Dancing Through Life

There’s a saying in show business: ‘Never work with children or animals’. Richard Chia, the choreographer of Jack & The Bean-Sprout!, would probably beg to differ – at least where kids are concerned. He talks to us about working with our W!LD Kids and his sources of inspiration.

Tell us about working with the kids in the cast.

I love it! This is my second pantomime as choreographer – the first was Aladdin with Hady Mirza – though I’ve performed in a few others. There are some kids from my first pantomime who were five, six years old, and now they’re nine, ten years old and really looking forward to doing the pantomime. The kids who are doing it for the third time still have to audition, and you can just see the growth in them in the way they perform. That’s the unique thing about the kids’ cast – it’s training for them. It’s early and hands-on, and very, very fun.

We look to the elder kids to guide the younger ones – leadership by example! I do miss Gurmit Singh and Tan Kheng Hua’s daughters, because they were my leaders – they were very very professional. They would get the kids together and rehearse on their own time. Now they’re too old to be in the kids’ cast. But that’s the best thing about the pantomime where the kids’ cast is concerned.

Is it difficult to teach the kids the routines?

Kids are very adaptable! I’m never worried about them. As long as you prep them properly and let them know what’s to be expected. That’s why our standards are very high. We pick the kids that we know can pick up faster, so we don’t have such a hard time. The first pantomime we did, we spent a lot of time screaming, ‘Quiet!’ But, now, the culture and tradition of a kids’ cast has already developed. It’s very impressive.

The difference in this pantomime is that we’re trying to get the kids more involved in the show proper – not just have them come out and be cute. Now, we expect a lot more from them. That’s why the auditions this year were a lot tougher, I think. It’s not just enough to be cute. Standards are raised. And that’s what they want, you see – the kids themselves want to do more!

What tricks have you learnt to deal with the kids?

We have our wonderful minders – our chaperones. They’re very good. In rehearsal, I’m very very strict with the kids. I treat them just like any other performer. We expect a certain sense of discipline and standards – even if you’re a kid, you must be professional. That’s how it starts. Take the rehearsal studio. They must know it’s a place for work and not for play. I’ve trained so many performers of all ages, and you have to tell them the same thing as what you tell kids: the discipline that is expected of you on stage, in performance or rehearsal. Kids really pick up very fast. You tell them once and you tell them why. It takes them a while to listen but they’ll do it.

At auditions for Jack & The Bean-Sprout!
(L-R) Elaine Chan, Ivan Heng, Richard Chia, Gordon Choy

What are some of the challenges of choreographing for a pantomime?

One is the original music. I’m used to choreographing with the full instrumental of a track – it’s very easy to work with. But for this, it’s a work in progress, so it’s challenging. It’s very collaborative. The last pantomime I did, Aladdin, was easier because it was mostly samplings of well-known tunes. Like pop tunes with the words tweaked – that’s easier. This one will be a bit more challenging to see how the music goes and how I’ll make the choreography work. Also, rehearsing with a piano is very different from rehearsing with the full band.

What inspires you when it comes to choreographing a number?

It starts off with the music for me, honestly. That’s why it’s a bit challenging for me if I don’t have the full instrumentals of the score. In a pantomime, the script and director and cast also inspire me. You have an idea of what you want, and then it has to be fluid and you have to adapt it to the cast and what they can do.

In pantomime, especially for musical choreography, it must tell the story. The steps are not so important. The steps must move the story. So they shouldn’t be so complicated or difficult – nobody needs triple pirouettes and all that. It’s the telling of the story that must make sense. I always tell my students, ‘Why do you dance? You dance because words are not enough: you’ve got to burst into dance!’ So you must tell the story. The emotion must carry through.

Did you always know that this was the career for you?

No – I fell into it! I’m a gymnast by training, and represented Singapore in two SEA Games. It all started in 1983. I was working in passenger service at the airport, and I saw my friends working on an item for our D&D. I thought that looked like fun and asked if I could try. They were surprised at how quickly I picked it up. I thought it was really fun. The day after the D&D, there was a big full-page ad in the newspapers: ‘Be A Dancer!’. It was like a sign! So I went for the audition for Neptune Theatre, not knowing what an audition was. I just thought I’d try; I had nothing to lose. Then I got in!

I stayed with Neptune for three years, until they closed down the revue because they weren’t making money. After that, I went to the SAF Music & Drama Company and was there for six years. I’ve been teaching and performing ever since. My first musical was with Ivan, who was fresh out of NUS. It was West Side Story! We were the Jets. He was Baby John, I was Action.

And now it’s thirty years later – this is my thirtieth anniversary, and it feels like yesterday. I have kids who were my students – now I’m teaching their kids in LASALLE! And soon I’ll be teaching their kids, if I’m still around! It’s fun lah. You know, in any other job, thirty years seems like a long time. For me, it doesn’t even feel like three years – where does the time go?

What advice do you have for aspiring dancers or choreographers?

It’s got to be something that you’ve got to do or you’ll die. You’ve got to be that passionate about it, whatever it is in the performing arts – whether it’s dancing, acting or anything. If you don’t do it, you’re not yourself, you know? Because life is so difficult. You don’t have a stable job or stable pay, you don’t have stable anything. Everyone’s fighting for a very small pie. There are so many actors, dancers and singers, and not so many jobs to go around. If you’re not passionate about it, you can’t survive in this business.

Also, be somebody that people want to work with. I think that’s my biggest piece of advice. Talent is secondary. Everybody’s got talent. But what is your work ethic? Are you fun and pleasant to be around with? I teach my students these life skills – your reputation is so important. The first impression that you make will set the path for the rest of your career.

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