Ballet dancing is undoubtedly perceived by some as an enigmatic kind of vocation. But one man's vision for ballet in Hong Kong should help to clear up any misconceptions about the profession while also preparing some of Hong Kong's young enthusiasts for careers as professional dancers.
Stephen Jefferies, artistic director of the Hong Kong Ballet and self-described patriarch, sees himself as a father figure whose duty it is to counsel, train and cultivate his own corps of international dancers, as well as talented young locals.
"It's vital they start as soon as they can. I started at 10," he says, referring to anyone interested in breaking into the field. Mr Jefferies realised he wanted to be a dancer after watching Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers perform on television. Afterwards, he asked his mother to enrol him in dance lessons for his tenth birthday. "The rest, as they say, is history," he muses.
His career began in earnest when he won a scholarship to The Royal Ballet Upper School at the age of 15. This led, in 1969, to The Royal Ballet Touring Company and he subsequently spent one year as a principal dancer with The National Ballet of Canada before advancing to the rank of senior principal with The Royal Ballet of Covent Garden in London.
"I eat, breathe, sleep this ballet company and so I wake up thinking about it"
In over eight years with the Hong Kong Ballet, Mr Jefferies has built a repertoire of almost 20 new ballet programmes and now oversees 43 dancers. It would be natural to assume that anyone so intensely involved with what they do on a daily basis would suffer from burnout, but not Mr Jefferies. "I eat, breathe, sleep this ballet company and so I wake up thinking about it," he says.
So what should you do if you have been bitten by the ballet bug? Mr Jefferies believes it is better to start sooner rather than later, saying, "The later dancers start, the more difficulty they have in becoming professionals." Therefore, unless you already have a solid background in ballet or dance, it is probably unrealistic to attend an audition or think of making a career in this fiercely competitive field.
But for those who do have some years of dance training and dream of performing in front of adoring fans around the world, the opportunity is there for the taking, provided they also have unwavering commitment. According to Mr Jefferies, prospective dancers must have a burning passion for their craft, demonstrable technical ability and recognised, formal training.
As a classical company, the Hong Kong Ballet places emphasis on touring. "It's very important to be recognised in your own field internationally," explains Mr Jefferies. "Performing abroad is an integral part of our work."
A typical day begins at 10 am with class for an hour and a half. This involves basic stretching exercises that help keep the dancers fit and agile. Going back to the basics every day with these stretching exercises can make dancing seem almost like a religion. Rehearsals begin afterwards and last until 6 pm. Throughout, Mr Jefferies consults with his assistant director and staff regarding the repertoire of the company.
While job opportunities for dancers are scarce in Hong Kong, salaries for juniors are very attractive. "During the '70s we had the dance boom. At the moment, though, the ballet world is in a bit of a lull for many reasons, mainly financial," he reflects. However, there does appear to be a steady growth of interest in ballet. As proof, Mr Jefferies gives examples of being approached in the streets of mainland China by ordinary people who recognise him. "They are knowledgeable about ballet and opera. The average Chinese person knows more about culture than someone you would meet in London."
Ballet has been going strong in China for the past 50 years, thanks in large part to the contribution of the Russians who helped establish the Beijing Dance Academy. "They are well supported by the local government which realises it's an important part of their culture. I've been to about 20 cities in China and each has its own academy," says Mr Jefferies.
Though the opportunities to work in ballet are clearly more abundant on the mainland, performers should not expect lucrative contracts. Hong Kong pays a higher wage than mainland ballet companies.
But those who really thirst for adventure could set their sights further afield. As ballet jobs are limited in Hong Kong, prospective dancers might fare better in Europe, with its greater number of professional ballet companies.