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Making Their Mark in Foreign Lands

30 Apr 2008

VJC dance ensemble

Play time - after the competition, the VJC dance ensemble toured Barcelona and the surrounding region, such as the city of Girona.

What was it like participating in a competition in a foreign country where none of the organisers and production crew could speak English? Or how did it feel to perform in the world-renowned Carnegie Hall in New York City? Students from Victoria Junior College’s dance ensemble and band can answer all these questions and more.

In March this year, the VJC dance ensemble took part in competitions in Spain, while the band took to the stage in the New York Band and Orchestra Festival in the US. Both opportunities were actively sought out by the college and student performers, to give the latter more exposure to international performance standards.

Dancing their hearts out

When Mrs Ting Siang Leng, teacher in-charge of the college’s dance ensemble, was looking for overseas dance competitions which the dance ensemble could take part in, she found out about the Barcelona Dance Awards and thought that it would be good exposure for the members. After all, in 2007, the competition attracted 1,400 dancers from 21 countries, a staggering diversity of styles and cultures.

So in January this year, a team of 17 girls from the VJC dance ensemble began practising intensively for the competition. On 19 March, the team flew off to Barcelona, Spain, to take part in the four-day competition. Accompanying them on the trip were Mrs Ting and Mr Shahbirul Zaki Ahmad, their choreographer.

VJC dance ensemble

VJC dancers practising by the swimming pool in Barcelona.

As it turned out, the language barrier posed a major challenge to contend with. They found that they had little information about the itinerary and were often left to figure out on their own what was to happen next.

Student Phoebe Lim remembers, “The stage runners were asking me about the lighting but they spoke only Spanish and we couldn’t understand one another. The light was to fade in at the beginning and then get brighter. So I had to make a lot of gestures to explain this - but thankfully they understood what I wanted and they did a good job.”

Besides language difficulties, the team also had to learn to adapt quickly to other limitations. Another student, Melissa Ng, recalls, “The hotel we stayed in was very small and we couldn’t find any place to practise. So we practised at the swimming pool by moving away all the deck chairs. We also asked if we could use the lounge. We learnt to make do with what we had.”

The girls competed against teams from countries such as Brazil, the United Kingdom, Russia, Mexico and Israel. On two nights at two different theatres, they performed the piece “Celestial”, which was a creative fusion of Western techniques spiced up with an ethnic Asian flavour. The girls danced their way into the hearts of the audience and judges and proudly walked away with two awards - second place for choreography and the Best Theatre Performance, a special prize in which VJC was the only recipient.

But what really mattered was the recognition and respect they received from their competitors, many of whom were from dance schools and some even from professional dance companies. The VJC team found their response the most rewarding and it has fuelled the girls’ passion for dancing.

VJC band

The band performed at Central Park to warm applause.

The envy of many musicians

Over in New York City around the same time, the VJC band also flew their school flag high by winning a gold medal at the New York Band and Orchestra Festival. Only six bands and orchestras from all over the world were picked to perform at this event. To be considered, the VJC band had sent in an audio recording of their performance during the rehearsal for Singapore Youth Festival 2007.

When the VJC band was selected, their practice sessions became even more fervent, with twice a week practices since December last year. Their conductor, Mr Leonard Tan, chose two pieces for the festival: “Machu Picchu - City in the Sky” by Satoshi Yagisawa and “Entrance of the Gladiators” by Julius Fucik.

Explaining the choice of the pieces, Mr Wong Shiong Wei, one of the three teachers in-charge of the band, says, “Our conductor felt the orchestration of ‘Machu Picchu’ was colourful and it would show the strength of the band. It was by a Japanese composer and we thought might be refreshing for the American and British judges to hear compositions by Asian composers. We also choose the march because the first piece is the more serious piece, so the march lightens things up.”

Prior to the Festival, the VJC band also performed at the Central Park. They were pleasantly surprised by the enthusiastic crowd that gathered to watch them and were even more amazed by the appreciation they received from audience.

VJC band

THE VJC band performing at the Issac Stern Auditorium of Carnegie Hall.

Mr Wong recounts, “We have held outdoor performances before in Singapore and we seldom get compliments from people listening. At the most we get a polite applause. But at Central Park, a lady told us that the lively pieces we played that day had really moved her and brightened up her day very much and she wanted to compliment the conductor and the band. The people there were very appreciative!”

For many of the students, the highlight of the trip was the opportunity to perform in the prestigious Carnegie Hall. Student Phua Dafril Izzad enthuses, “It’s the world-famous Carnegie Hall - Tchaikovsky performed there, Pavorotti performed there. And now we have a Singapore school band which performed on a world-class stage!”

Fellow band member Fong Mei Yi feels that the whole process was to be cherished. “During the preparation and at the festival, the whole band was in very high spirits and there was a lot of bonding. That was memorable for me.”