Asian flair in festive fare

End the year with The Nutcracker set in Shanghai, Journey To The West retold in a Singapore setting and Mulan The Musical with familiar faces End the year with The Nutcracker set in Shanghai, Journey To The West retold in a Singapore setting and Mulan The Musical with familiar faces

The last weeks of the arts calendar are usually awash in festive cheer.

But it is not all Christmas jingles and portly men in red suits. Arts lovers can end their year with a rich spread of shows that run the gamut from East to West.

While Christmas favourites such as the Singapore Symphony Orchestra's annual Christmas Concert remain an anticipated staple, there is a strong Asian flavour thrumming through the final weeks of 2016 too.

The Singapore Dance Theatre's take on The Nutcracker, for one, comes with an Asian twist - it is set in pre-World War I Shanghai.

And Asian cultures collide in Ding Yi Music Company's Of Music And Art: The Legend Retold. In it, the folktale of Singapore's southern Sisters' Islands is resurrected through a dazzling mix of Chinese chamber music, sand art and Javanese dance.

Iconic characters such as the legendary woman warrior Hua Mulan and the mischievous Monkey King will stalk the stage too.

For its traditional Christmas pantomime, theatre troupe Wild Rice whisks the 16th-century Chinese classic Journey To The West to Singapore, as a runaway orphan tries to find his way home to Jurong West from Haw Par Villa.

First staged in 2014, Monkey Goes West features wushu moves and a motley crew of recognisable characters, including the Monkey King and the ever-hungry Pigsy.

Meanwhile, another familiar classic springs to life at Resorts World Sentosa. In Mulan The Musical - a Singapore adaptation of the sold-out Taiwanese production - the tale of a woman who disguises herself as a man to enlist in the army in place of her ailing father gets a comic and colourful reimagining.

This is the first year Resorts World Sentosa has picked an Asian tale for its year-end blockbuster. Last year, it took on Cinderella. Before that, it was Peter Pan.

Mr Khoo Shao Tze, vice-president of resort sales and entertainment, says: "The legendary tale of Mulan is familiar to audiences of all ages. Mandarin theatrical productions have traditionally been well- received by the local market, but we find that there is a dearth of them and hope to fill this void.

"In line with the year-end festive atmosphere, we also wanted to present something entertaining and light-hearted. So the staging of Mulan The Musical, a rambunctious new comedy, is a natural choice for us."


Mulan The Musical

Television actress Ann Kok (above) plays Mulan’s pregnant elder sister.
Television actress Ann Kok (above) plays Mulan’s pregnant elder sister. PHOTO: MULAN THE MUSICAL

With Mulan The Musical, Ann Kok, a television veteran of more than 20 years, is relearning the ropes of being an actor.

It is, after all, relatively unfamiliar ground for the actress, whose first and last brush with theatre was in the 2009 musical, The Peranakan Ball.

But next month, she returns to the stage for a musical comedy based on the story of Hua Mulan, a woman who disguises herself as a man and enlists in the army to take her frail father's place.

Kok, 43, who will play Mulan's pregnant elder sister, says: "I'm hoping the audience will see me on another level, other than just a television actor. In the past, there was no television and people had to go to the theatre.

"Now, I'm going through the process of becoming a stage actor, to start from the basics again and fine-tune my performing skills."

  • BOOK IT /MULAN THE MUSICAL

  • WHERE: Resorts World Theatre, Resorts World Sentosa, 8 Sentosa Gateway

    WHEN: Dec 16 to Feb 5,8pm

    ADMISSION: $38to $128 from Sistic (go to www.sistic.com.sg or call 6348-5555)

    INFO: The show is rated Advisory 16 for mature content and coarse language.

Besides learning to cope with the pressures of live theatre - there are, she points out, no second takes - she is also polishing up on fundamentals for her return to the stage, from her body language to her awareness of where she has to stand.

She is finding a renewed awe for blocking - or the positioning and movement of characters.

"It's important because audiences don't just see my face like they do on television," she says. "They'll be seeing me from head to toe throughout those two hours of performance."

Another well-known face from Singapore television will also be making the leap from screen to stage for the musical, which runs at Resorts World Sentosa from Dec 16 to Feb 5.

Pierre Png, who plays the army's company sergeant major, is taking a step outside his comfort zone - something he sees echoes of in Mulan's story.

"It's not only about her being filial or brave. But it's also about her daring to dream and to dream big. Like a kite soaring up into the sky, we cannot be lazy and be afraid of changes," says the 43-year-old, whose last foray into theatre was the whimsical Phua Chu Kang The Musical more than a decade ago.

"We need to get out of our comfort zone, be tough and be brave enough to go against the wind... Taking on this project has been my 'going against the wind.'"

Resorts World Sentosa collaborated with Taiwan's Tainaner Ensemble and Studio M to take Mulan The Musical outside Taiwan - where it had two sold-out runs in 2009 and 2011.

Audiences in Singapore can expect a fresh adaptation with dialogue infused with local humour and colloquialisms, as well as new scenes and songs.

The show - which will be performed in Mandarin with English surtitles - features more than 100 cast, creative and crew members; more than 85 sets of elaborate costumes; and almost 3,500kg of custom-made props and sets.

Taiwanese vocalists Li Chien-na and Lai Ying-ying will take turns performing as Mulan during the show's run, while Chou Ting-wei, a finalist on Taiwanese singing competition One Million Star, plays Mulan's love interest, the General.

For 31-year-old Li, Mulan's male alter-ego Munan is a role she readily admits to identifying with.

"I'm quite tomboyish and that allows me to get into character easily," she says.

Meanwhile Png, in describing his role of the army's intimidating company sergeant major, pays cheeky homage to his own days in green.

"I immediately saw some similarities between this character and the warrant officers I encountered during my national service days," he quips. "I truly love all of them, strict as they were. Their training made me tougher. This will be sort of a tribute to them."


Of Music And Art: The Legend Retold


Singapore sand artist Lawrence Koh (above) and Javanese dancer Garrett Kam are part of Ding Yi Music Company's retelling of the legend of Singapore's Sisters' Islands. PHOTO: DING YI MUSIC COMPANY

Javanese dance, sand, traditional Chinese instruments and a tragic folktale of two sisters drowned at sea in a desperate bid to stay together.

For its final concert of the year, Ding Yi Music Company - a Chinese chamber music troupe out to test the boundaries of the genre - has thrown together this colourful mix of elements.

Of Music And Art: The Legend Retold, which takes place on Saturday at Esplanade Recital Studio, will see Ding Yi join forces with Javanese dancer Garrett Kam and Singapore sand artist Lawrence Koh for an ambitious retelling of the legend of Singapore's southern Sisters' Islands.

Ding Yi's principal guest conductor Quek Ling Kiong, who is helming the concert, says: "I wanted to bring together people of different interests in a common space. I hope to bring something beautiful to the audience, to showcase the beauty of Sisters' Islands and let the musicians experience that beauty as they play."

It is, he says, a way to breathe life into a fast-fading folktale.

Legend has it that two inseparable sisters, Linah and Minah, found themselves ripped apart by a pirate bent on making an unwilling Linah his wife. Minah drowns while swimming after them and Linah leaps from the ship to join her sister. The next day, two islands emerged at the spot where the sisters died.

  • BOOK IT / OF MUSIC AND ART: THE LEGEND RETOLD

  • WHERE: Esplanade Recital Studio, 1 Esplanade Drive

    WHEN: Saturday, 7.30pm

    ADMISSION: $25 from Sistic

Quek, 49, says: "A lot of people have heard of Sisters' Islands, but they don't know the legend and themes behind them, which include unconditional love and the bond between siblings."

The concert aims to help the audience relive the story. This, Quek adds, could be done only by crafting an immersive experience, with music and movement unfolding against a multimedia backdrop of photos and videos of the island.

As Ding Yi performs Singapore composer Wang Chen Wei's musical interpretation of the legend, Kam, who is in his late 40s, will perform a Javanese mask dance while Koh, who is in his mid-30s, uses sand to illustrate the story.


Singapore sand artist Lawrence Koh and Javanese dancer Garrett Kam (above) are part of Ding Yi Music Company's retelling of the legend of Singapore's Sisters' Islands. PHOTO: DING YI MUSIC COMPANY

Kam, who was born in Hawaii and lives in Bali, will portray seven roles using masks, cloths and various props he designed. He picked up Javanese dance at the University of Hawaii, after his interest was piqued by some performances.

"I was an art major with a focus on textiles, so the painted costumes on puppets and the cloths got me interested in wanting to do Javanese dance," he says.

He soon fell in love with the dance form. "I hope to show that while Javanese dance is classical, it still has great potential for showing themes from other cultures," he says of the upcoming concert.

"I want to show that these art forms can work together in unexpected and exciting new ways. I hope the audience can appreciate a new cross-cultural performance - one that is deeply rooted in history and reflects the rich heritage shared by diverse peoples."

Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh


The Nutcracker presented by Singapore Dance Theatre


The Singapore Dance Theatre's The Nutcracker features Eastern elements such as a Chinese dance. PHOTO: NICOLETHEN STUDIO

Odd as it may sound, The Nutcracker - that well-loved Christmas ballet classic - reminds China-born dancer Jerry Wan Jiajing of home.

The Singapore Dance Theatre's version that he is dancing in kicks off in colonial Shanghai and is woven through with elements familiar to the Shenyang native: traditional Chinese costumes with bold swathes of red, shophouse fronts bearing Chinese characters and even a Chinese dance done with silk scarves.

Twenty-year-old Wan, who moved to Singapore at the start of the year, says: "To me, silk is such a pure representation of Chinese culture, so I really enjoy Singapore Dance Theatre's version of The Nutcracker.

"And some of the costumes are so traditionally Chinese, they remind me of home."

The production, which runs from Dec 7 to 11, does not stray too far from the spirit of The Nutcracker, still infusing the show with whimsical Tchaikovsky pieces and a trip to a wintry fantasy wonderland.

  • BOOK IT / THE NUTCRACKER PRESENTED BY SINGAPORE DANCE THEATRE

  • WHERE: Esplanade Theatre, 1 Esplanade Drive

    WHEN: Dec 7 to 11, 8pm (Wednesday to Friday), 1 & 8pm (Saturday), 1 & 7pm (Sunday)

    ADMISSION: $30 to $70 from Sistic (go to www.sistic.com.sg or call 6348-5555)

The story remains familiar: A little girl, Clara, receives a nutcracker doll at a Christmas Eve party. When the party ends, the nutcracker comes to life and is attacked by an army of mice. Clara helps defeat the Mouse King and is whisked away by the nutcracker to the magical Land of Sweets as a reward.

Singapore Dance Theatre's artistic director Janek Schergen, 64, says: "The intention to set the ballet in Shanghai was as a response to having a blended Chinese and Western family in culture and traditions, as opposed to making a group of Asian dancers act out such a specifically European story.

"We use the story now more in a way to serve us, inspired by the traditional classical ballet and the E.T.A. Hoffmann fairy tale, than be tied down to the specific narrative."

The dance company has performed The Nutcracker eight times since its first staging in 1992 and the current iteration was first presented in 2011.

Singapore designer Aaron Yap is behind the dazzling costumes and sets. The 38-year-old says: "I love doing the unusual. Not many dance companies have tried injecting so many Chinese elements into classical ballet before, because classical ballet is, after all, rather Eurocentric."

He gave the show a mix of East and West. The Shanghai street scene bustles with crowds hurrying past shophouses, while Clara's family home sports a "very Art Deco look", the most popular foreign style of the era.

And costumes, too, range from traditional Chinese silhouettes to dapper Western suits.

Yap, who has worked on sets and costumes for a variety of shows ranging from Chinese opera to musicals, says: "It has been a rather enjoyable experience designing for this production as I got to work with what I'm more familiar with - the Chinese mood and feel - and incorporate it into something totally different."


Other year-end shows

Dance

T.H.E DANCE COMPANY TRIPLE BILL - WORLD PREMIERE

New works by Singapore's Kuik Swee Boon, Kim Jae Duk from South Korea and French choreographer Arthur Bernard Bazin will be unveiled. Pure by Kuik explores the intricacies of living together as a family and society, while Kim's Equilibrium seeks freedom from the excesses of modern life as a path to happiness. With Attachant, Bazin tries to free bodies from structures and ingrained habits. Part of the M1 Contact Contemporary Dance Festival 2016.

Where: Esplanade Theatre Studio, 1 Esplanade Drive When: Thursday and Friday, 8pm Admission: $36 from Sistic

ASIAN FESTIVALS EXCHANGE

Another offering from the M1 Contact Contemporary Dance Festival, the Asian Festivals Exchange is a rich melting pot of cultures and traditions as artists from different countries unite to create new works. Among them are Singapore's Zhuo Zihao with Japan's Miwa Okuno. For the first time, a choreographer from New Zealand, Sarah Foster-Sproull, will be part of the exchange.

Where: Esplanade Theatre Studio When: Dec 6 and 7, 8pm Admission: $28 from Sistic

Music

BELIEVE - SLO CHILDREN'S CHOIR IN CONCERT

The Singapore Lyric Opera Children's Choir explores love, peace and brotherhood in this concert, which includes popular toons from animated films such as Zootopia, as well as an operatic medley from A Midsummer Night's Dream. The choir will be joined by the chorales from Pei Chun Public School and Pei Hwa Presbyterian Primary School.

Where: Esplanade Concert Hall When: Saturday, 7.30pm Admission: $28 from Sistic

SSO CHRISTMAS CONCERT

The Singapore Symphony Orchestra, led by associate conductor Joshua Tan, will add to the Christmas mood with its take on festive favourites.

Where: Victoria Concert Hall, 9 Empress Place When: Dec 16 to 18, 7.30pm (Friday and Saturday), 4pm (Sunday) Admission: $28 to $88 from Sistic

Theatre

MONKEY GOES WEST

This spin on the Journey To The West tale, about a monk travelling to India in his search for sacred scrolls, is back for a second run. It was first staged two years ago. A runaway orphan tries to find his way back to his Jurong West home from Haw Par Villa, picking up a motley crew along the way.

Where: Drama Centre Theatre, National Library Building, 100 Victoria Street When: Till Dec 17, 7.30 pm (Tuesdays to Saturdays), 2.30pm (Thursdays and weekends) Admission: $45 to $80 from Sistic

DISGRACED

The Singapore Repertory Theatre stages a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Pakistani-American playwright Ayad Akhtar that tussles with religious and racial tension in New York post-9/11. Amir, whose family is from South Asia but was born in the United States, seems to have it all - a successful career as a lawyer, an American wife and an apartment in the Upper East Side. When he hosts a dinner for his African-American colleague and her Jewish husband, the evening takes an unpleasant turn when an argument over religion and identity erupts. Rated M18 for mature themes.

Where: KC Arts Centre - Home of SRT, 20 Merbau Road When: Till Dec 9, 8pm Admission: $45 to $60 from Sistic

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 29, 2016, with the headline 'Asian flair in festive fare'. Print Edition | Subscribe