At 12 lunar years old and having gone round one cycle of the Chinese zodiac, Huayi -- Chinese Festival of Arts continues to go super strong in carrying out its annual mission: showcasing Chinese artists from all over the world, with different interpretations of what it means to be Chinese.
“We have been gradually pushing the boundaries of our offerings, with shows in theatre, opera, music and dance that range from mainstream to experimental, classical and popular. If a performance is in spoken Mandarin, we will subtitle it, or even go into simultaneous interpretation. We've been attracting increasing non-Chinese audiences, by making it a multi-genre festival, cutting across borders,” gushed Mimi Yee, senior producer at the Esplanade and the woman behind Huayi's lineup.
She's not exaggerating: the 2014 Huayi itinerary includes a host of sassy art offerings that are indubitably Chinese, yet delicately deviant. For example, there will be cultural mashups like classic Chinese instruments playing Western jazz, or, a revolutionary opera performance by the famous Zhejiang Xiaobaihua Yue Opera Troupe. “It's an adaptation of German playwright Bertold Brecht's play ‘Good Woman of Szechuan’, turned into a Chinese opera called ‘Good Soul of South Yangtze’. It has Western music elements, modern theatrical elements... it's hard to explain, but it's like no Chinese opera you've ever seen,” Yee added.
Neither are local artists neglected. ‘The Ordinary Man’ is co-choreographed by Taiwanese choreographer Wu Yi-San and our island's contemporary dance doyen, T.H.E Dance Company's Artistic Director Kuik Swee Boon. Their decidedly un-classical dance piece has dancers executing modern moves to the rhythms of Chinese crosstalk.
“They dance to the language in the background, and sometimes to music,” shared a poetic Kuik. “Sometimes, the dancers say crosstalk lines as they dance. But the words are very rojak in this piece, and very interesting. It's not traditional Chinese, the words come from from people living in a certain time in Singapore. This is still Chinese performance art, but with Malay, Indian and Southeast Asian influences; and this is what defines Singaporean Chinese, and what makes our work special.”
Local actress Audrey Luo will also be performing Chinese comic crosstalk, albeit without dance, and with a female partner, Catherine Wong. “Comic crosstalk is not seen as a very feminine art form to begin with, it involves being brash and even rude. So it's not promoted among women traditionally. Experts have said that we can find a balance so that women crosstalk artists can continue to be ladylike onstage but still do the necessary banter. We won't really be doing that,” the outgoing Luo deadpanned.
“We're adapting two famous crosstalk scripts to be more localized and suited for women. Yes, in one, we will try to play more erudite ladies, but in the other, we're going to be our loud, stupid selves,” she chuckled.
In the meantime, hot, young theatre company Nine Years Theatre is doing what they've been doing best: translating witty European plays in to Mandarin. For Huayi, it's witty French play ‘Art’ that gets the Sino translation. Said scholarly artistic director Nelson Chia, “We position ourselves as a Mandarin theatre company, but I always tell people we are not Chinese-centric in our choice of works. We like to question the notion of what makes a Mandarin play, as well as what makes Chinese-ness, in Singapore. That's one reason why we adapt foreign plays to the Mandarin language.”
Chia explained, “Another reason for translating Western plays is — there are different types of Chinese people in Singapore. In ‘Art’ we have two Singapore Chinese actors and one actor from China. They all speak differently, even when they all speak Mandarin. If we did a Chinese classic play from China or Taiwan, then there would be the question of fixing specific accents, and it becomes significant whether they're playing people of any particular country. But when you do a Western play in Mandarin, same as if you did a classic Chinese play like ‘Lei Yu’ (Thunderstorm) in English, the actors and director can create a 'Chinese' language of their own, a world of their own. This helps to broaden the definition of what is Chinese, that goes beyond Taiwanese or Mainland Chinese. I feel that to be in the Huayi festival, is not to consolidate or show there's some unifying factor in Chinese-ness, but to question what is Chinese-ness in a multilingual, multicultural country.”
If the above sounds just a little too profound, rest assured that there are lots of bright, simple entertainments that even tots will enjoy, including interactive children's plays, or even rocking-horse making workshops to usher in the Year of the Horse.
Yee said, “We've been seeing more parents and children because we also have programmes for the very young, from four years old in fact, exposing audiences to the arts in a fun way and encouraging parent-child bonding. In general, we've been attracting different audiences, so everyone can come celebrate Chinese New Year with us. Yes it means we have to work over Chinese New Year, but if Huayi puts a smile on people's faces, it's all worth it.”