When Olivia Kong started taking ballet lessons four years ago, her parents thought she was wasting her time. 'They told me to focus on my studies so I could get a good job, which means I should do something that would give me a stable income,' says the 17-year-old.
But even without much support from her parents, Olivia kept her passion alive and continued to dance. 'Sometimes words can't help you express yourself, but when you dance, you communicate without speaking a word,' she says.
Caleb Li, on the other hand, has had more support from his parents. The 14-year-old has been taking ballet lessons since kindergarten. He has also been on stage in the popular Christmas musical The Nutcracker with the Hong Kong Ballet. But his parents expect him to do well at school, too, if he wants to continue dancing. This has made Caleb more determined. 'I work even harder as I need to study and take dance lessons,' he says.
The two teenagers were selected in an audition to perform at the Shanghai Expo 2010. Their reactions were the same - surprise and delight.
The golden opportunity, as Caleb puts it, was provided by the British Council, in collaboration with the English National Ballet, City Contemporary Dance Company and Hong Kong Ballet.
Swanning Around brings together more than 150 students from Hong Kong, the mainland and Britain. Olivia and Caleb were among 26 students selected from auditions held here. 'It's a cultural experience for students from different places,' says Doris Fong, head of Arts and Creative Industries at the British Council. She says the project aims to help young people broaden their minds and accept other cultures.
Olivia and Caleb say being able to perform on stage at the Shanghai Expo is a dream come true, even though Olivia's parents are not too enthusiastic about it. 'They didn't object to it, but they didn't say anything either,' says Olivia.
But she is looking forward to the trip and has high expectations. 'It's fantastic to be performing with a group of students [from other places]. You don't just look at your own performance but also others'.'
Caleb adds: 'It will be so much fun. I will get to make friends with young people who also like dancing. And I will learn how a dance company works.'
The students will be more than mere witnesses to a troupe, says Jenna Lee, soloist of English National Ballet and key choreographer of the production. 'They are forming a little ballet company by joining the project,' she says. She will rehearse with the students in different places.
Lee says Swanning Around is an abstract interpretation of Swan Lake, mixing classical ballet with contemporary dance.
'Swan Lake is such a classic. When the music comes on, the students immediately recognise it,' says the 25-year-old professional dancer who has played lead roles in Swan Lake, Sleepy Beauty and Giselle.
She is particularly impressed by the Hong Kong students. 'They are disciplined and attentive, and they help each other out.'