The French May Arts Festival has much to celebrate this year. Not only is it returning to Hong Kong stronger and bigger - more than 100 programmes will run between April and June - the 2023 edition also marks its 30th anniversary.
The largest event of its kind in Hong Kong devoted predominantly to one culture, the French May has undergone several changes since it began.
When it launched in 1993 as Le French May, the French consulate in Hong Kong saw an opportunity to enrich the city's cultural scene. Hong Kong's arts and cultural landscape was very different then - there was no Art Basel Hong Kong art fair, M+ museum of visual culture or Tai Kwun, the heritage arts centre formed from the former Central Police Station and Victoria Gaol.
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As Le French May grew in scale, the Association Culturelle France - Hong Kong, a non-profit, took over from the consulate as the organiser, and the festival has been funded by sponsorship and donors since.
Xavier Mahe became the general manager of French May in September 2019, months before the Covid-19 pandemic hit Hong Kong.
"Of course, for French May, we were prevented from bringing any overseas artists to Hong Kong," he says. "However, like many organisations, this pandemic also was a great opportunity to reinvent."
The festival shifted its focus to highlight local artists, while still demonstrating thoughtful engagement with French culture, through programmes such as Larger Than Life, theatre director Tang Shu-wing's Cantonese rendition of a French comedy, and local jazz pianist Patrick Lui's tribute to French cinema scores.
"When we knew that this year we could be back to normal, I said [that we should] keep continuing having those local collaborations, because it's meaningful, and I think that's also why French May exists - it's to be a bridge between the two cultures," Mahe says.
An upcoming highlight of the French May programme - the festival dropped "Le" from its official name in 2020 - is "Virtually Versailles", which was originally supposed to open last year.
The interactive touring exhibition, which has been seen previously in Singapore and Shanghai, allows visitors to see the illustrious heritage of the palace of Versailles and "visit" the estate by immersing themselves in digital projections of the palace's most famous spaces, including the Hall of Mirrors and the Royal Opera.
The exhibition will be held at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum in Sha Tin from April 19 to July 9. "It's important for French May not to happen exclusively in Central or Kowloon, but also to reach all the territories," Mahe says, emphasising his desire to connect with all Hong Kong audiences.
In the musical realm, Chinese pianist Niu Niu will perform alongside French pianist Theo Fouchenneret in a concert called "Harmony of Two Pianos". The programme will include pieces from the French repertoire, such as Bizet's Carmen Fantasy, as well as classical music from Chinese composers, such as The Yellow River piano concerto.
"It's really a cultural collaboration or cultural exchange, which I think is very valuable and very important," Niu Niu says. "Working together really can make some more magic.
"One piano alone is already ... you can call it the king of all instruments, but two pianos together, I think it can match and create an even greater impact for a larger audience.
"It sometimes feels like a piano battle, almost. So I think the audience can have a lot of fun, and Theo and I will also have a lot of fun."
Meanwhile, Hong Kong musician and composer Olivier Cong and dance artists Ong Yong Lock and Zelia Tan are presenting His Temple, a hybrid performance of music and dance.
Inspired by a short story called In the Moonlight by 19th-century French writer Guy de Maupassant, the performance draws from the emotions of a priest who experiences fatherly indignation when he learns his niece has a lover, before becoming enamoured by the majesty of nature and returning to his temple as a space for introspection.
French May ambassador Karena Lam will narrate the performance. "She comes in and out like a character that you can never see," Cong says.
Cong's father grew up in Mauritius, where the main languages are French and Mauritian Creole. "When he immigrated to Hong Kong, he brought that [culture] with him. So my upbringing was mostly surrounded by nostalgic French songs," Cong says. "He reads a lot of French literature, so that inspired me and submerged me into this culture."
He adds: "I think French people really have a sensitivity for time - how they perceive, think about time. It's more this nostalgic sense of sentimentality, of 'I miss something,' where they sit there and reminisce [about] something that has happened. There's this underlying romantic tone to it.
"This is what I would like to present to audiences."
Other highlights of this year's French May include "Dance Reflections" presented by Van Cleef & Arpels, which features a series of contemporary dance programmes from French choreographers and Hong Kong artists, and De La Fontaine, to be performed at Tai Kwun's Parade Ground - a family-friendly puppet show inspired by French fables featuring anthropomorphic animals.
The French May isn't limited to exhibitions and performances - it has also just debuted a two-year artist residency programme, under which Hong Kong artistic director Wu Hoi-fai and French theatre director Nicolas Kerszenbaum will spend time in Paris and Hong Kong to examine the parallels and "mirrors" between the two cultures through workshops, lectures and performances.
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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.
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