Little chance to bloom

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 January, 2012, 12:00am

Hong Kong has been cultivating home-grown professional performing arts groups since the 1970s, but the city's orchestras and dance troupes are still far too under-staffed by local talent, according to its cultural managers.

This artistic gap, they warn, will become even more acute once the HK$21.6 billion showpiece arts hub in West Kowloon opens its 15 venues beginning in 2015. They point to issues including poor pay, cultural factors and students starting training at too late an age.

'We want to hire more locals, but we can't - there's no one around for us to hire,' says Margaret Yang, chief executive of the Hong Kong Sinfonietta. She believes that only a strong presence of local artists will sustain the city's arts development in the long run.

Michael MacLeod, chief executive of the Philharmonic Orchestra, agrees, saying: 'If [we had to choose between] two people of equal standing - one from Hong Kong and one from Italy - I suspect we would hire the Hong Kong person. But the bottom line is, an orchestra stands or falls on its artistic standards, and we have to hire the best people for the job.'

It's not as though the government isn't addressing the issue. The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (APA) was established in 1984 to provide tertiary-level training for professional artists. At a cost of HK$219,476 for each full-time student, according to the Home Affairs Bureau, the APA this year produced 390 graduates at all levels - from certificate to master's degrees - in six disciplines: dance (74 graduates), drama (48), film and television (48), music (89), theatre and entertainment arts (112), and Chinese traditional theatre (19).

The APA's subsidy for this financial year is more than HK$236 million.

As for arts and culture in general, government spending in the current financial year is more than HK$2.82 billion - or 1 per cent of annual government expenditure. That includes more than HK$264 million dedicated to the nine flagship performing arts groups: Hong Kong Ballet, Hong Kong Dance Company, City Contemporary Dance Company (CCDC), Hong Kong Repertory Theatre, Chung Ying Theatre, Zuni Icosahedron, the Philharmonic, Sinfonietta and Chinese Orchestra.

On that basis an observer might expect to see a constant local supply of performing artists. In New York, of the 98 musicians listed on the New York Philharmonic's website, 69 received tertiary-level musical training in the United States. Forty-one studied at the renowned Juilliard School, regardless of nationality.

But the Sinfonietta's Yang says a similar hiring pattern has not occurred in Hong Kong: in the past five years, the Sinfonietta has hired only five APA local graduates. 'Clearly we want to employ Hong Kong people, but we have better response [to employment adverts] from overseas,' she said.

Yang cited statistics from a round of auditions in August. In 12 live Sinfonietta auditions - for the positions of principal horn, assistant principal double bass and tutti double bass - only three candidates were from Hong Kong. Two came from Japan, two from Taiwan and two from mainland China; one each came from the United States, France and Singapore.

The limited local talent pool is not the result of the quality of the Hong Kong academy's programmes or students, says APA director Kevin Thompson. Many graduates have been snapped up by employers including Disneyland, Macau casinos and Cirque de Soleil. Further, it is common in the arts world for performing arts groups to have an international ensemble, he said.

'We have some stunning students, but we also have students who might not be quite as good. It would be very unusual for someone going through a three-year bachelor programme, anywhere in the world, to become a professional musician [performing] in a group,' Thompson said.

'A lot of our theatre [and] dance graduates are engineering their own micro-sized companies, and they are very successful.'

Thompson denied suggestions that the APA's curriculum did not meet industry needs. In the past year, the academy has conducted six meetings with all professional arts groups in Hong Kong, including those outside of the nine major government-funded arts groups, he said.

The academy has also engaged advisers from the industry to ensure its curriculum was geared towards the industry's needs, Thompson said. 'We try to keep it current the whole time.'

Yang said the low pay and lack of prospects for professional performers could also be an issue, and that some music graduates did not find the arts field desirable.

'There might be some brilliant [APA graduates] who don't go for auditions but happily teach instead,' Yang said. 'Why should one be bothered joining an orchestra, making some HK$10,000 a month and getting pressure from the conductor and peers, when you have parents going head over heels for your services and offering HK$800 to HK$1,000 an hour for private tuition?'

Drama and film graduates can opt for the thriving film and entertainment business, where a number of APA graduates have become award-winning actors and film directors.

In the case of the Sinfonietta, Yang said, musicians could only work part time - in rehearsals or training - because the orchestra cannot afford to hire musicians full time. 'They don't work [in the orchestra] in the afternoon so that they can work somewhere else, because we don't pay them enough,' Yang said. 'If we want to pay them full time, we need to double our budget.'

MacLeod said the Philharmonic's musicians have fixed paid hours from Wednesdays to Saturdays, and they have to practise constantly outside those hours. 'If you don't practise, the teammates will notice, and they are not going to like it. So there's peer pressure,' MacLeod said.

He agreed that individual teaching was a tempting alternative to playing in an orchestra, as mothers in Hong Kong were willing to pay a high price to have their children learn to play a musical instrument. 'So there's a demand for teachers, and [some] people go teach after leaving the APA,' he said. Some players in the Philharmonic earned more by teaching than playing in the orchestra, he said.

He admitted that the pay at the Philharmonic, Hong Kong's largest performing arts group, was not competitive. He declined to reveal Hong Kong salary figures, but said it is 'way below' the world's top orchestras like New York, London and Vienna. 'I would like [the salary] to be better, and I'm negotiating with various organisations in order to try to increase the basic pay of our musicians,' MacLeod said.

The artistic director at Hong Kong Ballet, Madeleine Onne, gives APA graduates the first chance to audition, 'and it's not until after I have seen them that I have arranged auditions abroad', she said.

Even so, her troupe has only 10 APA graduates out of 42 full-time dancers.

Onne praised the training provided by APA and the fact that Hong Kong has many ballet schools. 'But I get the sense that parents are reluctant for their children to pursue a career in ballet; it's really seen as a hobby,' she said. 'We need more financial support ... so [that] we can pay the dancers a salary that is in line with other occupations.'

The APA provides a tertiary level of professional training. But music and dance disciplines require students to begin their training at a much younger age than they generally do in Hong Kong.

Onne said that almost every big company or opera house around the world is connected to a ballet school, which begins accepting students from the age of nine, and trains them until the age of 17 to 18.

At the New York City Ballet, for example, most of the dancers come from the company's official school, the American School of Ballet. Eighty-one of the 87 dancers listed on the company's website were trained there, including all 77 of its American-born dancers.

'If you start late, you simply can't make it,' said one APA dance graduate. 'I remain in this field as an administrator, but many simply become teachers or perform at Disneyland or Macau [casinos], not with arts groups.'

Thompson said many countries and regions, including the mainland, have primary or junior high schools linked to arts academies, and the APA has been trying to bring in talented students in their teenage years to start a degree early. 'But we are in great danger of losing those students at the age of 16 when the [public] exam pressure cuts in,' he said.

One solution, said Thompson, was to build an arts high school at the West Kowloon hub, and the APA has been pushing for this. Another approach was to establish connections with local secondary schools so talented youngsters can be brought to the APA for specialist training - with full academic credit - one day a week, said Thompson.

The academy is undergoing a review of its role and organisational structure, to meet the challenges of the coming 15 to 20 years. Thompson said the academy must change, and was studying which model to follow. The review will be completed in the first quarter of this year, and the results will be released to the public after getting approval from the academy's council.

At the end of the day, Hong Kong's arts scene should not rely on importing foreigners, Yang said. 'It's not just the arts, but also for any other businesses. You simply don't want expats who can leave the town at any time. You want people who have an attachment and loyalty to this place ...

'It takes not two years but 10 years to build an [arts group's] style,' Yang said. 'If we want West Kowloon to be successful and sustainable, we need a paradigm shift.'


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