Something had to give if you found yourself in Hong Kong in March – and that something was sleep. With the Hong Kong Arts Festival in full swing, and Art Basel and Art Central just the tip of the contemporary art iceberg, locals and visitors alike embarked on an arts marathon.
Laughing jet lag in the face, Ballet to the People zipped from airport to the Cultural Centre (via the Airport Express – surely the planet’s most efficient airport-to-metropolis link) just in time to see the beautiful men showcased in the drily named Asia Dance Platform VII.
Hyoseung Ye, who left Korea to dance with Carolyn Carlson and, later, with Alain Platel, delivered a profound performance of alienation to a score cobbled from Chopin and Antony and the Johnsons. This was paired with an irresistible pas de deux à trois by the Taiwanese troupe HORSE, that featured an unusual game of badminton and a piano played in outlandish ways.
Next up, two very different plays stamped with their own distinctive brands of feminism.
A classic production of Pride and Prejudice from Dublin’s Gate Theatre struck a chord with the worldly Hong Kong audience, especially in the character of Mrs. Bennet, who is fixated on the income of her daughters’ suitors and on the value of their property holdings.
The Amahs, newly commissioned by the Arts Festival from filmmaker Roger Lee Yan-lam and playwright Wong Wing-sze, paid tribute to a generation of women, poor and mostly illiterate, who, upon the decline of the handspun silk industry in China in the first half of the 1900s, migrated to Hong Kong to work as servants in the households of wealthy Chinese and expatriates.
Originality and crackerjack dancing were on ample display at the Arts Festival’s week-long Contemporary Dance Series. Young Hong Kong choreographers furnished two double bills and a third programme crammed with seven 10-minute pieces. Sponsored by the Hong Kong Jockey Club, the series is in its fourth year and provides an important platform for emerging dance-makers.
The Contemporary Dance Series was characterized by a preoccupation with male-male partnering, and also by the superb and sophisticated crafting of scores, with music ranging from Bach to the hypnotic Moon Ate the Dark, the blues of Junior Kimbrough, a custom-made electronic score by Moon Yip, and Japanese experimental rock band Boris.
A stone’s throw from the Arts Festival theatres, inside a spectacular 10,000 square metre tent erected right on Hong Kong’s Central harbour front, the upstart Art Central kicked off a day ahead of Art Basel – positioning itself not as a rival but as a satellite showcase for less established artists, as well as some of the giants of global contemporary art. The vibe was stylish, hip, and not a little irreverent. 75 galleries exhibited work from 21 countries – with strong representation from local Hong Kong and Asian galleries.
Raced back to the theatre for some opera: an audacious contemporary Chinese chamber opera crafted around highly charged episodes in Chinese political history, by an all-Hong Kong team commissioned by the Arts Festival. A pioneering Chinese feminist serves as the heroine of Datong, powerfully sung by soprano Louise Kwong.
Librettist Evans Chan, composer Chan Hing-yan and director Tang Shu-wing have situated Datong over a period of successive upheavals in China, in a manner that resonates in the Chinese political climate today. The score is arresting, with hints of the “Star-Spangled Banner” and the Beatles “Let It Be.” Teddy Roosevelt makes an appearance.
“I always wanted to waltz in Berlin,” warbled American songwriter Jack Little blithely in a World War II ditty, “the way things look, we’ll be waltzing right in… right in to Germany.” With that tune, Gandini Juggling waltzed into our hearts in the opening number of Smashed.
With the ghost of Pina Bausch visible in the wings, this troupe of nine kept apples and crockery flying through the air with an astonishing deftness, to the accompaniment of Tammy Wynette, Louis Armstrong, and Bach. But there is a dark heart to Smashed. Chaos gradually sets in, and the evening closes on an exhilarating and terrifying scene of destruction. Not a single teacup or apple survives, but you’ll be relieved to hear the brilliant performers escape without so much as a scratch.
The six-week Arts Festival was ushered to a majestic close by the Bolshoi Ballet, offering Balanchine’s Jewels and Ratmansky’s The Flames of Paris.
Over coffee with Ballet to the People, Artistic Director Sergei Filin talked casting, politics, the company’s identity, and his ongoing battle to recover from the brutal acid attack that occurred two years ago.