With Chinese New Year around the corner, Esplanade is gearing up to the eleventh edition of “Huayi – Chinese Festival of Arts”, that celebrates Singapore Chinese heritage by bringing together the best artistes representing the Chinese diaspora.
There are some big names in the line-up: acclaimed Zuni Icosahedron Theatre from Hong Kong, Cantopop icon Denise Ho and popular Taiwanese indie band BearBabes.
Talking to Esplanade’s programming officer Delvin Lee, it is quite clear that his small team of seven has worked very hard to make this festival the most diverse yet. “Huayiprovides audiences with a taste of some of the most dynamic forms of Chinese artistic expression,” Lee explained.
Happening from 15 to 24 February this year, the festival was first introduced as one of the three annual cultural festivals at Esplanade to celebrate Singapore’s multi-cultural legacy but the ambition now is to make this festival one of the most celebrated festivals in Asia.
Lee proudly reveals that over the years the festival has grown in popularity, with great reception also for less mainstream shows. As they try to cater for all kinds of audiences, they select the best artistes from around Asia and shows of the highest quality.
A quick glance at the programme proves his point: there is certainly a lot to choose from and not only for assiduous theatre-goers.
'Cooking a Dream'
From the theatre programme, ‘Cooking a Dream’ (20-21 Feb | 8pm | $30)by acclaimed Chinese director Huang Ying, who has extensively toured both Asia and Europe, cannot go unnoticed.
Inspired by an ancient Tang story ‘A Story of a Dream’,‘Cooking a Dream’elaborates on the popular Chinese proverb, 黄粱一梦 (huang liang yi meng) which means “glory, honour and wealth are nothing but shadows”. This is told through the story of Lu, a young scholar eager for fame and fortune. Mixing elements of Chinese opera with contemporary theatre, the show promises to be highly engaging with live cooking on stage.
“Staying true to the story, millet (a type of grain) will be cooked at the start of the production, and it will be fully cooked just as the show ends. Thus the audience will be able to watch the production accompanied by the fragrance of the millet cooking in the pot,” Huang exclaims.
In addition to the live element, Huang said that the old Tang tale has some deep questions addressed to a contemporary audience. “This ancient classic is still asking a relevant question today: What kind of life is really worth pursuing?”
True to the Chinese philosophical heritage, Huang also described emphatically that “each performance of the show is actually a conversation between us and our forefathers”.
With many international acts in the festival, we are pleased to see Singapore-based company, Nine Years Theatre, recently founded by actor and director Nelson Chia who is best known for starring in the TV drama ‘Together Whenever’.
Chia wants to leave his mark with ‘Twelve Angry Men’ (15 Feb | 8pm; 16 - 17 Feb | 2.30pm & 8pm | $35), based on a 1954 teleplay that was made into a film which starred Henry Fonda in 1957.
Following the success of ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ staged at the festival last year in Chinese, Chia has also translated this play into the Chinese medium. When asked about the challenge in the translation, he admitted that “the main challenge is to be sensitive to the ever-changing linguistic nuances in our multi-lingual Singapore”. He feels that there are many differences between Chinese cultures and the way they use Mandarin.
Another highlight from the theatre and dance programme is ‘Awakening’ (15-16 Feb | 7.30pm; 17 Feb | 2pm | $38-108)by Edward Lam Dance Theatre (Hong Kong) extending the classic 'Dream of the Red Chamber' to a modern context with an all-female cast, including Cantopop icon Denise Ho, who plays gender-bending protagonist Jia Baoyu. Since its premiere in Hong Kong in 2011, ‘Awakening’ has toured with sold-out shows and received critical acclaim in many cities in Asia. This is a show that even non-regular theatre-goers will enjoy.
Another jewel from mainland China is ‘Antigone’ (19 Feb | 8pm | $35, $45)by acclaimed director Li Liuyi from Beijing that draws from another classic, a Greek one this time. Last but not least is ‘Eighteen Springs’ (23 Feb | 8pm; 24 Feb | 2.30pm | $38-88), directed by Zuni’s co-founder Mathias Woo; it’s a celebration of performing arts, marrying music, drama, text and traditional Suzhou tanci.
Returning back to Lee, we discover that there is more to the festival than theatre. “Huayi is not just a festival for theatre programmes. We also showcase outstanding Chinese artistes in the genres of music and dance,” he said.
The music programme is also rich and varied from classical to pop music: ‘Rainbow Verses’ (23 Feb | 7.30pm | $38-68), a collaboration between Singapore Chinese Orchestra and the National Theatre of China, ‘Voices of Splendour’ (15 Feb | 8pm | $38-68) featuring three world-renowned Chinese vocalists, He Hui, Yuan Chenye and Liang Ning in one concert; Chinese Pop music artists The Freshmen (15 Feb | 7.30pm | $25), and award-winning indie folk singer-songwriter Deserts Xuan (18-19 Feb | 7.30pm | $25).
‘Thunderstorm’ (24 Feb | 2.30pm, 8pm | $30), the only dance showin the programme,is a dance drama born out of the collaboration from Hong Kong director Tang Shu-wing with award-winning dancers and choreographers Xing Liang and Mui Cheuk Yin. Complete with evocative period costumes but staged with a contemporary aesthetic, this promises to be an evocatively beautiful show.
With the “Huayi” programme spanning over 10 days, Esplanade offers over 10 different shows that range from theatre, dance and pop music to family shows as well as an even wider variety offree showsaround the theatre complex. So if you want to continue celebrating the Chinese New Year and Chinese culture, and you want to do it in style, Esplanade is definitely the place to hang around and visit from 15 to 24 February.
Writer, theatre and fiction critic, researcher and academic, Mary Mazzilli started writing plays in 2001, training first at Soho Theatre and then at the Royal Court. Her most recent play 'Magical Chairs' has been staged at the Southwark Playhouse and at People's Theatre as part of the Beijing International Fringe Festival (2011). She shares her writing career with an academic interest in literature; she holds a PhD in Chinese and Comparative Literature at SOAS, London on Gao Xingjian and Martin Crimp’s plays and has lectured in Chinese Theatre and Films at SOAS. She is currently a Research Associate at NTU as well as a contributor to The Times Literary Supplement, Theatre Voice, What's on Stage, OneStopArts and inSing.com