a cultural desert for years and years. We need some real change. I just hope that there will be authentic “political will” to inject life to the cultural scene in the city–without the domineering influence of business and politics.

    • Thanks, Kalia, for your support. Honestly, I am very surprised to receive all these comments here and on FB, and to know that we could actually have a critical and intelligent conversation about this important cultural institution, whose style of management reminds me of a mad circus. I am risking to be the person who points out in public that the Emperor isn’t wearing any clothes. Many people already know that, but someone’s gotta do it.

    • That’s another area that shows a ballet company’s level of sophistication. To call itself Asia’s premier ballet company and yet pinching the pennies from giving dancers a proper injury-prevention and treatment plan as well as facilities–this just doesn’t make any sense.

  5. Dear Balletomanes,
    I cannot help but feel that you are isolated in your assessment of the Hong Kong Ballet.
    I was there in September teaching the company – to be fair, Madeleine Onne had flown Ariana and Vittorio to be seen by the choreographers for the casting of some of the ballets that were performed in the autumn season-if the choreographers do not choose them, that is not the fault of the artistic director. In fact,they left telling Ms Onne that they had family issues (he has a child aged 13 apparently). Whether you know more than what they were willing to tell Ms Onne is interesting. I was teaching company class, casting and rehearsing Sleeping Beauty, I could see that they kept to themselves, he didn’t finish class once owing to an apparent injury, and she also had some calf problems and only put her pointe shoes on the last few days of my visit (I was there for three weeks, their second/third month there). This makes it very difficult to cast a dancer. Both found the fact that they were asked to do ensemble work (by the way, like Wei Wei and like Jin Yao, Yao Yao or Jia Bo) difficult. Well, that’s what happens when you are used to performing on the guesting circuit. As I was there, I can tell you that Ms Onne went out of her way to ask them if there was something she could do to make them happy. This is not hearsay, I was there. Individuals come with expectations and theirs was not accurate to what THEY thought they were signing up for.
    The company is far better than when I came first in 2009/10. FACT. The dancers are beautiful. Turnover in the Semperoper in Dresden (for example) is at the same rate as it is in HK Ballet. You may not like some of the rep, I can assure you that the same can be said of American Ballet Theatre, Paris Opera or any number of major companies. It may appear worse in HK than many places, but it’s because conditions of the company, (only two studios), pay and living in HK is not easy for the dancers.You may think that certain dancers deserve better treatment than others, but when two dancers turn up and aren’t enthusiastic, aren’t in good shape for whatever reason, and aren’t participating, that is not the fault of the HK Ballet.

    The company is getting international attention now, and in fact they have been very well received on the international stages. I’d think you’d be a bit proud of that.

    • Dear Ms Harvey,
      I am very grateful and honored to hear your perspective. I admit that there are always more than one side to a story, and your personal observations have shed light on the matter regarding the two soloists.
      Please don’t get me wrong. I do see the many improvements in the ballet company in the past few years, and I appreciate the hardworking and talented dancers very much. If anything, I would love to support the dancers more! I also acknowledge Ms. Onne’s effort in bringing in world-class ballet masters and choreographers such as yourself, to raise the level of the company, and this is clearly shown in the dancers’ performances thereafter.
      However, my observation of the periodic “exodus” of dancers signal some systematic problems in the management. In fact, the way the company is steered by the board has been problematic dating back to the time before Ms Onne came on board. A decision to fire a former dancer was made without even the then artistic director’s knowledge. This became a huge scandal in Hong Kong’s ballet circuit yet still to this day the reason has not been made clear to the public.
      There is a lack of transparency in the way the company is run, and since it does receive government funding (a.k.a. taxpayers’ money), I think the public deserves to know more.
      I did not elaborate on the issue of the “Dreams of the Red Chamber,” but I was there at the rehearsal and witnessed a politically sensitive scene that was suddenly deleted during the actual performance. The press conference only gave a cover-up explanation, which to me is unacceptable.
      I hope at least I have made myself clear that the complaint in my post is not limited to the isolated case of the two soloists who have left the company recently. In fact, I have received many responses from fellow balletomanes who have simply lost their faith in and support for the company over the years. So I hope the company’s management would at least tune in to the public’s voices instead of dismissing them.
      I do wish the company the best and become the genuine pride of Hong Kong’s art lovers going forward.

  6. Thank you for your quick response and I wholeheartedly agree that the support of the board to the art form in general is, from a world perspective, unusual to say the least. I have nothing to gain or lose when I tell you that when I was there, the DANCERS BALL took place. There did not appear to be any significant photos from that event that included the dancers! You and your readers (other ballet supporters) probably would have delighted in being there with the dancers who looked sensational. It was as if the DANCERS BALL was for them and not at all to pay respect to the dancers. Perhaps it was. SO, here is the root of much of the problem. I am a good friend of John Meehan and know Stephen Jefferies well,and am aware of the difficulties they faced. Add to that the fact that Ms Onne is a woman and a foreigner , cannot make her job any easier. Of course, there are members of the board who are very supportive, but compared to other ballet boards,(like those in the UK where I have been fortunate to be a part) it is definitely run differently.
    The other dancers who have left, if you look into it (and I have because I had to recast), have gone for genuine reasons-pregnancy, family and retirement age. SOME, who like to be vocal when unhappy, WILL talk to justify their departures. Having sat in on MANY casting meetings,(not only mine, but because the changing room I have to use there is in the same room as the secretary otherwise one must use the toilet to change) I can say with hand on heart that Ms Onne is generous. She is not ruthless, but she does try to balance the needs of the dancers with fairness. Dancers are dramatic by nature and do not like change, but in terms of how the company is now being perceived outside of Hong Kong, I am happy to know they’re beginning to get the attention they deserve. I hope more people like you will support them.

    • Many thanks for your follow-up comment, Ms. Harvey! It is of course my sincere wish that the company will continue to evolve and be the best it can be. I don’t know how the said problems with the board can be resolved though. And if the board continues to be out of touch with the dancers’ and the audience’s needs, it will continue to impede the development of the company.
      It is nonetheless encouraging that HK Ballet is gaining visibility in the international dance circle. I hope that it will also regain the hearts of the old supporters who have lost faith. After all, Hong Kong is its home base.

  7. I feel as though I would like to join in this conversation as well as a longtime observer of HK Ballet. This criticism seems to me to come at an unusual time as lately we have felt the company has just been growing from strength to strength. We thought Romeo and Juliet was a wonderful production highlighting the strength of the company’s men. Pinocchio was a handsomely designed production with some great moments. Carnival of Animals, Shape of Glow, Castrati, Paquita, In Light and Shadows, Balanchine’s Serenade all showed the dancers to be versatile, engaging artists. Don Quixote, Sleeping Beauty, both excellent productions for a company of this size. In fact, many of these productions were reviewed by you here on this site, positively and, in some cases, glowingly. We even saw the company perform at Jacob’s Pillow one summer and were so pleased to see how enthusiastic the audiences were- a standing ovation for the dancers the night we went. Frankly, we are so thankful there is beautiful dancing to be seen here year round and not just in the Spring during the Arts Festival from visiting companies which, of course, we appreciate as well. Let’s support these wonderful dancers and the arts in general in Hong Kong!

    • Thanks for your comments, audience member. It would be great to hear more comments, positive or critical, from the audience. Much better than silence 😉 Perhaps Hong Kong needs an artistic platform for people share their views.

      • Comments do seem to be welcome there- there is an audience survey at our seats every time we attend- a practice we have never seen before in all our ballet going days. Guess it is hard though to please all of the people all of the time! Perhaps the best thing we can do though as ballet fans is buy tickets, attend the shows, and loudly cheer on these dancers when we can, which we plan to keep doing. Hope you can find it in your heart to go back as ballet can use all the support it can get!

  8. Wayne Eaging kindly sent me this link and I would like to put the record straight and respond to Bruce Steivel’s comments about the Artistic Director who succeeded him. Jeffrey Hughes was the Interim ‘Caretaker’ (I am unsure of the title given to Jeffrey for this period) before Stephen Jefferies was employed as the Artistic Director of HKB in January, 1996.
    Stephen danced two roles with the company he directed very successfully for 10.5 years ( the longest serving director in the company’s history). He also put the company on the world map as referenced in an earlier comment by Michael Anthony Phillips.
    He was asked to take on the role of Pui Yi’s tutor Johnson by choreographer Wayne Eagling for the ballet The Last Emperor as the company did not have an ‘older’ dancer in the ranks at that time. Later when the ballet toured the USA and Canada the role was danced by Michael Coleman also an ‘older’ dancer. With regards to Stephen’s ballet The Nutcracker he performed the role of Drosselmeyer when the ballet was first created in 1997 only for a few performances so that his male dancers could be freed up to take on other ‘dancing’ roles in Act Two. Stephen enjoyed a hugely successful career with The Royal Ballet and had no wish to prove himself as a dancer or performer with HKB.

    Stephen was fully committed to his role as Artistic Director and his desire was to see the company improve and blossom technically and artistically and to put it on the world map.

    When Stephen left the Directorship of the company in 2006. He had added 23 (new to HK) full length ballets to the repertoire including The Two Pigeons and La Fille mal Gardee by Sir Frederick Ashton plus many new one- act ballets. The choreographic workshop was also nurtured by him and many talented choreographers have since emerged from the company’s ranks.

    • However the premieres staged during Stephen Jefferies’ directorship were one-sided and unbalanced. There were far too many Chinese-themed works, which are really the domain of the Hong Kong Dance Company. There were next to none mixed-bill programmes. Not a single Balanchine masterpiece was added or revived. The Ashton ballets were, I agree, definitely the best programmes during that directorship.

      The repertory was far more diverse and interesting under John Meehan’s short directorship.

  9. Thank you Kevin for your predictable response. I expected nothing less from you. You have never been a fan of Stephen’s and your barbed personal remarks have not changed over time.
    That’s fine as ballet is a subjective art form and you are entitled to your opinions.
    I am just thankful that the majority of the audience, dancers and other ballet critics do not share your views.

    • I am surprised you expected me, or indeed anybody else, to be “a fan” of Stephen Jefferies. You mentioned the audience. I remember clearly that the box office for Jefferies’ ballet “The Great Archer” at the Shatin Town Hall was only about 30%.

      • As an ex-member at the HKB for a few years and during the years of Stephen Jefferies, I have seen and experienced the clear direction where Mr Jefferies would like to take the company — To have it’s own identity to which would be recognise as world class and as an individual.
        I do not agree with your comment where the season programme has ‘far too many Chinese-themed works’ — there usually is just one per year/season! Most of the time it has always been the classics which HK borrows from the west — SwanLake, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella etc…
        I would also like to point out that Chinese-themed production should just not be HK Dance’s domain — sure they can do an epic production and is very true to it’s libretto, but what you’re missing to see is the western point-of-view of presenting the story and arts discipline. HK Dance have a different dance technique and aesthetic so comparing them to ballet would be a bit wrong — it’s like comparing tea with coffee!
        And what is so wrong about a Chinese-themed ballet???
        Should one wants to see a Balanchine production, one should go to NYCB as they do it the best! Otherwise, appeal to the arts council to bring NYCB to HK. Every company knows that a Balanchine production is way too expensive to mount with all the legal rights attached to it.
        I think Mr. Ng, you are the one who has a one-sided and unbalanced view…

        Now going back to the current HKB issue– the company is transitioning. And what it needs is support. I agree with Mr Steivel, I think the board of governors should back out a bit.
        What’s annoying is that the board has power to sack anyone in the company but who has the power to sack an incompetent, lack-lustered board member/governor????

  10. As a member of the HKB I can only say this about the Italian and the Cuban and nothing else since you all seem to be doing fine by yourselves. The Cuban choose when she could pick up material and when she could not. In my opinion pulling the dumb blond card when she felt like it to get out of corps roles which no real HKB dancer would do esp soloist or principles. As for the Italian he couldn’t pull the dumb blond card even if he wanted to. The Italian just could not count to save his life or pick up material faster then most of our younger ones.. I’m glad they are gone as they were negative people. And brought negative energy to the studio. Freeing up space for chance for HKB Dancers. Our Director can pick the dancers but she can not pick the mental attitude. Esp when they hide their trueselves ( they were very skilled at being fake) That is only found through time. And they were found and no one was buying so they left. That simple…

  11. I am not an international luminary nor famous or influential or accomplished in any way, but I have had the chance to see the dance world from many perspectives – audience member, student, dancer, choreographer, company director, other administrative roles, and future donor. As a foreigner new to Hong Kong, I have no preconceptions against the Hong Kong Ballet other than for some reason my family and friends tell me that the performances are boring. Since I am used to hearing people say that about dance in general, I pretty much shrug off those comments. What I find fascinating about this blog post and the following comments are how much they reflect the universal truth that the dance world still suffers from communications breakdowns and complex situations. Everyone in my dance network has tales about how a publicly revered director mistreated their dancers, the financial messes, inexplicable castings, contradictory testimonies, on and on…yet only rarely does anyone step forward to share the issues or address how to change them. Why? Simply sharing may lead to never being able to land a gig again (not to mention public outrage and shaming) and making changes usually involves a lot of money or political clout. Alternatively, some people never encounter half the drama that others do and honestly, if a situation is only 40% bad and 60% good the rest of the time, you take what you can get. When I read the comments, I find that I can relate to each one a little bit even if they oppose each other because they all speak truths about the dance world as I know it. My heart goes out most to the HKB dancer who posted here and to Ms. Harvey because yes, they were put into very frustrating situations that can only be experienced if you are part of the creative process. At the same time, not honoring a marketing agreement and allowing a certain kind of reputation to grow does not reflect well on an organization either. As someone looking to transition into a new audience member and potential donor, clarity in communications is key to gaining my interest. Being able to hear so candidly from people directly involved with an organization was very refreshing and I can only hope that I will be able to put together a more accurate picture over time. Regardless of whether what has been shared by everyone is misinformation or accurate, it is ultimately up to the organization in question to take responsibility for their image and practices.

    • Minerval, thank you so much for your kind comment and comprehensive analysis. I’m glad to report that the marketing department has reached out to me to apologize for being amiss in its previous agreement due to an “oversight,” and has invited me to attend the company’s future performances. I do hope that the board of directors and management team of Hong Kong Ballet will improve over time and win the hearts of the audience through a genuine interest to understand their needs and to raise the overall quality of not just the dancing but other aspects, such as the choice of repertoire and communications with the public.

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