Culture Vulture

Performers channel jitters into a fantastic show

I was a bag of nerves performing in public recently, but I realised that being on edge gives one energy and verve

One Saturday evening late last month, I made my way down to the civic district, where the Singapore Night Festival was in full swing.

It was a wildly crowded affair. People were shuffling along shoulder-to-shoulder, fenced in by temporary barricades.

Traffic marshals were deployed at crossings to manage the unending stream of pedestrians.

But unlike most of my fellow ramblers, I was not there to soak in the sights or to take a relaxing stroll around town.

I was there to perform with my capoeira group Bantus Capoeira. We had been invited by the Singapore Art Museum to put on three performances - two showcases of the Brazilian martial art and one 20-minute Maculele performance, a traditional Afro-Brazilian dance that tells a story.

There are many versions of the Maculele tale, but the version my group performs begins with a young boy who is slain by his enemies.

In fact, for many performers, no longer being nervous is a bad sign, as being on edge can give you an energy and verve which comes through on stage.''

A witch doctor revives and empowers him, and the boy rises to take revenge against those who defeated him earlier.

At the Night Festival, I was making my performing debut as the witch doctor.

I was supposed to appear twice, on the temporary stage which had been set up in the museum's cobbled  carpark - once to revive the slain boy and another time to perform a solo to end the show.

My role did not involve much choreography or indeed much of anything at all. It was mostly freestyle whooping and frenzied head-shaking, the more dramatic the better.

So, at 11.20pm, I was standing at the museum's porch, which had been converted into a makeshift backstage area to hold performers, feeling somewhat silly in my full witch doctor regalia.

In addition to the traditional grass skirt, I was wearing a leopard-print top, swathed in a cape and slathered in neon paint.

The only saving grace was a bright pink papier mache mask, with tiny eye slits that reduced my field of vision considerably.

Oh well, at least this way no one will recognise me, I thought.

But when I peered out to sneak a peek at the crowd, the nerves suddenly kicked in hard.

The carpark was packed with expectant faces turned towards the stage and mobile phone cameras held out  high, ready to take videos.

My heart rate skyrocketed and my legs began to wobble. As my stomach clenched, I began to realise that all these cliched phrases are true after all.

Yes, I had rehearsed in the studio, I had run through the performance many times in my head, but nothing had prepared me for this.

As I was struggling to quash my jitters and to get everything under control, my cue suddenly arrived.

The next thing I knew, my legs and arms took on a life of their own and suddenly, I was standing on stage, facing the crowd.

I did my thing - I can honestly hardly remember what went on - and just as quickly, I was offstage, panting so hard that I could not hear much aside from the sound of my ragged breathing.

I took off my mask, pushed my sweaty hair back from my forehead, and swore never to do that again.

As a former arts reporter who used to watch performances on the job, seeing people on stage was so common that it was something I had begun to take for granted.

When you meet people who perform every day, sometimes several times a day, it is easy to forget how much strength and courage it takes to put on a show.

I met dancers who move non-stop for hours, who have entire productions hard-wired into their muscles; musicians who have a library of scores in their heads and whose instruments are extensions of their own bodies.

And there are also theatre practitioners, whose job it is to call forth the most varied of emotions, night after night, to make the audience believe them.

All this, while facing the pressure of a live performance, where there is no such thing as a second chance.

There is a Chinese saying that roughly translates to "a minute on the stage takes 10 years' work offstage" and it was only after I stepped into the shoes of a performer that I began to understand the meaning of that phrase.

The 10 years of hard work is something the audience never gets to see. As someone who used to cover the arts, I had the privilege of sitting in on open rehearsals or dropping by studios for interviews.

I have seen artists repeating a sequence over and over and over again, just to nail down the tiniest details. I have seen others run through steps, giving it their all although no one is watching.

And it is this dedication that sets true performers aside from people like me.

Many performers I have spoken to say that the nerves never go away, that even after years and years of facing the audience, the jitters still remain.

In fact, for many performers, no longer being nervous is a bad sign, as being on edge can give you an energy and verve which comes through on stage.

The difference is that instead of allowing the nerves to control them - like what happened to me - they harness it and channel it into delivering a fantastic show.

Instead of being crippled by the stress, they use it to spur themselves on.

For me, though, it will take years of practice and hard work until the nerves are something to be embraced, and not feared.

Until then, I think I will leave performing to the professionals.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 08, 2015, with the headline 'Performers channel jitters into a fantastic show'. Print Edition | Subscribe