Unpacking the Merlion cliche

The dance performance Wow! Merlion (left) will be preceded by a talk and visual arts exhibition featuring the work of veteran artist Chieu Shuey Fook, 82 (above).
The dance performance Wow! Merlion (above) will be preceded by a talk and visual arts exhibition featuring the work of veteran artist Chieu Shuey Fook, 82.PHOTO: ODYSSEY DANCE THEATRE
The dance performance Wow! Merlion (left) will be preceded by a talk and visual arts exhibition featuring the work of veteran artist Chieu Shuey Fook, 82 (above).
The dance performance Wow! Merlion will be preceded by a talk and visual arts exhibition featuring the work of veteran artist Chieu Shuey Fook, 82 (above).PHOTO: ODYSSEY DANCE THEATRE

Odyssey Dance Theatre merges contemporary dance and visual arts in its new production Wow! Merlion

The artistic director of dance company Odyssey Dance Theatre, Danny Tan, acknowledges that he might have some detractors for naming his upcoming show after the Merlion.

Even his performers initially expressed concern about the title, Wow! Merlion, that the half-lion, half-fish symbol might be a cliche. But it is exactly this "cliche" that he wants to unpack.

"I feel that it's a wonderful icon to explore. It's neither human, lion, nor fish - it symbolises that search for our cultural identity on the world map," he says.

This is the focus of Odyssey Dance Theatre's major show next Friday at the Victoria Theatre.

The hour-long contemporary dance performance will be presented in three parts, representing the past, present and future.

Nine dancers will be accompanied by live music played by a team of nine musicians who will play electronic music alongside instruments such as the pipa, a Chinese stringed instrument.

But the entire experience starts before the curtains go up at 8.30pm, with a related visual art exhibition and talk taking place from 7pm.

The exhibition features three new paintings by veteran artist Chieu Shuey Fook, which will be displayed in the foyer of the auditorium. The triptych of metal relief works measures 4.6m long and 1.2m high.

The talk involves Tan and Chieu, together with Wow! Merlion's music composer and producer Mervin Wong, musician and educator Dr Hoh Chung Shih, and new media artist and educator Ina Conradi Chavez.

Focusing on their different creative processes and exchanges between different artforms, the discussion will be moderated by artist and educator Raymond Yap.

Says Tan about the multi- disciplinary nature of Wow! Merlion: "To have just a performance is very normal, even boring, but when dance has a new meaning and goes beyond its form of presentation on stage, then it becomes something special and powerful."

Besides transcending artforms, Wow! Merlion also involves artists across different generations. For example, Chieu is 82, Tan is 43 and music composer Wong is 24.

Says Chieu with a laugh: "I am very happy to be part of this production. I am always looking towards the future. Even though I'm an old man, I'm very fresh and young."

"Younger than us," adds Tan, drawing attention to Chieu's vibrant and energetic works, as well as his head of long white hair.

For Wong, whose background is in traditional music, composing music for a contemporary dance piece is a "very exciting process".

"This experience takes me to a new space where I am composing music not as a standalone art form, but through dance and visual art," he says.

Tan, who plans to tour this new show around the world, hopes to draw a diverse audience who will be able to reflect on the value of art long after the show ends.

"This is not just for SG50. We have something to say and we take pride in what we do as Singaporeans. If we create something of value, whether onstage or offstage, that is something very special."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 08, 2015, with the headline 'Unpacking the Merlion cliche'. Print Edition | Subscribe