Curtain Call

Hong Kong Arts Festival executive director Tisa Ho: All the world’s her stage

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If there is an art to careening through the narrow and bustling backstage hallways of the Hong Kong City Hall, Tisa Ho Kar-kuan, executive director of the Hong Kong Arts Festival, has truly become a master.

The performance venue in Central, opened in 1962 as Hong Kong’s first public space for the performing arts, has nurtured Ho’s love for the products of human creativity. One of her earliest memories was singing on stage in an inter-school music competition.

“At secondary school, I came here to see the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of The Importance of Being Ernest. It just blew me away. Later on, I acted on that stage in a university production. I was Cordelia in King Lear,” she said.

“So I know these dressing rooms and the backstage very well. I was fascinated with the stage. I would volunteer to do the lights and get on stage. I loved that world where an empty space could have so much potential and possibilities.”

The City Hall hasn’t changed much since Ho’s school production years. It continues to serve as one of the main performance venues for the performing arts. And the Hong Kong Arts Festival has been putting on shows there since its inception in 1973.

Also in the same year, Ho completed a master’s degree in literature at the University of Hong Kong. She went on to finish a third degree in medieval French literature in Bordeaux, and a diploma in arts administration in London, after wishes for business school did not pan out.

The arts sector was a natural choice. As the first generation of school-trained professional art managers, she began a long stint in arts administration in Singapore in the 1980s, while having a side career in broadcasting.

In 2006, she took up the reins of the Hong Kong Arts Festival, inheriting a mission to bring top-quality performances to the SAR and nurture young artists.

Under her reign, the festival also began to produce its original works, created by homegrown talents from beginning to end.

Prominent examples are Datong: the Chinese Utopia, a chamber opera about political thinker Kang Youwei’s vision for a perfect China, and Danz Up, a street dance drama built around the desperate pursuit of one’s teenage dreams.

Both works, though originally conceived for domestic consumption, will go on tour in China, Singapore and Britain this summer after a successful showing in Hong Kong.

“I am glad that these productions are getting a life after. It’s not the first time that a festival’s production has toured. But to do two shows and three locations in a year is a little unusual. It’s a lot of work,” Ho said.

“I will be going along. What I’m going to try and do this time, in London particularly, is not to especially address the Chinese expatriate population. Although I don’t know whether we will succeed, we are working hard to get an international audience to come.”

Closer home, the 45th edition of the Hong Kong Arts Festival will open next Thursday. Ho’s team has lined up a programming that intends to promote complexity, inclusivity, and a great deal of soul-searching.

Thanks to special government funding, there will be two public performing arts installations put up at various indoor and outdoor locations across Hong Kong, inviting children and adults to interact with them.

Sacred music, a part of the classical music canon, will return by popular demand. But Ho has also recruited three other orchestras from Norway, Turkey and Cincinnati in the United States to add to the audiences’ global view of the classical music genre.

“Every year, there is at least one concert in which the whole audience will get up and dance, and turn the show into a party. Sometimes we guess which one that will be,” she added. “This year, my pick will be Emir Kusturica and the No Smoking Orchestra (from the Balkans).”

In the theater front, seven family dinners from three productions will unavoidably provoke equivocal opinions about the most immediate social and political issues.

While A Floating Family explores what happened to a typical Hong Kong family before and after the handover, The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family portrays the joys and fears of a middle-class family in suburban New York during the last presidential election.

Meanwhile, The Last Supper captures the uneasiness of the Egyptian society following the Arab Spring, exemplified by the banal exchanges that masquerade as human interaction in a bourgeois Cairo family.

“With the performing arts, it’s infinite with what you can layer and how complex it can be,” Ho said. “The idea about a festival is that if you go to one performance, you will get a certain value out of it. But if you go to more than one, you will get much more. So we want to set up linkages and reverberations between different programs.”

The article first appeared in the Standard on February 10, 2017.

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