Launched in 1973, the Hong Kong Arts Festival (HKAF) is one the region’s biggest and longest-running festivals of its kind, encompassing all genres of the performing arts. The month-long event, in its 45th year, showcases the work of top international ensembles and artists, as well as local and rising talents, in venues throughout Hong Kong.
HKAF’s executive director Tisa Ho tells us about the important role of spectators in any performance, what makes Hong Kong artists stand out, and some of the challenges of organizing the annual festival.
Tisa Ho got hooked onto performing early in life; it was her debut role in a kindergarten play that marked the beginning of a passion that endures to this day. After having worked for the Singapore Arts Festival and the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, just to name a few, Ho moved back to her home country and joined the HKAF in 2006.
1. The Hong Kong Arts Festival is curated for Hongkongers
HKAF is part of Hong Kong’s history, and it’s very connected to the city. There are lots of festivals that bear the name of a city, but local people don’t actually participate in them. The Hong Kong Arts Festival is different: it’s really in, of and for Hong Kong.
We’d like to think that our festival offers something for everyone. We’re not serving one type of person, we’re serving many tastes and interests… that’s why the festival is so Hong Kong. We have all these different people with their different tastes here. The good thing is that in our team, we’re like gluttons at a buffet: we like it all!
2. The audience is just as important as the performers
The Hong Kong audience is willing to move outside its comfort zone, which is very important. That’s the only way you move and grow — otherwise you’re stuck in this diminishing circle of “I know what I like and I like what I know, I know what I like, I like what I know,” and it gets smaller and smaller and smaller…. that circle has to open and to expand.
Great audiences are so important to what we do to performing arts. I’m trying to avoid the world “develop” here because it’s didactic — but the development of the audience will also support the development of the arts in Hong Kong, of the people practicing the arts. I think the festival is part of that whole story of growth, generation and enrichment.
3. The local arts community isn’t weighed down by history or tradition
The festival also acts as a catalyst for the Hong Kong arts community. Our own artists have this extra input from visiting artists without having to travel. They can see other people’s latest [work], as well as revisit the classics, which might stimulate them to produce work. This, in turn, will feed back into the audience and the Hong Kong public.
[Local artists] are very open to possibilities and they’re immensely creative. They’re very responsive, they’ve got a lot of wit and spark. There’s a quality of lightness about them that’s quick and easy — like quicksilver. There are a lot of good companies overseas, but they work with a different kind of energy, a heavy energy that comes with size, scale, history and tradition. I think a lot of Hong Kong artists don’t carry this weight. They’re very light, they sparkle.
There are so many independent artists in Hong Kong, there are smaller companies, and lots of artists that we work with who have this quicksilver, fluid, responsive energy about them — it’s wonderful.
4. Lack of government funding and venues do pose a challenge
When you’re told your funding from the government is cut by half until further developments, it’s a bit disconcerting, but I think it’ll be okay in the end. The festival has always depended on sponsorships and ticket sales, and government funding has aways been low, but now there’s a potential to get a little bit more from the government because it will recognize and match what we get from our sponsors. In a way, it doesn’t change the relationships: our sponsors and audience have always been important to us and they continue to be very important to us.
One of the things that we try to do is program performances outside of our existing venues, and that’s so hard! One of the few cancellations we’ve ever had was when we tried to do something in a factory building, and at the last moment we didn’t get our public entertainment license permit because of fire regulations. We’re scrambling for space, so very often we’ll have to rent spaces from Hong Kong artists. I’d love for the building regulations to be amended. Yes, we need to look at safety, we shouldn’t be putting anybody’s life at risk, but it would be really helpful for those policies to be looked at.
5. The performing arts enrich our lives
[A good performance] makes the good things in life seem even better and it offers consolation when things are not quite so wonderful. It’s a very safe space in which to explore ideas and emotions that you can’t and don’t live out. I think [watching performances] is a necessary part of health for all people!
I think that the performing arts reaches depths and heights of human capability, human emotion, human intelligence, all of these things. Our daily lives are confined in this space and on the stage, this space becomes infinite. All that we are capable of, all that we can feel, all that we can imagine, all that we can think… the stage is where it happens — in a very good performance.
Nobody can promise you that this will happen every time, because there are so many variables, risks and different dimensions to any performance. But when it all does come together, there is nothing as satisfying — intellectually, psychologically, emotionally, aesthetically — deep within you as well as the other people in the room. You are able receive the thoughts, the emotions, the humanity of someone who’s been dead for 300 years. A good performance breaks all the boundaries of space, time and all the constraints we normally live with. So that’s why it’s amazing. Can you tell that I love this?
Our programming is a responsibility that we take very seriously, it’s really at the heart of what we do. A trend that I’d like us to take forward is to embrace our stakeholders more, and to be more participatory. During the festival, we’re doing an exhibition in the Hong Kong Cultural Centre which tells the story of the 45 years of the festival through our publications, and we encourage people to share what they think of the festival. But it’s an evolving and changing story. Ask me again in a year’s time!
The festival this year: February 16-March 18, 2017. See the Hong Kong Arts Festival website for more information and the full program.