Performers overcome gruelling training, vertigo and motion sickness to take flight in NDP

20 dancers from the Singapore Armed Forces Music and Drama Company will perform a gravity-defying routine which includes front and back flips, and dance choreography, while suspended in the air.
Aerialists from the SAF MDC unit training for the National Day Parade on July 21, 2016.
Aerialists from the SAF MDC unit training for the National Day Parade on July 21, 2016.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
Aerialists from the SAF MDC unit practice one metre above ground during their first rehearsal at the Sports Hub on July 21, 2016.
Aerialists from the SAF MDC unit practice one metre above ground during their first rehearsal at the Sports Hub on July 21, 2016. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
Aerialists from the SAF MDC unit practice one metre above ground during their first rehearsal at the Sports Hub on July 21, 2016.
Aerialists from the SAF MDC unit practice one metre above ground during their first rehearsal at the Sports Hub on July 21, 2016.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
An aerialist from the SAF MDC unit practice one metre above ground during their first rehearsal at the Sports Hub on July 21, 2016.
An aerialist from the SAF MDC unit practice one metre above ground during their first rehearsal at the Sports Hub on July 21, 2016.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
An aerialist from the SAF MDC unit practice one metre above ground during their first rehearsal at the Sports Hub on July 21, 2016.
An aerialist from the SAF MDC unit practice one metre above ground during their first rehearsal at the Sports Hub on July 21, 2016.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
Aerialists from the SAF MDC unit taking a rest before their rehearsal at the Sports Hub on July 21, 2016.
Aerialists from the SAF MDC unit taking a rest before their rehearsal at the Sports Hub on July 21, 2016.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

SINGAPORE - When Mr Wayne Wee was 10, he was so afraid of heights that his mother had to stop a rollercoaster ride he was on because he was crying so badly.

Now 22, Mr Wee has conquered his vertigo in order to be part of this year's National Day Parade (NDP).

He is among 26 performers - called aerialists - who will be spinning and soaring at up to 30m in the air.

He quipped: "When you're up there, you're so disoriented you don't notice how high you are."

It is the first time the parade has featured a large formation of aerialists.

This is made possible because the celebrations this year take place in the National Stadium which, unlike previous open-air venues, has a domed roof from which performers can be suspended.

Twenty of the aerialists, including Mr Wee, are from the Singapore Armed Forces Music and Drama Company (MDC). They will be performing a choreographed dance sequence 5m to 13m above ground.

They have undergone intensive aerial training since May, each clocking about 88 hours in the air even before they take the stage on Aug 9.

Major Tan Sheng Yang, the officer in charge of aerialist training, said it was a challenge to get the performers acclimatised to the demands of aerial work, as most had not done it before.

Major Tan said that safety is a "top priority", and that there are stringent measures in place such as load bearing tests and pre-flight safety checks. Performers also spend only 10 to 15 minutes in the air each time, and must rest in between.

MDC aerialist Biwa Mastura Mohamed Said, 26, said: "This has been the most physically gruelling thing I've done in my life."

The tight harness bruised her body, and her severe motion sickness left her feeling faint during training. At one point, she broke down in tears. "It was draining both physically and emotionally," she said.

Now, when she is nervous, she looks to her fellow aerialists for support. "When we are going up, we don't look down. We look at each other," said Ms Biwa, adding that it was "a good experience" and she would want to explore more aerial work in future.

Besides the MDC group, other aerialists include an actor playing Malay superhero Badang, who will be flown to a height of 30m, and a seven-year-old boy who will ride a glimmering unicorn through the air.

Four aerialists will play the Four Beauties, each representing a different race. Suspended at 9m, they will wear long, colourful skirts that fall all the way to the ground.

Unlike the other aerialists, the Beauties cannot flip in the air during their seven-minute performance, which might lead to their harnesses cutting off blood circulation in their legs.

Eurasian dancer Bettina Harbottle, 23, one of the Beauties, recalled how during one rehearsal, the lower half of her body went so numb she almost passed out in the air. "But they got me down before anything happened," she said.

Hers, though, is a view that few will ever experience. She said: "It's really quite breathtaking seeing everything in its glory, with the lights and the pyrotechnics going off, and people waving flags in the stand. It's quite tremendous."

Follow the latest NDP 2016 news here at str.sg/ndp2016.