Mastering Perfection: An Interview with Hong Kong Ballet’s Heidi Lee

By Stephanie Chan

“Confidence is built upon the perfection of every detail,” says Heidi Lee, executive director of Hong Kong Ballet, who was named 2021’s Master of the Arts by AmCham’s Women of Influence (WOI) committee.

In the ballet world—notoriously full of perfectionists—Lee can certainly hold her own with the artists around her. Lee is “yim tzim”—picky—in every detail, down to correcting the phrasing of HKB’s social media posts. “Even one word, the meaning changes so much,” she says.

She spent her formative years at St. Mary’s Canossian School, where the nuns drilled this attention to detail into their students. The selective Catholic girls’ school in Tsim Sha Tsui is well known for its annual original musical productions, and Lee says she was fascinated with how each show came together magically. Through working behind the scenes on her first production, “A Christmas Carol,” she fell in love with the performing arts.

After St. Mary’s, Lee eschewed university for the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts, receiving her degree in stage management. She built up her arts administration career over the following two decades, working at the Hong Kong Repertory Theatre and the Hong Kong Dance Company, among others. In 2020 Lee was appointed to her current post at the Hong Kong Ballet.

Lee with her classmates and teachers

Lee is one of six female executive directors leading the nine major performing arts organizations in Hong Kong. She attributes this female predominance to the ambitious and hardworking “Kong girl” personality: “Hong Kong women are very independent and tough.” 

At the same time, the women (and men) in Lee’s position need to possess a softness in order to work successfully with artists. “It’s not easy to work with artists because they are incredibly intricate,” she says. “It’s the quality of their unlimited creativity.”

Her role, as she sees it, is to stay calm, step back, give advice and support. 

When it comes to the strategic growth of the company, Lee steps forward to lead. One of Lee’s driving forces is to redefine the value of ballet and performing arts in Hong Kong. She is inspired by the US’s philanthropic culture, where private individuals, foundations and corporations dominate funding for the arts. “[Giving to the arts] is just so natural in the United States,” she says. 

Accordingly, the HKB launched its first crowdfunding campaign last fall in support of its sparkling new Nutcracker production. The campaign is about more than just raising money: it’s also about raising awareness and acknowledging the people behind HKB’s magical productions.

Lee with Septime Webre, Artistic Director of Hong Kong Ballet

“It’s an education and advocacy [initiative] to let the community know…why we need resources and funding,” she says. “Because we’re producing high-quality, close-to-perfect ballet productions.”

The other challenge on Lee’s radar is raising HKB’s regional and global profile. Under Beijing’s 14th Five-Year Plan, announced in August 2021, Hong Kong will increasingly serve as a hub for cultural and arts exchange between China and the world. Lee, who previously held various roles in arts management at Shantou University, Guangdong, is well suited to participate in this process. 

The 2nd Shantou University MIDI Campus Music

Since Lee started her career in arts management, she observes, “Hong Kong’s cultural and creative industries have reached a mature stage.” She believes Hong Kong Ballet and some of the city’s other performing arts groups can help fulfill the mainland’s strong demand for world-class arts productions. 

Looking forward, then, Lee sees an exciting mission for her organization: “To use our own practices as a cultural mediator, and how we look at the world, and act as a bridge between arts culture and the public.”

Cover photo: The Nutcracker (Dancers – front row, from left: Wang Yueh Erica, Zhang Xuening; Photography: Mak Cheong Wai)