Throughout the past year and a half, the concept of live performance has taken on a new form and new meanings all over the world. At Eaton, one of Hong Kong’s most innovative creative labs, the team has adapted by creating events that could transfer the establishment’s diverse line-up into the digital realm.

Last spring, however, Director of Culture Chantal Wong a had the idea to do something completely different, something that could still be safe for the community but also include an actually live element. “Through the Looking Glass,” put a clever twist on a socially distanced performance by creating a show that could be experienced from hotel rooms, serving as private theatre boxes, with guests overlooking performers on Terrible Baby’s terrace on the 4th floor.

A ground-breaking project, the two-day cultural showcase paid tribute to Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking Glass with a whimsical reinterpretation that included a performance of Orpheus Cabaret by the Hong Kong Ballet, and highlighted the parallels between the classic Greek Myth and Carroll’s beloved novel.

We recently caught up with Chantal Wong and Eaton HK’s Founder-President Katherine Lo to discuss the innovative event, its significance and what’s next for hotel’s ground-breaking culture programme.

“Through the Looking Glass” seen from a hotel room

How did the idea of ‘Through the Looking Glass’ originate?

Chantal Wong: Last year was tricky. The previous year, we hosted 680 events at Eaton HK, so the 2020 lockdown was a rude awakening. We were, and still are, committed to social distancing and keeping our community safe, so we did our best to produce compelling programming online. But I think people really missed the ‘live’ element of performance. With a livestream or video, your gaze is controlled by the camera lens, but when taking in a live performance, your focus might drift to the set, the lighting… even the reaction of other audience members. It’s undeniable that a live show offers a totally different viewing experience.

We decided to adapt to the ‘new normal’ by coming up with this wild idea – our Managing Director Dirk Dalichau threw out a wild idea to use the terrace as a stage, putting on a live performance whilst keeping everyone ‘safe’. We opted to activate one of our most precious spaces – the Terrible Baby terrace – and used the surrounding hotel rooms as theatre boxes. The design of the property means that the rooms actually surround the fourth floor terrace, or in this case our ‘stage’, in the same way balcony or stall seats in a theatre hall would. It was the perfect set up for taking in a show.

Live entertainment has almost disappeared over the past year and a half. What was it like to organise a live performance during the pandemic?

CL: There is a certain adrenaline to bringing a performance to life. There is so much to consider: what if the tech fails and no music plays? What if no one comes to see it? What if no one enjoys the show? You can’t quite recreate that positive anxiety with digital programming.

When Eaton is not putting on performances and exhibitions, coming up with ideas, partnering with people to create new things, it kind of feels like the heart and soul of Eaton is missing – all levels of the team feel it – so this programme was extremely important to us on a personal level! It was really uplifting to see people enjoy it and little girls come down to meet the dancers after the show.

It’s also important for artists to have audiences. Performing and creating something beautiful that can be shared with others is our self-expression. When we aren’t able to do that, it feels like part of us is missing; this event was important for all involved.

The Orpheus Cabaret was performed live at Eaton for the first time

Since its opening, Eaton has been at the forefront of innovative cultural experiences. What is your vision, in this sense?

CL: Katherine Lo, the Founder and President of Eaton, has always envisioned it as a cultural space that would provide artists and creatives with opportunities to create and bring visibility to their work. For me, I get excited by the process of creating and collaboration and Katherine is so supportive of all of the events and programming we put forward. I love that moment when someone throws out a crazy idea and everyone around the table gets excited and builds on it. I always say to my team “if we get excited about it, then other people will, too”. I like transcending the norm and getting other people and audiences to imagine new possibilities.

Can you tell our readers about the show, The Orpheus Cabaret, and how you have adapted it to social distance norms?

CL: The Orpheus Cabaret is a piece by the Hong Kong Ballet that tells the tragic myth of Orpheus and his beloved Eurydice in seven parts, each part developed by a different choreographer. Unfortunately due to COVID-19 the work had only ever been filmed and viewed by audiences via Zoom. As such, Hong Kong Ballet’s Artistic Director, Septime Webre, and the Eaton team decided to bring it to a live audience but with a twist. It was an honour to be able to do this at Eaton.

The Orpheus Cabaret was performed live at Eaton for the first time, so it was a heartfelt and moving moment for everyone involved, especially the dancers.

Will you continue to organise events like this in the future?

CL: We will continue creating works that respond to and embrace the social distancing restrictions. It can be fun to create within a set of rules – it pushes us to rise to the challenge and conceptualise new and interesting events. Next, we’re working on our Movement Festival (we held the first 24 hour Movement Festival in December 2019), trying to explore the potential of creating for a socially distant future.

Performers greet viewers from Terrible Baby’s terrace at the end of “Through the Looking Glass”

How was it to work with the Hong Kong Ballet, did you conceptualise the show together?

CL: We LOVE working with the Hong Kong Ballet. Septime and his team are super energetic and open to experimenting, the dancers and choreographers are extremely talented, and we really respect each other’s work. We have been working with them since 2019 on developing new works, on supporting artists in residence, and bringing dance to the public in different ways.

Normally, my team and I come up with a concept like “Through the Looking Glass” and we reach out to the Hong Kong Ballet who – time willing – are excited to come up with a programme together that suits the space, audience and context.

Are you working on any upcoming events at Eaton?

Yes! Breathe Deep is a community campaign inviting the public to submit portraits of Hong Kong’s trees in the form of photographs, drawings and other works on paper launched on 22 April, International Mother Earth Day. The aim of the project is to highlight the beauty, value and fragility of our city’s trees. Hong Kong’s nature has been vital to our mental wellbeing especially during COVID-19, and this is a humble gesture to acknowledge the gift we have around us. The project, culminating in a big exhibition opening on 12 June, is a reminder to myself as well, that every time I take a breath to be present to my connection to nature and trees. In partnership with National Geographic Asia, we will select one winner from the public submissions whose work will be presented on Nat Geo Asia and Eaton HK Social Media.

Since its opening, Eaton has been at the forefront of innovative art and entertainment performances. What is your vision, in this sense?

Katherine Lo: My vision with creating Eaton Workshop is to use hospitality as a way to create a better world, by reimagining our physical and digital spaces as a true cultural center – a platform for the arts and social and environmental impact. I’ve taken my biggest influences in life – music, art, film, anthropology, and social consciousness – and built Eaton upon this foundation.

One of my goals with Eaton is to open Eatons in cities where it will really make a difference. Growing up in Hong Kong, most kids live with their grandparents and don’t have anywhere to hang out except shopping malls. In my 20s, I became engaged with Hong Kong’s arts, film, and music scenes, and found that rehearsal spaces, music studios, and art exhibition space was precious and rare. I was inspired by my coming-of-age experiences in the art and music scenes in Hong Kong and Berlin, with cultural spaces such as Videotage in Hong Kong, and DIY art galleries that people created even within the tiny spaces of their own apartments or record stores that they opened on a shoestring budget, armed only with a love for sharing and exhibiting original and ground-breaking music.

With each of our properties, the Eaton Workshop team spent time meeting with and listening to local communities about what they needed to support their work. What we heard from most Hong Kongers is that they needed space to pursue their ventures and passions. We have designed spaces within Eaton HK such as our independent art gallery, cinema, community radio station, music venue, recording studio, coworking space, and local retail platform as a place for Hong Kong’s artists, changemakers, creatives, and music lovers to convene, create, and collaborate.

Eaton DC and Eaton HK not only serve as a hotel, but each property also acts as a gallery space for commissioned works of art from the local community. Every piece of art we commission or curate for the space carries a deeper message that is built around our values. Eaton’s collection of works will continue to evolve in order to express and address the state of the city, country, and planet through the lens of the artist.

Through transforming our hotel into an actual theatre and repurposing our Terrible Baby terrace into a stage, and our rooms into theatre boxes, we are actualising our goal of being a mixed-use space that benefits the community. We were able to support not only The Hong Kong Ballet, one of the city’s best known cultural assets, but also those who have craved access to culture for so long.

(Hero Image: The terrace at Terrible Baby)