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  • Dec 19, 2014
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When they were good they were very good - 2013 arts in review

Sam Olluver, Natasha Rogai, Kevin Kwong and John Batten recall the highlights and low points of arts in Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 December, 2013, 4:56pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 December, 2013, 4:56pm

Fears of political and self censorship cast a dark cloud over the local arts scene this year, with the Hong Kong Ballet controversially removing a politically sensitive scene from its production of The Dream of the Red Chamber.

It was reported the government-subsidised dance company cut a 12-minute sequence that featured performers in Red Guard uniforms waving copies of Mao Zedong's "Little Red Book", a reference to the Cultural Revolution, from the show. It remains unclear whether the edit was the troupe's own decision or a result of pressure from mainland officials, but after a media frenzy the segment was reinstated for the November performances.

But it hasn't been all doom and gloom. The West Kowloon Cultural District continues to make progress, with its planned museum M+ identifying architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron to design its building, its curatorial team more or less in place and more works being acquired for its collection. Its empty site has also been put to great use this year, hosting major arts and music events such as Clockenflap, Blohk Party and Freespace Fest.

In October, a number of "more liberal" sectorial representatives were successfully voted to the Hong Kong Arts Development Council, including Mui Cheuk-yin for dance, Ribble Chung Siu-mui for arts administration, Lo Wai-luk for arts criticism and Ng Mei-kwan for literary arts. Their appointments are likely to shake up the local cultural sector in 2014.

Meanwhile, our reviewers look back on the hits - and misses - that shaped our arts scene this year.

Classical music

The choral scene has been making itself heard this year, stoking hope that aspirations to eventually establish a semi-professional choir in the city may not be a pipe dream.

The Hong Kong Philharmonic Chorus, dormant for some considerable time, gave itself the kiss of life with a no-frills performance of Handel's Messiah in March. The Die Konzertisten chamber choir found itself under the baton of Jonathan Cohen, associate conductor of Les Arts Florissants, for Handel's Israel in Egypt, falling short only in terms of lung power in the context of the Cultural Centre's Concert Hall.

Singfest 2013 managed to raise two excellent ad hoc choirs: the first, comprising singers of high-school age, took on Haydn's The Creation, breathing a freshness into each chorus that must have delighted veteran conductor Helmut Rilling; the ranks of the second appeared only slightly older, enabling the public to savour two works not often performed by local resources: Brahms' Schicksalslied and Beethoven's Choral Fantasy.

Novelties made their mark here and there. The Hong Kong Philharmonic launched its successful Swire Denim Series, packing people in for post-supper, no-interval, 75-minute concerts starting at 9pm. The Hong Kong Sinfonietta stepped out of the box by premiering Gravitation in Time by GayBird (aka Leung Kei-cheuk), the local multimedia composer who presided by waving his hands over banks of electronica to produce an intriguing sonic fusion with the orchestra and a mechanical contraption.

The City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong continued to prove its mettle in terms of imaginative programming, equally at home working with instrumentalists such as percussionist Evelyn Glennie, and partnering flamenco dancers Romana Romero and Adrián Santana. Premiere Performances notched up its 4th Hong Kong International Chamber Music Festival (Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence with violinist Ning Feng was a memorable highlight) and presented top-class soloists who lived up to their fine reputations, pianist Hélène Grimaud being a disappointing exception.

The most distinguished concerts were naturally those that shunned surface flashiness, instead digging deep, intellectually and emotionally, to find the wavelength on which the music was penned. The Australian Chamber Orchestra, appearing at the Hong Kong Arts Festival, was one such example. Founder and director Richard Tognetti hit the spot with his reading of Haydn's Symphony No49 before appearing as soloist in a stylistically superb performance of Mozart's Violin Concerto No4, while Dvorak's Serenade for Strings enjoyed an impeccable interpretation that would have brought even the composer to his feet.

A new concert venue at the University of Hong Kong made a discreet debut in June, featuring the Emerson String Quartet. The Grand Hall at the Lee Shau Kee Lecture Centre was exemplary in both acoustics and etiquette, projecting the following message onto the back of the stage before the performance: "If your mobile phone goes off during the concert, you will be required to sing Nessun dorma on stage as the encore." Hear, hear.

Sam Olluver

Dance and opera

In dance, 2013 saw an eclectic range of overseas productions in Hong Kong, from a celebration of sex and hedonism with the naked ladies of the Crazy Horse to diehard Maoism from the Shanghai Ballet with White Haired Girl. There was superlative dancing in their respective genres from Ballet Nacional de España, St Petersburg's Eifman Ballet and, giving a welcome glimpse of some of the world's top classical stars, the American Ballet Theatre.

Locally, the Hong Kong Dance Company was the most consistent of the major companies: its two productions, Masquerade and Mulan, were outstanding. The dancers excelled - among them, Liu Yinghong proved he is still at the top of his game and Pan Lingjuan made her mark as a rising star. Artistic director Leung Kwok-shing's retirement signals a changing of the guard. His successor, Yang Yuntao, is the youngest artistic director the company has had and, given his background in contemporary as well as Chinese dance, a new approach is on the cards for the future.

The City Contemporary Dance Company suffered from a high turnover of dancers and the gap left by top choreographer Helen Lai Hoi-ling's retirement. New work from the company's choreographers had good moments and a revised version of In Search of the Grand View Garden closed the year strongly, but the dismal Hedvig from the Wild Duck is better forgotten. A low-key year from a troupe that needs to rebuild its artistic identity.

The best and worst of the year came from Hong Kong Ballet. Its dancers shone: Ye Feifei established herself as a top-notch ballerina, Dong Ruixue impressed as a star in the making and Wei Wei came into his own as a principal. A great start with the delightful The Frog Prince was followed by a welcome revival of The Merry Widow. Reruns of The Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake demonstrated an increasingly high standard of classical dancing by the whole troupe.

Then came the nightmare of The Dream of the Red Chamber. In addition to the disturbing allegation of political censorship (and the inept handling of the ensuing row), the real question was: why was it decided to stage such an artistically poor work in the first place - let alone spend so much of the Ballet's limited budget on it? And why was more money spent on adding the bizarre and costly catwalk sequence (the nadir of the show) when it was apparently not part of the original production, which choreographer Wang Xinpeng created for Ballett Dortmund of Germany? Marring an otherwise fine year for the Hong Kong Ballet, the whole affair raises concerns about its management and governance which need to be addressed if it is to move forward.

In opera, 2013 marked the bicentenaries of two towering figures: Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner. Tribute was paid to Verdi with world-class singing in La Traviata from San Carlo Theatre of Naples and Rigoletto from Hong Kong's Musica Viva. Opera Hong Kong's excellent The Flying Dutchman was the first full-scale local staging of an opera by Wagner.

Natasha Rogai


London's The Globe staged an all-female production of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew while Action to the World, also from Britain, presented Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange with an all-male cast. Both offered interesting takes on these literary classics, but it was the latter that thrilled the audience with a gritty and imaginative interpretation of a dark tale of violence and social control.

The Hong Kong Arts Festival presented playwright David Henry Hwang's award-winning Chinglish, a comedy about the many cultural pitfalls that await an American businessman in mainland China. Though thoroughly entertaining, Hwang's (Chinese-American) view of mainlanders today is dated if not stereotypical. Also for the Arts Festival, Wong Wing-sze's Smear, a satire on the local theatre scene, proved again she is one of this city's top playwrights.

Interestingly, one memorable stage performance this year wasn't really a performance but a "musical in reading" of Actors' Family's upcoming show The Woman in Kenzo. Based on a fictitious magazine column by "Mary Chin" in the 1980s about the lives of four women (long before Sex and the City was a hit), the work brings together composer Leon Ko Sai-tseung and lyricist Chris Shum Wai-chung. Retro in tone, the musical has the potential to become a hit.

Kevin Kwong

Visual arts

Hong Kong further cemented its place as a contemporary art destination in 2013 and saw a corresponding surge in visitors. The major auction houses continued their excellent sales turnover rates and prices. However, the shadow of "black" money, forgeries, and a clampdown on corruption and gift giving by officials on the mainland has muted the market across the border. This overflow of sentiment has trickled down to stifle Hong Kong's own art market.

The successful launch of Art Basel's first Hong Kong edition saw curious European collectors travelto Asia to experience a possible rising art market themselves. However, their visit coincided with a continuing fickle world economy and concerns about European sovereign debt, so galleries generally presented safe displays at Art Basel. However, now consolidated, the next fair should see a more challenging range of art in the invitation sections. Hopefully, this will balance the "name" artists who dominate art fairs around the globe, making these fairs precariously homogeneous.

In July, the government announced a funding cap on escalating construction costs for the West Kowloon Cultural District. The building density of the "revenue generating" - retail and residential - parts of the site will be increased. But M+, the planned museum, is unaffected, with its new building to be designed by the Swiss architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron, with local expertise provided by Farrells Hong Kong.

The first exhibition foray by M+ was "Inflation!", comprising inflatable art pieces by a variety of artists. Jeremy Deller, who represented Britain at this year's Venice Biennale, had a knockout piece with happy visitors jumping on his replica of Stonehenge designed as a bouncy castle. Unfortunately, bad weather blew away one art piece and stopped another from being inflated at times.

The best exhibitions of the year included Scottish artist Jim Lambie's installation of one of his signature optical "Zobops", an entire vinyl tape-clad floor at Pearl Lam Galleries; Annie Wan Lai-kuen's "Text.Book" at 1aspace was an exemplary use of space; and recent Hong Kong Art School graduates Lai Chun-ling and Yu Guy Tse organised their own shows to exhibit challenging new videos and a poignant installation about disability.

And the best non-art piece masquerading as art? The floating Rubber Duck on Victoria Harbour.

John Batten


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This article is now closed to comments

Would the author(s) care to explain why the floating duck, made by Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman, is considered 'non-art masquerading as art'?

Is it because it, unlike the (at times) inflated piece of plastic **** that M+ put up, actually managed to captivate the imagination and attention of millions of Hong Kong people, far outshining any of the other 'visual art' projects you named in this article? I suppose to qualify as as an art object in contemporary art, something has to be elitist, preferably obscure and/or obscene, and certainly not easy to 'appreciate' for anybody other than self-proclaimed experts and wannabe hipsters, so anything that does manage to attract a mass audience just doesn't qualify as artsy enough (anymore)?


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