Chinese art offerings presented at the Huayi – Chinese Festival of Arts are usually far from traditional. And that’s a good thing.
BY JO TAN
Published on 1 February 2016
BY JO TAN
The Huayi — Chinese Festival of Arts has been presented by the Esplanade for 13 years now, but if there’s something programmer Mimi Yee can confirm, it’s that there’s still no fast formula for putting together the festival.
“Every year, we have to consider what audiences and artists are already currently watching, and thus, what they would like to see in Huayi that they might not have experienced elsewhere on the island,” she says.“For example, we have been bringing in foreign fusion ensembles who mix Chinese and Western instruments, because we see a lot of Chinese orchestras here getting interested in fusion music, and it might be good for them to be exposed to other possibilities from overseas, to draw from, or go against. I suppose, compared to more traditional festivals, Huayi is more a festival to showcase Chinese artists pushing boundaries in their art.”
Indeed, this year’s festival once again sees fabulously far-out offerings such as Huang Yi & KUKA, named respectively after the eponymous dancer and his carefully- programmed robot as they execute cutting-edge choreography together; and a Mandarin-language version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, transformed into a satire infused with various Eastern aesthetics partly thanks to the production’s artistic director, Japan’s Tadashi Suzuki.
In fact, the festival not only invites performers with existing unconventional acts, it also regularly facilitates and commissions collaborations between international Chinese artists, producing works which showcase the increasingly metropolitan voice of the Chinese diaspora today, such as last year’s Savage Land, a Western opera interpretation of legendary China playwright Cao Yu’s masterpiece of the same name. It was directed by Young Artist Award recipient Goh Boon Teck, artistic director of Singaporean theatre company Toy Factory, and starred famous opera talents from China, accompanied by maestros from the Singapore Chinese Orchestra and the National University of Singapore Choir.
MAN VS MACHINE Huang Yi & KUKA sees the eponymous dancer/choreographer and his robot executing choreography together.
CLASSIC REMAKE Emerging Chinese theatre director Huang Ying and iconic teacher/director Tadashi Suzuki collaborate to transform Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth into Chinese-language satire.
While this may surprise audience members who expect a ‘Chinese festival of arts’ to consist mainly of Beijing Opera classics or Chinese calligraphy displays, regular Huayi collaborator Goh, also a multi-award-winning director/playwright/designer, feels the cutting-edge nature of the works are an accurate and necessary representation of the Chinese art scene.
“Updating art forms to make them more cosmopolitan or modern is really an inevitable progression. I don’t think there are any genuine purists left: even when I was watching what was supposed to be the most traditional Kun Opera in Beijing, I noticed the pacing was different, the music was slightly different,” he explains. “As younger generations take on various traditional disciplines, they can’t help but bring on their own energy and global influences. Singapore-made Mandarin theatre, for example, is this very cosmopolitan form fusing a local and international aesthetic, maybe because most Singaporean theatre directors were trained in London.”
An exemplary product of our famous cultural melting pot is singer/songwriter Dawn Wong, who will be launching her sophomore album, The Adventures of Marco Lopo, at the festival. “Usually, whichever part of this region you’re from, there’s a certain sound Chinese pop artists go for to appeal to the Taiwanese market. But if you look at the history, Singapore arrangers started becoming more popular because of our distinct Western flavour. Our influences are so international,” she muses.
Marco Lopo can indeed credit its influences to the mixed aspects of Wong’s upbringing. “When I first started performing, it was actually with Mandarin pop, which I listened to a lot since secondary school. Then I slowly made the switch to listening to and singing jazz, which is more Western. Recently, when I got to work on this project, I thought writing the songs in Mandarin felt a bit closer to my identity, even though you can classify the songs as jazz. And it’s not in the style of Shanghai jazz, which I love — Marco Lopo is influenced by music that I was exposed to from Europe and also some Latin artists. I didn’t really think about which box I wanted it to fall into, I just wanted it to sound nice.”
VOCAL STYLE Singapore singers such as Jim Lim, Deng Shuxian and MiCapella unite in Songs From Chen Jiaming to perform famous tunes by the homegrown songwriter.
WORLD MUSIC Dawn Wong’s new album, The Adventures of Marco Lopo, draws from various international music influences she was exposed to right here in Singapore.
Huayi seems an appropriate platform for Wong’s album launch, not just because of its fusion of cultures and influences, but also because, like several other festival offerings, it fuses different disciplines. “This concert will also have some storytelling and be a bit theatrical,” Wong says with a laugh. “Each song tells a crazy story that I dreamed up, not about ‘I love you, you love me’, but about these different characters that are mostly not human. Marco Lopo himself is a rabbit living in a little landlocked town. All he wants to do is travel the world like Marco Polo, but his parents want him to stay and take over the carrot farm.
“We’ll tell each character’s story before each song, and I’m hoping to do up the stage a little, so the audience feels like they’re on a ship with us. I’m even trying to bring one of the animal characters to the show! What I’m trying to do is to see if we can add different elements to modify the more traditional concert experience and make more people want to attend music performances.”
Indeed, attracting different generations to the various art-forms is certainly one common aim of presenting ‘updated’ art to audiences. “It’s sometimes necessary to reach out to a younger generation by injecting energy, current aesthetics and contemporary expectations. On the most basic level, I think you can no longer find people who will watch Chinese Opera for nine hours,” says Goh, who famously wrote and directed the much-accoladed Titoudao, a production about traditional Hokkien Opera in Singapore, but presented in a Western play format. The play was so ahead of its time when it premiered in 1994 that it was invited to the Cairo International Festival of Experimental Theatre.
Goh also created the play The Crab Flower Club, which infused Chinese calligraphy and ancient Chinese poems into a modern theatre production. “We have many young followers who might not be watching the more traditional Chinese art forms. They attend our shows, they bring their friends and schoolmates, and they get interested in these old art-forms.”
Huayi 2016 boasts a production similar to Titoudao, in One Hundred Years on Stage, a theatrical tale about the development of Peking Opera artists, presented by Taiwan’s acclaimed GuoGuang Opera Company. Says Yee, “While GuoGuang have their very traditional opera catering to their die-hard opera fans, they also have this repertoire, telling stories of Peking Opera but using theatrical forms, so it’s more like watching Chinese theatre. It’s a more easy and accessible way for people to get connected to Peking Opera.
“So yes, Huayi is a bit more modernised, but if people crave more traditional arts as a result, the Esplanade also runs Moonfest during the Mid-Autumn Festival which showcases Chinese arts, like cross-talk, in their ‘pure’ form,” she says. “Other than the fact that there are very many different types of Chinese artists now, I think it’s also important for preservation of traditional forms and contemporary development to coexist so they can reach out to different audiences.”
Huayi — Chinese Festival of Arts 2016 is on from 12-21 February at the Esplanade.