2020 may have been cancelled thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, but some shows will get another shot at this year's Huayi - Chinese Festival of Arts. The festival, a programme mainstay at the Esplanade since 2003, returns with a smaller hybrid programme this year, including the revived Citizen X, one of the first casualties of last year's theatre shutdown. The Straits Times highlights three productions at the festival, which runs from Feb 19 to March 14.
Fantasia - Nanyin Reimagined: A celebration through experimental music making
The pandemic year has been the most challenging in Siong Leng Musical Association's history, says its general manager and principal artiste Seow Ming Xian. And the association has seen a lot of history - it is celebrating its 80th anniversary this year.
Plans for a fund-raiser to underwrite commemorative events this year, including concerts and a youth symposium for nanyin music, all had to be shelved.
But at least one plan has come to fruition: Siong Leng will present Fantasia - Nanyin Reimagined at the Esplanade Concert Hall on Feb 26 and 27, as part of the venue's annual Huayi - Chinese Festival of Arts.
The hour-long programme will be a musical journey recapping Siong Leng's storied history. It will feature some adventurous music making.
Seow, 28, says: "It will be a multidisciplinary performance with Western instrumentation, live looping and theatrical elements such as sets and lighting."
Composer, arranger and music director Ng Kang Kee, 46, confesses: "When I started this project I didn't have a good feeling about it."
With both older and younger generations of musicians offering contradictory reactions to experimenting, he admits to feeling a little like a diplomat in the middle of a warzone.
"Eventually, I had fun with it," he adds. "It opened up things I never thought of. For example, in using the latest music software, I never thought of using distortion, but it can be paired with nanyin music."
He enjoyed the challenge of weaving Western music traditions with nanyin melodies, such as in a mash-up of a nanyin tune about the four seasons and Vivaldi's The Four Seasons.
BOOK IT/FANTASIA - NANYIN REIMAGINED
WHERE: Esplanade Concert Hall, 1 Esplanade Drive
WHEN: Feb 26, 7.30pm and Feb 27, 3pm. Live stream on Feb 26, available till March 14, 12.59pm
Seow says the experimental nature of the concert is in keeping with the tradition set by Siong Leng's late chairman Teng Mah Seng.
The Cultural Medallion recipient revitalised the form in the 1980s and 1990s when it was in danger of being forgotten. He composed contemporary nanyin songs and shortened pieces to make the music more accessible for audiences. He also organised South-east Asian nanyin symposiums and helped nurture a global reawakening of interest in the music.
Since then, Siong Leng has kept up with this spirit of experimentation, such as by introducing Malay drums into the ensemble.
While nanyin was inscribed as an intangible cultural asset by Unesco in 2009, its practitioners still face challenges. Seow says: "Often, when we put on traditional performances, nobody appreciates them. When we put on fusion performances, people question us. This cycle is quite hard to break."
The upcoming concert might push some buttons, he acknowledges. "We have to take this risk because we have to rebuild. We want to experiment, to see whether this is something that modern audiences or audiences in Singapore wish to see, and show how nanyin has developed."
Despite the challenges, Seow and his brother Ming Fong, 25, Siong Leng's head of programming and also a principal artiste, are determined to carry on.
They managed to raise about $20,000 last year, $5,000 of which came from a Giving.sg campaign and the rest from older supporters who, Seow says wryly, told them they did not know how to donate online and wrote them cheques instead.
In the wake of the pandemic, Seow says: "We always think of the worst case scenario now. We do not just have Plan A and Plan B, but Plans C, D and E."
The company, which has eight full-time artists, five of whom also hold management roles, and five part-time associate artistes, is still dedicated to grooming the next generation of nanyin musicians. They currently have six apprentice artistes aged between eight and 15, who receive free training and performing experience.
Ng, as an older practitioner who has seen the siblings grow in the company since they were teenagers, says these young musicians have made this ancient Chinese music form their own. "They grew up in Singapore speaking English. But the tradition has rooted itself in Singapore."
Citizen X: Best friends' collaborative work explores themes of identity and citizenship
Citizen X was bumping into the Drama Centre in March last year when the axe fell. Theatres were abruptly closed as part of measures to stem the spread of Covid-19.
Now, the show is getting a second chance with a staging at the Esplanade's Huayi - Chinese Festival of Arts from Feb 19 to 22.
Writer and star Liu Xiaoyi, 38, says ruminatively of its comeback: "It feels like a long pause. I didn't think that much of the closure because I knew one day we would stage it."
Director Oliver Chong, 44, is surprised by Liu's reaction. "I did not think that we would even have a chance to restage."
He adds with a laugh: "He's an optimist. I'm a pessimist."
Despite their different outlooks, the duo have been best friends for almost two decades and Citizen X is the latest in their series collaboration, which began with 2013's Citizen Pig and continued with 2018's Citizen Dog. Liu says the trilogy started as a simple desire to work together.
This last instalment is inspired by Liu's personal family history. He knew that his grandfather Liu Shuo Tian came to Singapore in the 1920s. As a migrant himself - he came to Singapore in 1998 as a 16-year-old - he felt there was a story to be told in the parallel tales of migration.
"If you look back at the history, the 1920s was the first peak of Chinese coming to Singapore," he says. "The second peak is the 1990s to the present. These periods are exactly the same during which my grandfather and I came to Singapore."
While his grandfather spent only two years in Singapore, Liu has stayed. Asked why, he says: "I also don't know."
But Singapore is his home. "I bought an HDB (flat), so you tell me," he says with a chuckle.
Citizen X, like the previous instalments, explores issues of identity and citizenship. Chong, who also went to China to research his ancestry for his award-winning one-man play Roots (2012), accompanied Liu to his home town of Jieyang to interview the latter's family.
Liu says jokingly: "We went for two weeks to do interviews and eat some good food."
Chong was conscious of the fact that this was Liu's story to tell. His contribution as director was to help Liu tell the story effectively and cope with performing solo.
"It helps giving notes that are useful for the actor because the actor essentially cannot see himself," he says. "There's nobody in the space, no other characters to bounce off from. Stamina is required for an actor staying there on stage for so many minutes. It's very lonely and very draining. I can understand how he feels."
Their long friendship, says Liu, helped tremendously. "I can be vulnerable. I trust him 200 per cent."
Chong also advised Liu on language usage. To be authentic, Liu would have had to tell the entire story in Teochew, his mother tongue. But Chong noted that it would be a tough linguistic hurdle for a Singaporean audience. So the play is now told in a mix of Teochew, Teochew-accented Mandarin as well as a more neutrally accented Mandarin.
Differences in language can be divisive but here, it helps ignite a conversation. As Liu says: "If we can sit down and have a conversation, then labels are no longer important."
This performance is sold out.
All The World Is One's Stage: Uplifting tales of veteran actors
Toy Factory's artistic director Goh Boon Teck (above) observes of the past year, marked by the pandemic: "You have so much negativity that you have to swim through."
So for his new show for the Esplanade's Huayi festival, he wants to focus on the good things. "We felt that maybe it's good to present something more spiritual, more uplifting, to see the strength, the survival instinct of the human race."
In All The World Is One's Stage, four new playwrights team up with four veteran actors to share the latter's life stories. The veterans are Yong Ser Pin, Liow Shi Suen, Johnny Ng and Ong Teck Lian.
Goh, 49, says it is a dream come true for him to be able to direct Yong and Ng, as he has known them since he was a theatre newbie. "I played Ser Pin's grandson in 1989 and I was a prop maker for Johnny in Lao Jiu."
He sounds starstruck by Yong, also known as Yang Shi Bin, who was nominated for a Golden Horse for Best Supporting Actor for Wet Season (2019).
BOOK IT/ALL THE WORLD IS ONE'S STAGE
WHERE: Esplanade Theatre, 1 Esplanade Drive
WHEN: Feb 19 to 21, Feb 26 to 28, Fridays and Saturdays, 8pm; Sundays, 2.30pm
"Shi Bin is a delight, a beacon in the rehearsal that illuminates and motivates us. He's so calm and no matter how difficult the text or how many times we change stuff, he isn't mad. I really want to be a theatre practitioner at his age, so patient with everything."
Goh is also relishing this chance to match artistes across generations, with younger playwrights interviewing the older actors for their tales of how they have pursued their love of the arts.
Ng, for example, was an elevator repairman before a near-death experience prompted him to return to his first love - the theatre.
Liow was inspired by her love of radio service Rediffusion and sound to become a voice artiste, dubbing the dialogue for Japanese dramas before making the leap to the stage.
This is the second consecutive year that Goh is directing an anchor production for the festival. He co-wrote and directed 7 Sages Of The Bamboo Grove, which opened last year's Huayi.
On the heels of a challenging year for the arts scene, Goh is determined to see the good. "Of course there are a lot of bad things and we cannot stop them from happening. So you really have to know the brighter side.
"I treasure this period as a time to say thank you, to say that you love being with people that you really want to share your time with."
He hopes to share some of this optimism with the audience. "This piece is just taking the opportunity to remind people. We don't strive to change you. But I hope that in the one hour and 40 minutes, the audience will feel that this world is not that bad after all, our life is not that bad."
Other Huayi highlights
THE UNIVERSE ACCORDING TO NIU
This puppet production by Paper Monkey Theatre for kids aged five and above tells the story of a clever young man named Niu who fails his court entrance examinations in a corrupt kingdom. When his beloved kingdom is invaded, Niu has to figure out whether to use his smarts to rescue his country or be disheartened by his earlier failure.
Where: Esplanade Theatre Studio, 1 Esplanade Drive When: Feb 27 and 28, 11am and 3pm Admission: $50 for one adult and one child from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)
REFLECTIONS - AN INTERDISCIPLINARY CONCERT
Musical trio Musa join forces with other artistes in this concert which presents eight musical movements centred on the idea of transience.
Musa, which comprise twins Clara Tan Su-Min (zhong ruan) and Sophy Tan Su-Hui (guzheng) and composer/arranger Dayn Ng, are rooted in traditional Chinese music. They are collaborating with the likes of sound artiste and multimedia designer Mervin Wong, playwright Isaiah Christopher Lee and voice-over artist Andy Pang.
Where: Esplanade Recital Studio, 1 Esplanade Drive When: Feb 20, 8pm; Feb 21, 2pm Admission: $38 from Sistic
Become part of choreographer Ricky Sim's (above) work exploring space in a socially distanced era. Audience members are invited to move through this immersive installation during a 20-minute period, in which they will be filmed. The resulting video will become part of the work.
Where: Esplanade Annexe Studio, 1 Esplanade Drive When: Feb 19 to 28, various timings Admission: $14 from Sistic
A DUST IN TIME: PASSACAGLIA FOR STRINGS A MUSICAL JOURNEY OF REFLECTION & HOPE
Classical music ensemble re:mix and ACSO String Ensemble each play Chinese composer Huang Ruo's (above) new work in two concerts. A musical meditation structured like the Tibetan sand mandala, this 60-minute work was written by the composer in response to the pandemic and meant as a space for hope and healing.
Where: Esplanade Concert Hall, 1 Esplanade Drive When: Feb 21 (re:mix), Feb 28 (ACSO), 5pm; Sistic live stream till March 14, 11.59pm Admission: Free with registration. Go to str.sg/Jr5C
We have been experiencing some problems with subscriber log-ins and apologise for the inconvenience caused. Until we resolve the issues, subscribers need not log in to access ST Digital articles. But a log-in is still required for our PDFs.