Sunday, June 16

Restaging a local arts extravaganza


Victor Leong directing the Sarawak State Symphony Orchestra during one of the combined rehearsals. — Photos courtesy of Brendan Goh

SPECTACULAR! Delightful! Magical and of a professionally high standard.

These words are among the audience’s descriptions of the Life in the Jungle ballet production this past January.

In response to popular request, this local arts extravaganza will be restaged in Kuching this August.

The multi-faceted production, involving more than 150 local youth performers from LayNa Ballet Academy, Institute of Teacher Education Batu Lintang Campus and the Sarawak State Symphonic Orchestra (SONS), made its three-night debut in January at the former Legislative State Assembly building in Petra Jaya.

The proceeds of RM65,000 raised from individual and corporate sponsorships, as well as ticket and souvenir sales, were donated to Sarawak Kidney Association, Community Based Rehabilitation Centre and Kuching Society for the Urban Poor.

This restage will feature differences from the January production. Besides benefiting a different group of local charities – the Lions’ Club Cornea Transplant project, Meeting Needs and the Sarawak Kidney Association – the restage offers a better audience experience.

“One of our biggest challenges has been to improve the audience experience in a cost-effective way” said Megan Chalmers in addressing the difficulties of viewing the stage from the back parts of the performance venue.

“We are, thus, going to raise the audience up on platforms hired for the event to improve their view of the show.”

The performers, ranging from ballet dancers, vocalists and narrators to instrumentalists and cultural dancers, after having spent countless hours rehearsing for the January show, are now eager to reunite in bringing alive this Iban legend for Kuching audiences once again.

Tok Tarau teaching the newly hatched Pong Kapong to fly. — Photo courtesy of Alexander Tow


The ballet is based on the works of Heidi Munan and Julia Chong for an operetta of the same name, staged 30 years ago in Kuching.

In 1984, vocalists from the Polyhymnia Choral Society told the story through Munan’s witty libretto put to Chong’s music with live musical accompaniment, provided by Marcus Leong’s orchestra.

In January, in memory of the 30th anniversary of Chong’s passing, 100 ballet dancers portrayed the Iban legend of the Pong Kapong bird through Chan Lay Na’s choreography, aided by a 30-member choir under the direction of Chong’s daughter, Pek Lin, together with a full symphonic orchestra conducted by Leong’s son, Victor.

Anthony Wong provided the orchestral arrangement of Chong’s music and made it complete for the ballet with additions of his own compositions, working closely with the three directors.

Two narrators strung together the three acts of the ballet with their lines based on Munan’s script while more of their ITE Batu Lintang colleagues grounded the audience in a Borneoan experience through their roles as cultural dancers, actors and instrumentalists.

The costume and set designs, headed by Chalmers, further enabled the performers onstage to internalise their roles as inhabitants of our local rainforests.

Following the January production, the committee received numerous exaltations from members of the audience.

Thoroughly enjoyable

“I do believe this work should be one of the mainstays of ballet companies around the world,”commented Angela Chong, a doctor based in Singapore.

Jo Williams from Kuching wrote: “We thoroughly enjoyed the evening and were transported to the colorful world of the jungle through the music, the dance, the deceptively simple sets and the amazing costumes.”

Chong Pek Sian, from Melbourne, was also full of praises.

“Anthony’s orchestration under Victor’s skilled baton thrilled with its pulsing rhythms. The performance of Pek Lin’s choral arrangement for the travellers’ song – A Sing Sing So – was also most effective. Close your eyes, and you are lulled into a gentle sea, drifting off to Sumatra.”

She added that for her personally, “perhaps most impressive was the Silat,” referring to the martial arts item performed during the Sumatran Batak village scene.

Elaine Langshaw, an Australian educator and music-lover, enthused: “This production is of such a high standard that it deserves to be seen by a wider audience.”

The January performances and the upcoming restage in August are the products of more than a year’s work, spearheaded by a voluntary organising committee, led by Michael Lim (organising chairman), Lee San San and Chalmers.

The two comic narrators delight the audience with their humorous antics.

Treasured experience

“It has been most rewarding to see the dedication of the commitee in bringing about a much-needed artistic and musical experience to Kuching,” said Lim, also fondly recalling the joyful glows on the faces of the cast as they took the stage on their performance nights.

“I look forward to this restaging of the production serving as a catalyst for more such projects to come,” he added.

His expectations, indeed, should not take long to materialise. Many among the youths involved in this production have expressed their shared excitement at the opportunity to work together again in the pool of wide-ranging talents to stage the large-scale production.

“The most rewarding part about being involved in Life in the Jungle is that I have so much fun working with the different groups of people,” said Imogen Chan who dances the role of the Spotted Dove, Fruitfly and Fruitfairy.

“Working with the orchestra and choir creates a very different atmosphere and feel for us when we are dancing.”

Bong Chee Xiung who sings the part of the Rhino, the leader of the animals, agreed.

“It isn’t an everyday opportunity to be able to work with both the State Symphony Orchestra and the LayNa Ballet Academy.”

His fellow Batu Lintang teacher trainee Heinny Selan reflected on her experience as part of the Iban dance ensemble, saying: “I’m really looking forward to working again with some of the most talented people I have ever met.”

However, participating in a production combining highly demanding skills in dance, singing, acting as well as live orchestral accompaniment has not come without its challenges.

Behind the scenes

Ursula Chai who dances as the Rhino this August, reflected: “The biggest challenge for me was learning the choreography of the various animal roles. Not only do you need to memorise the steps, you also need to act convincingly as each particular animal.”

Many of the dancers performed several roles during each performance night.

“I tried my very best to act out my different roles as the motherly Mrs Pong Kapong bird, the fierce leopard as well as the tricky lizard,” Ottilia Ting mused, describing how she was switching between three roles throughout the January show nights.

To ensure a performance of the highest quality, the ballet dancers also had to compete with one another for the particular roles they desired.

“It’s hard to compete with your friends to get what you want but even if we don’t get to perform our favorite roles, we are still happy to be able to perform onstage for an audienceto help the needy,” Chai said.

Bong added: “It has been challenging to synchronise our singing with the orchestra and the ballet dancers.”

The numerous recitatives, sung by the Rhino, proved to be among the toughest parts to perform seamlessly as the utmost cohesion between him, the orchestra and the different ballerinas dancing the role each night during the January show, was required throughout – even during the animal leader’s sarcastic coughing!

The intensive rehearsals in preparation for the performances also provided an opportunity for those involved to test the limits of their time management skills.

A choir member, Kang Yan Ling, shared how she had to constantly complete most of her work much earlier than her teacher trainee classmates.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Soon who plays the cello in the orchestra, mused: “For some of the musicians, the staging in January marked the end of a very busy season with two other high profile concerts preceding the rehearsals.

“It was very exhausting, but worth it,” he noted.

Mischevious monkeys come alive through the ballerinas’ performance of LayNa’s clever choreography.

Eager anticipation

Juggling intensive rehearsals with their other various commitments, the performers are excited to take up their roles again for the enjoyment of the Kuching audience next month.

Acknowledging the uniqueness of this production, Zoie Tok who dances as the bat, said it was very rare to have a chance to perform in such a large-scale production, exclaiming: “I’m looking forward to feel that rush of adrenaline again and to perform to the best of my ability!”

Reflecting on the significance of such a large-scale project, Nacy Chan who plays the violin in the orchestra, said: “I really look forward to this production helping to inspire an increased support for the cultural arts in the local scene.”

Chai chipped in: “I hope our performances will run smoothly and we all have a great time,” proceeding to unwittingly reveal her flair for the leadership role of the Rhino with “I would like to wish everyone good luck and express a big thank you to all the dancers, choirs, orchestra, and everyone that has helped in making this production a reality.”

In a month’s time, the hall in Petra Jaya will, indeed, be ringing with choruses of the sung finale – Life in Sarawak is the life for me – as all the fully-costumed jungle inhabitants onstage and their fellow offstage artistes stand together to commemorate their second ever staging of this locally bred work of artistry.

Life in the Jungle will be staged at the old State Assembly Complex in Petra Jaya, Kuching, on August 23 and 24. Tickets are priced at RM55 and RM100. Those interested in buying tickets or corporate sponsorship can contact 016 223 2108 or 017 228 0833.
The organising committee invite everyone to check out the Facebook page Life in the Jungle 2014 and the previous news feature published on Borneo Post Online in early January for more details.