Moonfest programmes for young and old

A longer Moonfest this year features more programmes aimed at attracting younger audiences

Those with a taste for the traditional Chinese arts will be over the moon next month as Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay doubles its run of Moonfest from three to six days to feature more free youth programmes.

The Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival celebration, which is in its 13th edition, will continue to offer mainstays such as Peking opera and Chinese orchestra performances.

But it also aims to reel in younger audiences with a dance performance that puts a modern twist on ethnic minority dances, as well as free activities such as a fashion parade of traditional Hanfu attire and hands-on water calligraphy sessions.

The festival's programmer Desmond Chew says: "As the festival grows, we continue to attract and engage new audiences. Through these specially curated programmes, we hope to pique the curiosity of our younger generation to discover its cultural roots and heritage at Moonfest."

A highlight of the festival, which runs from Sept 29 to Oct 4, is Soulful Steps, the first dance production to be commissioned for Moonfest.

Four dancers from Minzu University of China will come together to perform Dai, Kazakh, Mongol and Tibetan folk dances, infused with contemporary dance elements. They will be accompanied live by traditional instruments such as the Mongolian morin khuur, or horsehead fiddle; the Kazakh dombra, or long-necked lute; and the Tibetan eagle-bone flute.

Mongolian dancer Hao Na, 34, the only one of the group based in Singapore, says in Mandarin: "I hope that my own small contribution will help inspire younger generations - whether in China or in Singapore - to understand, learn and love minority cultures."

As the performers are scattered over Asia, in places as far-flung as Kazakhstan and Lhasa in Tibet, most of the show had to be coordinated over online chats.

They met in June in Beijing for a week of intense rehearsal.

The theme of Hao's work is Mongolian womanhood, stretching back over the thousands of years women have lived in nature.

The Singapore permanent resident says: "I want it to reflect our ancestors, such as Genghis Khan's mother Hoelun and what we know of her from the ancient literary work The Secret History Of The Mongols; and also the grandmothers my friends and I meet in the yurts, who pour us milk tea while humming folk songs. Also, the young professional women in big cities who are juggling careers and raising families."

This year's programme remains star-studded with tradition, with the Hubei Provincial Peking Opera Theatre performing its signature comedy The Promotion Of Judge Xu, as well as a number of excerpts from classic operas such as Farewell My Concubine and a Justice Bao work.

The Promotion Of Judge Xu stars opera veteran Zhu Shihui, a two-time winner of the Plum Blossom award given out by the China Theatre Association, one of the highest honours for regional opera in China. He has played the title role more than 700 times.

In the opera, the protagonist Xu Jiujing is finally promoted to judge, but is caught in a moral dilemma as he must preside over a case between the Duke, his benefactor, and the Marquis, who denied him the top title at the scholars' examinations years ago because of his looks.

Zhu, 70, says over the telephone from China that his secret to playing the iconic role is to not play it straight in the "chou", or clown style.

"He is a complex, intelligent man," he says in Mandarin. "He is very talented and genuinely wants to serve his country. You cannot just play him as 'chou' - it is not enough.

"In the past, I learnt 'lao sheng' (mature scholar) roles, so when I began many years ago to play Xu Jiujing, I combined the air of the scholar with the style of the clown."

Though some might consider Peking opera to be in its twilight years, he says he is heartened by recent efforts in China to introduce students to it at a young age.

"In the past two years, Peking opera has had a good showing. When we look out at the audience, there are clearly more heads with dark hair than there are with white."

Water calligraphy and puppet show

Similarly, local theatre group Paper Monkey Theatre wants to show kids that traditional hand puppets and Chinese music can be "hip" too.

The group will put on children's show The Magic Paintbrush, in which a young boy, Ma Liang, is given a paintbrush that turns anything he paints into reality.

At first, he helps his fellow villagers by painting food and livestock, but when the emperor learns of his gift, he kidnaps Ma Liang and orders him to paint gold non-stop.

This is Paper Monkey's third commission for Moonfest. Its production for last year's festival, The Magic Lantern, won Best Production for the Young at the M1-The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards in April.

The group's artistic director Benjamin Ho, 49, wants to go back to the basics of magic with this show.

"These days, a lot of children have technology such as iPhones and iPads, but we want to show them that sometimes you don't need these fancy things if your talent is already there. Really, the brush is nothing special. It's Ma Liang that makes the things come alive."

He sought the help of a master puppet-maker in Taiwan to make the "pi li ou", or thunder puppets, for the show. "They are quite complicated to make - their heads are made of wood but their hands are synthetic leather, like real skin. They're pretty life-like."

In an effort to reach out to younger viewers outside of ticketed productions, Moonfest is also offering a host of free programmes on traditional Chinese arts, including water calligraphy, which uses water instead of ink so one can practise it repeatedly on the ground as the water evaporates.

Engineer Alex Liew will be giving a water calligraphy performance in the Esplanade's forecourt garden, with extra brushes for members of the public to try their hands at it. The art is popular in China as a form of exercise for older folks, but is not prevalent in Singapore.

The 32-year-old, who has been passionate about calligraphy since his parents got him started on it in primary school, hopes the ease and novelty of water calligraphy will arouse curiosity among young people.

It does not hurt that it is Instagram-friendly. "Anything digital can go viral," he says, "and I hope people share these photos with their friends. I'd like millennials to continue to embrace Chinese culture."


HIGHLIGHTS OF MOONFEST

The Promotion Of Judge Xu

The Hubei Provincial Peking Opera Theatre performs its signature courtroom comedy starring Zhu Shihui in the clown role of Judge Xu.

Where: Esplanade Theatre, 1 Esplanade Drive When: Sept 29, 7.30pm Admission: $38 to $88

The Magic Paintbrush

This children's puppet show is based on a classic Chinese folktale about a poor boy who is given a magic paintbrush by the gods.

Where: Esplanade Theatre Studio, 1 Esplanade Drive When: Sept 29, 10.30am and 3pm; Sept 30 and Oct 1, 2 and 5.30pm Admission: $22

Soulful Steps

Four dancers perform Dai, Kazakh, Mongol and Tibetan folk dances with a modern twist, accompanied by traditional instruments.

Where: Esplanade Recital Studio, 1 Esplanade Drive When: Sept 29, 7.30pm; and Sept 30, 3 and 7.30pm Admission: $35

Virtuosos And Classics

The China Broadcasting Chinese Orchestra performs classics such as A Moonlit Night On A Spring River and Sentiment Of Qin Chuan.

Where: Esplanade Concert Hall, 1 Esplanade Drive When: Sept 30, 7.30pm Admission: $38 to $58

Peking Opera Classic

Excerpts The Hubei troupe presents five excerpts from classic Peking operas such as Farewell My Concubine, Xue Gang Rebels Against The Court and Wu Jia Slope.

Where: Esplanade Theatre When: Oct 1, 3pm Admission: $38 to $88

•Tickets from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg). For details, go to bit.ly/2vw2X28

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 15, 2017, with the headline 'Soul food for young and old'. Print Edition | Subscribe