Culture as child's play
Three years after attending a packed performance of Circus Incognitus in Hong Kong, I can still recall the delight on people's faces as they took in Jamie Adkins' one-man show that mixed juggling, balancing and comedy to yield all manner of fun stunts. And judging from the laughter from both adults and children, I would say pre-teens were not the only ones enjoying that International Arts Carnival attraction.
The carnival is Asia's largest family-oriented arts festival, and the latest edition, which runs to August 19, promises bumper treats for the young and young at heart. It has got off to a lively start this weekend with the Estonian National Ballet's production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre.
This summer cultural extravaganza encompasses activities to keep youngsters entertained over the school holidays. They include various workshops, talks and tours of museums and cultural venues besides stage performances and movie screenings. This year's associated International Children's Film Carnival, for example, features cinematic gems such as the 1931 Charlie Chaplin classic City Lights and KJ: Music and Life, Cheung King-wai's 2009 documentary about a local piano prodigy.
But if experience is any indicator, standouts in this carnival - presented by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department - will be found among the wide-ranging performing arts offerings.
The carnival has its roots in a children's arts carnival set up by the former Urban Council in 1990. The performing arts programme is geared specifically for children. Most presentations - including Splendid, a 13-act acrobatic spectacle staged by the China National Acrobatic Troupe (next Sunday, Tuen Mun Town Hall; July 17, 18, Sha Tin Town Hall) - are described as 'best for ages three and above'.
Only one production - entitled White - is described as being 'best for ages two to four'. It's a playful drama inspired by a photo of a house made of white muslin that Andy Manley, its Edinburgh-based creator, spotted in an interior design magazine.
'Inside were two white chairs and a bare bulb. It was beautiful, but a question came to me: 'How would the introduction of colour change this white world?'' recalls Manley.
From this idea, Scottish troupe Catherine Wheels Theatre Company developed a show revolving around two characters (played by Sean Hay and Ross Allan) whose job is to look after eggs and keep the white, ordered world they live in clean and tidy. But one day, colour arrives in this realm, and the world changes in surprising ways.
The actors describe White (Kwai Tsing Theatre, Wednesday to July 17) as a highly visual work that also has 'some strange but wonderful sounds and music'. And although conceived for two- to four-year-olds, Hay says this play has been enjoyed by young and old since its premiere two years ago, when it won several awards at the 2010 Edinburgh Festival Fringe festival.
The Hong Kong Sinfonietta is another sterling example of a troupe whose offerings would appeal to a wide age range. For this year's carnival, the orchestra has put on a Know Your Ballet Music educational concert (Hong Kong City Hall, July 27-29) featuring excerpts from classics such as Petrushka and The Nutcracker. The music will be accompanied by demonstrations by dancers Carlo Pacis, Justyne Li, Roy Li Long-hin and choreographer-director Yuri Ng Yue-lit, who will co-present the programme with conductor Yip Wing-sie.
'I really appreciate that I can work with the Hong Kong Sinfonietta in this programme because I can take this opportunity to introduce some interesting works to the audience,' Ng says. 'Even though we are only presenting excerpts from each work, our goal is to engage the audience with the full ballets. It would be great if our concert inspires the audience to watch the actual works and even create their own.'
To boys who might be put off by the concert's ballet elements, dismissing the dance form as something for girls, Ng has a special message. First off, he points to the presence of male professionals such as himself and two of the dancers giving demonstrations.
'And if you ask me, the myth that ballet is more for girls should actually be a motivation for boys to dance ballet because they would be surrounded by many girls. After all, in most ballets, there is only one prince,' he adds.
Ng believes the misconception that ballet is mainly for girls is because the public seldom watches ballet, and when they do, the repertoire is generally limited to Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty. 'It is true that these classical ballet repertoires predominantly feature female dancers ... but contemporary ballet has increasingly elevated the role of the male dancer,' he says.
While the Sinfonietta's concert incorporates dance elements, the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra's presentation, The Eight Immortals' Adventure: Prequel, brings in theatrical elements. Billed as 'musical theatre for the family', Prequel aims to ride on the success of an earlier 'dramatised concert'. Presented in December, its Eight Immortals concert included puppetry, animation and a live actor.
The Eight Immortals' Adventure: Prequel (Cultural Centre Concert Hall, July 28-29) will feature a group of youthful thespians as the titular immortals of ancient Chinese mythology in a play written by Mike Chow, who also directs. On their part, musicians from the top-billed orchestra will focus on works composed by Alfred Wong.
However, conductor Chew Hee Chiat says 'some musicians will [also] act and perform as various characters in the play, and everyone has a lot of fun when involved in the acting'.
The legends of the Eight Immortals form a very important element in traditional Chinese culture, says the Malaysian-born Chew. In particular, it relates to Taoist philosophy and emphasises the importance of 'harmony between mankind and nature'.
And although the orchestra's concerts are generally aimed at adults, Chew says their carnival offerings are being presented with an eye on the future.
'We hope that by reaching out to kids, we can bring them the beauty of music at an early age and nurture their interest in Chinese music. They may become performers or loyal fans in the long run,' he says.
For more details on the International Arts Carnival, go to hkiac.gov.hk, or call Urbtix on 2370 1044