In a fast-paced, high-tech society where people have easy access to on-demand movies and TV shows, is ballet dying? Belinda Lau, Finance Director of Hong Kong Ballet, tells Jemelyn Yadao that it's not, and how the dance company is helping ballet leap gracefully into the hearts of today's audiences
A story of an eccentric toymaker, his enchanting life-sized doll and a prying couple, Coppélia has everything a good family-friendly ballet should – magic, humour, and beautiful costumes and sets. A few hours before the show's opening night at the Sha Tin Town Hall, Belinda Lau walks through the stage door into a vast room with black walls and floor where the stage crew is setting up, and is gripped by what's happening behind the scenes.
“There's so much that happens backstage that the audience never sees. The best thing about the backstage ballet experience is that you get to see all the elements involved, like the movable scenery, and the people,” says Lau, Finance Director at the Hong Kong Ballet and a Hong Kong Institute of CPAs member, citing those who are the backbone of all performances. “I don't just look at the numbers, I also help to make sure that everyone is safe when they are doing their jobs.”
Hong Kong Ballet, one of the premier classical ballet companies in Asia, actively goes outside its home base, the Hong Kong Cultural Centre in Tsim Sha Tsui, bringing the dance to those in different suburban areas. The company performed the-ballet-of-all-ballets Swan Lake in Yuen Long in August last year, and returned to Sha Tin Town Hall auditorium after its last visit with The Sleeping Beauty in 2013.
The company’s repertoire includes full-length ballets, classical and neoclassical works of the 19th to 21st centuries, acclaimed contemporary ballets, and classic productions choreographed especially for children. In recent years, it has won recognition regionally and internationally. Another side that is much talked about is how the government-subsidized troupe lacks a permanent venue to rehearse and perform, notes Lau. “The phrase 'Hong Kong Ballet doesn't have a home,' is so overused. This means that while we are normally based at the Cultural Centre, the dancing studio is on a rental basis, so when there's an arts festival we have to move out,” she explains. “We don't own the dressing room, lockers and dance equipment. Money is another challenge. I don't think the government is willing to increase the fixed amount given to us.”
The company is also adapting to the recent announcement that its artistic director of nearly eight years has decided to leave in June. Madeleine Onne, a former Principal Dancer of the Royal Swedish Ballet, had led the company's artistic team of about 45 dancers from Hong Kong, Mainland China and other parts of Asia, as well as in Europe and North America.
Finding a suitable replacement is a painstaking process, yet Lau is full of optimism. “Artistic director is a very important role. Luckily, Hong Kong is seen as an attractive, well-connected city, so there’s a good number of applicants for the job. It's the same when we recruit dancers. Good quality people worldwide would apply. So we have to work very hard to maintain our high-level reputation in order to attract good talent,” she says, adding that the new artistic director could be announced within the next couple of months.
Dancing into a new era
Hong Kong Ballet, which was formed in 1979, is often compared with the grandeur ballet companies of Europe that have more than 200-300 years of heritage, such as the Paris Opera Ballet and the Royal Danish Theatre. Lau doesn't see the company's juvenility as a weakness. “Compared to our Western counterparts, Hong Kong Ballet has a lot of room to grow, which is why I was excited when I joined this company,” says Lau, who joined in 2014.
The future of ballet itself has been widely debated. Critics point to the dance as being old-fashioned – ballets have taken inspiration from folk-fairy tales and Shakespeare plays, among other things – in today's technologically driven society. Ballet is responding with an enthusiastic rush to reinvent itself, observes Lau. “In places in Europe, there have been ballet shows incorporating 3D and 4D experiences, so they are coming up with new ways to make ballet more fresh.”
In some cases, she adds, ballet would crossover with other performance art forms. During the recent 2017 Hong Kong Ballet Ball, one of its dancers performed a unique dance that was a combination of classical ballet and pole dancing. “Our ballet dancer trained for a month in pole dancing to bring the audience something new,” says Lau. “Of course, you still have to do the classics like Swan Lake and maintain heritage, but you also have to extend your audience group and attract younger audiences. Once you attract them, they are more likely to come back and watch the classical ballets.”
Lau believes Hong Kong's performing arts industry has a promising future. “If you look at the number of ballet schools in Hong Kong today, certainly the number of people here interested in learning the dance is going up,” she says, citing SDM Jazz and Ballet Academie, a Hong Kong-listed dance school, as an example. “The West Kowloon Cultural District development project is another reason why I see this industry improving, not declining.”
“ A higher-priced ticket model would give us a higher income but a smaller audience. The company would rather dismiss that model and have more people see the shows – different from the commercial world.”
With predictions saying that the number of drones in the United States, by 2010, will exceed 7 millions, drones are most certainly becoming commonplace, but can they really be considered that innocent? How is it possible to differentiate a hobbyist purchase from a malicious plot?
However, even if one were to support the registration rulings, another figure sounds alarming, the fact that, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (U.S. Department of Transportation), only one third of drones are accounted for. To come that conclusion, they simply did the math and compared the number of drones sold during the holiday season in 2015 and the number of drone registrations. Overwhelming to say the least.
So, with that context mind, what kind of changes can the FAA introduce to better control drone registration? But also, where will the independent committee appointed by the government draw the line? Will it target private flyers, focus on regulating commercial use, fight criminal use or even governmental use?
Art of funding
Working for a non-governmental organization, Lau spends much of her time explaining to the board how to get the best return on investment. Other than finance, she oversees the back-office operations, including human resources, administration as well as information technology.
In June last year, Hong Kong's Home Affairs Bureau launched the Art Development Matching Grants Pilot Scheme in which eligible local arts groups and organizations – including Chung Ying Theatre Company, Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra and Hong Kong Ballet – may receive matching grants from the government for the amount of donations or sponserships they raise.
Hong Kong Ballet reacted positively to the news, according to Lau. “All of us – the nine big performing arts groups – were very positive about the scheme. In the public’s eye, the performing arts doesn't seem to need donations as much as the large charities do. This scheme helps to raise the people’s awareness about how essential these grants are for us,” she says. Apart from public funding, the ballet's performances are funded through box office revenue and independent fundraising.
This not-for-profit working environment was new to Lau who had joined the company after 17 years in the results-driven public relations and marketing industry. Her last role was regional chief financial officer at Ogilvy Public Relations Asia Pacific.
When joining Hong Kong Ballet, Lau had to adjust her mindset. “Coming from an marketing and communications company, I straight away noticed the difference in attitudes and working styles at an NGO, where they are not focused on making more money but rather how to contribute to the community,” she says. She recalls the first time she was informed about the company's approach to box ticket revenue. “A higher-priced ticket model would give us a higher income but a smaller audience. The company would rather dismiss that model and have more people see the shows – different from the commercial world.
“But I also saw an opportunity for me to bring the good practices from the commercial world to the company to make the workflow more efficient, and do things a little more aggressively to get better results.”
Learning new moves
An accountancy graduate from the Kwai Chung Technical Institute, Lau's career began at KPMG, where she worked for three years, followed by a stint in the manufacturing sector where she oversaw the finance functions of two companies.
In 1997, Lau's career shifted to the fast-paced marketing communications industry, and she joined Ogilvy & Mather Hong Kong as finance manager. She eventually moved up the ranks to become regional CFO (public relations) in 2012, being responsible for the company's operations within more than 20 Asia-Pacific markets.
Her experience at the PR company, she says, manages to be useful even in the world of dance. “I worked with the smartest marketing people who are so good at communicating and selling. I've learnt that it's not just about the content, how you present it. This is something that I apply to my day-to-day work now when I deal with, say, the dancers.”
The decision to leave wasn't an easy one, says Lau. “The marketing industry is so much fun. I enjoyed it very much. But at that point, I just knew that I wasn't going to spend the rest of my career just in this industry. I wanted to do something different.”
The theatrical arts has always been a lingering interest for Lau, who immediately applied for the finance director role after seeing the job opening in the newspaper. Despite travelling regularly as part of her regional role at the marketing company, Lau would try to go see a concert or theatre production at least once a month. “When you are at the theatre, you become so relaxed and forget about anything else. So, in a way, I've got my dream job.”
What makes it a dream job is the people, she says. “Everyone here, no matter at what level, is passionate about what they do. In the commercial world, finding out how to engage your staff, and how to empower them tends to be a big challenge. But when I talk to people in the performing arts and see how they do their jobs, I can see their passion.”