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Making a Pointe—Hong Kong Ballet's Beyond Carbon: The Climate Change Project

For Hong Kong Ballet’s first large-scale production in collaboration with newly opened museum M+, artistic director Septime Webre is turning to nature – and our relationship with it – for inspiration. Webre, Hong Kong Ballet choreographer-in-residence Ricky Hu and choreographer-dancer Jessica Burrows reveal more about Beyond Carbon: The Climate Change Project.

February 21, 2022

"Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it,” once said German playwright Bertolt Brecht. Certainly, in today's modern world, there are few realities that need rectification as urgently as climate change, a topic that is as pressing as it is vast and nuanced. From February 25 to 27, Hong Kong Ballet, helmed by its formidable artistic director Septime Webre and co-presented with new landmark museum M+, will be taking on the incredible order of exploring and provoking the many facets of climate change in a groundbreaking immersive production titled Beyond Carbon: The Climate Change Project.  

A riot of dance – including world premieres by rising homegrown choreographers – talks and workshops will pepper the indoor and outdoor grounds of the striking museum designed by Herzog & de Meuron in the West Kowloon Cultural District, the all-encompassing and austere architecture of which only heightens the gravitas of the subject matter. Ahead of February’s opening night, excerpts from five performances were previewed to audiences at Hong Kong Ballet x M+ Live Art: Five Tiny Dances, including Ricky Hu’s The Lost Season, a meditation on our relationship with and responsibilities towards the environment, choreographed to a reimagined The Four Seasons by Antonio Vivaldi, as well as Jessica Burrows’ Siren, a rhythmic, contemporary exploration of the strains caused by consumerism. Here, we sit down with Webre, Hu and Burrows to chat about what audiences can expect. 

Septime Webre 

How did the inspiration and concept for Beyond Carbon: The Climate Change Project come about?  

Webre: We had been in discussion with M+ about a large-scale activation of the space for some time and, as is the case with many great ideas, it came about through serendipity – a product of a brainstorm session with our partners on the project, Lisa Genasci of ADM Capital Foundation and Elaine Forsgate Marden. In developing the works, we used a “roots and wings” approach, in which our climate change-focused collaborators would provide the roots of the project – sobering facts about the challenges we face collectively – while the artists would provide the wings, or the emotional responses to the topic which would serve to inspire change.

Instead of having the show in a single space such as the usual indoor performance hall, dances are staged across different corners of M+. Did it affect or inspire your choreography?  

Hu: Yes, I’m very drawn to the staging of this production. Floor-to-ceiling glass separates the audience and the beautiful Victoria Harbour. In my piece, The Lost Season, set to be staged on the Grand Stairs, I utilised both spaces when choreographing. Dancers on both sides seem to be living identical lives but they face different things, only meeting through the mirror. They will eventually converge and approach the auditorium to become one. I love the challenge of creating for unique spaces. The setting of the entire venue coincides with the concept of my work, which is doing the right thing in the right place. Visually, it’s a unique creation. 

Burrows: Septime really enjoys activating spaces and bringing the audience closer to the dancer. When you take away the stage, I think the audience feels more connected and literally on the same level. When I was presented with the project, I actually didn’t know which space I would be given. There were many restrictions with distance regarding Covid, so we were changing areas up until the week of the performance. I just had to make my piece as adaptable as possible so it could be effective in any space and interesting from any angle. 

The Lost Season by Ricky Hu

It’s really inspiring to see the complex subject matter of environmental sustainability being explored through dance. Was it a difficult subject to tackle?  

Hu: Initially, I found the topic of climate change to be too expansive, so I decided to narrow it down and focus on changing temperatures for my piece. Temperatures have risen significantly over the past 100 years. What does this change mean to us? Over the past two years, people’s level of activity decreased as everyone stayed home, and a magical thing happened: the Earth began to recover. We could see the regeneration of many creatures in the ocean. In fact, small human changes can affect climate change. The Earth needs space and time to breathe, and it has the ability to repair itself. I find it all quite interesting. 

Burrows: I found this topic extremely difficult to tackle. Climate change is quite a serious issue and can become quite overwhelming – and even depressing. It was hard to find the balance between sending a serious message and creating something stimulating to watch and dance. Dance is probably the most creative and unexpected outlet for this topic.   

I was able to catch Five Tiny Dances and was impressed by the uniqueness of each performance. What was the creative process like for the show and for your respective pieces, The Lost Season and Siren 

Webre: When we began the project, Lisa Genasci of ADM Capital Foundation and Debra Tan of CRW led us through a series of conversations about the topic of climate change and various aspects of the ongoing dialogue. The choreographers all then developed their own concept, based on what moved them. 

Hu: The pandemic broke out when I was choreographing The Lost Season and I got to spent two months at home before rehearsals. Having the luxury of time to slow down and reflect was very rewarding. The red balloons I used in my piece carry the meaning of time. The dancer who wears them feels the increasing pressure of the balloons gradually overwhelming his body; the pressure is invisible, difficult for us to detect, and when it is noticed it’s a truly terrifying moment. Crises exist – the key is to have this consciousness to perceive it. This balloon can also be a symbol of oxygen. In the end, the balloon gets smaller and smaller, symbolising humanity’s struggle with oxygen deficiency. 

Burrows: For my piece, Siren, the development was quite short. We each had two weeks, with only one or two hours per day. I actually created and finished a different work, and then changed my mind completely two days before the presentation. Erica Wang and Jonathan Spigner were amazing and so willing to make all the changes. The piece you saw, Siren, was inspired by the human need to consume and how we leave behind marks that are damaging to the environment. The use of lipstick came from my personal need to consume luxury products. I really like my lipstick, but when I wear it, it leaves marks on the glasses I use or the cheeks that I kiss. It’s a great symbol. 

The Lost Season by Ricky Hu

Over the last few years, how have you seen the dance world interacting with the topic of sustainability and how did it inspire you? 

Webre: Artists have always commented on the world around them and, as such, many have commented on issues surrounding our planet. I’m especially inspired by choreographers who are physically inventive and have a fresh point of view. 

Burrows: I think climate change is a tough topic to tackle through dance. More contemporary dance art forms seem to be tackling the issue more, but it still isn’t often seen in classical art forms. In general, I’m inspired when I see other people breaking barriers – it makes me want to do the same. 

Last year, Hong Kong Ballet collaborated with Corey Baker Dance to present Lying Together, a short film that raised awareness about biodiversity. Are there any other topics surrounding sustainability that you’d like to tackle in the future? 

Burrows: Yes, I only touched on it a bit in Siren, but I’d like to dig deeper into the idea of human consumption of resources. I think it could make for a very dramatic work. 

Webre: The current project is certainly our focus, but in the future, I could imagine exploring and focusing on the specifics of threats that are faced by Hong Kong in particular. 

Siren by Jessica Burrows

What do you hope the audience will feel or take away from seeing your dances?  

Hu: In today’s modern world, we’re often too busy to quiet down, ponder and think deeply. Yet I believe once we change our perspective or learn to look at problems from another angle, we’ll live a happier life. Enjoying every day happily is more important than anything. And while we’re happy, we shouldn’t forget to make little contributions to this Earth. 

Burrows: I just hope the audience feels something: happy, sad, changed, angry – that’s all I intended. There are many ideas in quite a short piece, so there’s a lot of room for interpretation. 

How would you define sustainability and what does it mean to you? 

Webre: I grew up on a tiny island in the Caribbean and life was so close to nature – this instilled a respect for nature that I’ve retained throughout my life. As an artist, from time to time I’ve found ways to contribute to our collective discourse about our planet, such as through this project.  

Burrows: To me, sustainability is about meeting our human needs without compromising the lives of the future generations and avoiding harm to the environment. I’ve been more environmentally conscious in the past ten years than when I was younger. 

Septime, you’ve been helming the Hong Kong Ballet since 2017 with great success. Where do you see your own journey going in the future?  

Webre: I’m having a grand time in Hong Kong just now and relishing my time in the studio with the dancers. I look forward to more of that for years to come!