Separate Together: Hong Kong Arts Festival 2021

David Mead

While the 2020 Hong Kong Arts Festival (香港藝術節) may have fallen victim to the coronavirus pandemic, it is returning this year for its 49th edition and a five-week programme that, as usual, brings together local talent, rising stars and world-class artists.

Like festivals everywhere planned for 2021, the HKAF has had to rethink. Original works from postponed from the 48th festival will be presented along with brand new pieces and special commissions created for this edition.

As Programme Director Grace Lang (梁掌瑋) observed at a launch press conference, by necessity, this year has a different format. The good news is that, with venues allowed to open, albeit with restrictions, there will be a number of live in-theatre performances with an audience present. These will sit alongside online events including films and remote performances, including some that have artists performing live in different time zones, however.

Many of the online programmes will have flexibility in timing, allowing them to be watched on-demand, although some will be available in only in Hong Kong.

The festival’s tagline, ‘Separate Together’ is, in one sense, a literal acknowledgement of the present reality and what we are going through. It also reflects the fact that some works will feature artists in different locations. But as HKAF Executive Director Tisa Ho (何嘉坤) observes, it also has a deeper meaning. While art brings people together, Separate Together “also describes one of the most magical and meaningful aspects of great art; how each of us responds to a performance in our own unique way, bringing to that response our personal histories, education, values and concerns.”

Dance is not the easiest to programme under the many and changing restrictions, but the festival does have live dance in the shape of the 10th anniversary season of the Hong Kong Jockey Club Contemporary Dance Series (香港賽馬會當代舞蹈平台), which this year will have five programmes.

Elephant in the Room by Chang XiaoniPhoto Terry Tsang
Elephant in the Room by Chang Xiaoni
Photo Terry Tsang

Dance On and Off (當代十年) invites back ten past participants to look back on their development as artists through devising new works. In a double bill, Elephant in the Room (沒有大象) by Beijing-based choreographer Chang Xiaoni (常肖妮), makes a welcome return alongside Dirty (得體), a new collaborative creation by former Cloud Gate 2 (雲門2) dancer Dever Chan (陳慶翀, Hong Kong) and Gong Zhonghui (鞏中輝, Guizhou) developed online.

London and Hong Kong-based Victor Fung (馮樂恒) will present Finding Meaning in an Uncertain World a new interactive dance experience that promises to be fun and interesting in equal measure. A follow up to his wryly humorous but so accurate exploration of dancer–choreographer power dynamics in From the Top, a hit at the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe, this time Fung allows viewers to choose their own audio experience. With a clear link to the festival’s ‘Separate Together’ tagline, how does viewers’ interpretation of what they see changes depending on whether they listen to the choreographer’s commentary, critics’ reviews, or audience’s musings, he wonders.

Another programme features two works that bring together performers from different backgrounds. In Mokita, British popping dancer-choreographer Dickson Mbi guides five local dancers across the boundaries of their diverse training to find new movement vocabularies. In Voice Out, Dever Chan returns with recent P.A.R.T.S. graduate Chan Wai-lok (陳偉洛), and rising independent artists Alice Ma (馬師雅) and Pansy Lo (盧盼之) in choreography woven together by Berlin-based director and dramaturg Tian Gebing.

A final double-bill features the work of three more Contemporary Dance Series alumni. Sudhee Liao (廖月敏) presents an extended version of his part-dance, part-sound installation, part-visual art, Hermetic Diode (煉金) which sees two dancers animate a giant plastic bubble and industrial pipes. Then, in Put Out the Flame (火滅) seen in 2019, Tracy Wong (黃翠絲) and Mao Wei (毛維) consider the unspoken depth of emotions behind a married couple’s every-day routine in a work originally devised under the guidance of Belgium-based choreographer Jos Baker.

Three of Matthew Bourne's most popular ballets will be streamed
Three of Matthew Bourne’s most popular ballets will be streamed
Photo Hong Kong Arts Festival

Four of Matthew Bourne’s most popular works will be shown on film. In the Hong Kong Culture Centre’s Grand Theatre, audiences will be able to enjoy cinematic screenings of The Red Shoes. Online (and available in Hong Kong only), will be Romeo and Juliet, Swan Lake and Cinderella.

Dance will also provide what promises to be a colourful and vibrant the festival finale in the shape of a specially put together online presentation by the The Igor Moiseyev Ballet, the popular, iconic folk dance troupe from Moscow. As part of the wide-ranging programme of Festival PLUS events, a documentary film will feature Artistic Director Elena Aleksandrovna Shcherbakova talk about her artistic journey, vintage footage and historic photos.

The HKAF’s education and outreach activities continue too, boosted by the launch of a new Digital Arts Education Platform, the first phase of which should be live soon.

The Igor Moiseyev Ballet will provide the festival finale
The Igor Moiseyev Ballet will provide the festival finale
Photo Hong Kong Arts Festival

Elsewhere, there is much music, drama and Chinese opera. Among the other highlights should be two timely takes on British playwright Neil Bartlett’s The Plague, itself based on Albert Camus’ La Peste. A version in English brings together six actors from six locations across six continents to perform live online with live music. Survivors, they testify before a tribunal, each offering a different account of the life-and-death crisis. Live in-theatre, a new Cantonese adaptation sees five female witnesses offer their disparate accounts of the ‘truth’ about the plague at a post-apocalyptic public enquiry. How do the people respond to existential risk? How is behaviour dictated by practical necessity? Can there, should there, ever be a return to the ‘old’ normal?

Rather more fun should be Alice in Wonderland, a ‘children’s opera’ by Italian composer Pierangelo Valtinoni co-commissioned by the HKAF, Zürich Opera and Yip’s Children’s Choir (葉氏兒童合唱團). With designs by Kelly Lo (羅之琦), noted for her extensive use of bold and vivid colours, we are promised a magical world and an unforgettable experience for kids aged 3 to 99.

It is an understatement to say that times are difficult but as the HKAF show, it is still possible to put together an international festival, even if it does look a bit different. That a 49th HKAF will happen is due in no small part to the continuing backing of its sponsors and supporters, to whom HKAF Chairman Victor Cha (查懋成) pays tribute, especially the Hong Kong Jockey Club Charities Trust, and the Hong Kong Government for its long-term funding. But let’s hope that this ‘new normal’ isn’t new for too long and that the HKAF’s golden anniversary in 2022 will see a festival more like the ones we are used to.

For full details of all events, visit (English ) or (中文).