The Show Choir Hong Kong at the US National Show Choir Championship Series
Take your pick—opera and pop music, ballet and hip hop—when you think of the word ‘art’, which genres of performances would you say fall within the tenets of this broad term? The distinction between high art and low art is perhaps a familiar debate, and such categorization constantly brings forth questions on what aesthetic and artistic values that ‘art’ should have. When it comes to the genre show choir, one could easily dismiss it as some product of popular culture, popularised through American soap opera Glee, and marked in style by its high level of entertainment. Show choir performances are usually packed with sensationalised dance routines and vocals that warmly welcome Lady Gaga, Michael Jackson, and Disney musicals in the mix—describing show choir performances as a spectacle of pop vocals and jazz hands is not far from the truth.
Hong Kong may be new to this performance genre, but the United States, being the birthplace of show choir culture, hosts a plethora of phenomenal show choirs from high schools and colleges across the country. This year, The Show Choir Hong Kong represented the city in its first overseas performance at the Regionals of US National Show Choir Championship Series 2012, which took place at Fred Kavli Theater for Performing Arts, Los Angeles, on 2nd March 2012. The group was invited as special guests to perform at the competition as a demonstration of how show choirs have evolved into an international phenomenon in recent years.
21 youth singers from the Choir, under the leadership of director Mr. Horace Mui, performed a total of 6 songs including Dance On (by Asian pop group Blush), Rolling in the Deep (by Grammy-winning artist Adele), One Day More (from Tony-winning musical Les Misérables), Rent and Seasons of Love (from Tony-winning rock musical Rent) and closed their 30-minute performance with a tear-jerking finale of We Are the World from the legendary ‘King of Pop’ Michael Jackson. The Choir’s outstanding performance earned them 6 standing ovations, as their new-found American fans joined in waving and clapping, cheering them on with smiles and tears.
The stage space offered infinite possibilities even with its minimal setup of choir stands, microphones and full stage lights. In the Choir’s powerful rendition of Rent, it was a stunning blend of the angry voices of struggling artists with jazz choreography. The vocals alone could transport audiences to the stage sets of New York City where the musical is set. As the performers pushed each other to come forward to the edge of the stage howling “we’re not gonna pay, we’re not gonna pay… last year’s rent… this year’s rent…”, it certainly offered a glimpse into the plight of the struggling artists the musical portrayed. The performers claimed the stage as their own, and continued to impress the audience with Seasons of Love. Executed beautifully with a touch of sentimentality, the audience broke into clamorous cheers when the male soloist took on a confident ad lib with whistle tone at the end of the song.
Musical numbers are frequently featured in show choir repertoire, and yet the way it is done simply invites audiences to look at and enjoy the music from another perspective. What is Rent without the drag queen, lesbians and punk-rock makeup? What remains is the characters’ passion for their art and their dedication against all odds—a passion that was shared and echoed by the young performers on stage, singing not as individual actors but as a choir with one voice. Dressed in simple black dresses and suits, none of the performers remotely resembled the Broadway cast, and yet the music’s sheer power was revealed through authentic voices sung from the heart.
When The Show Choir Hong Kong closed their performance with “We Are the World”, the crowd quickly got to their feet and joined them in a sea of waving arms and applause. Starting with live piano music and a series of solo singing, the performance gradually crescendo-ed into a warm fusion of bright voices, bringing the performance to a climatic finale.
The Show Choir Hong Kong may only be 3 years old, but the group nonetheless gave a refreshing take on choral singing and demonstrated how this culture could evolve when transported to other locations likeAsia. One may be surprised, shocked even, at the level of professionalism demonstrated by the choirs at the Championship Series. No doubt hours of hard work and tonnes of creative effort went into the productions, resulting in stunning displays of vocals, dance routines, sometimes topped with a perfect dose of dramatised storytelling and live music, all largely produced by the students themselves. Compared with the American choirs, there is still much room for the Choir to expand upon in terms of more elaborate staging, costumes, props and choreography to step up the level of artistic attainment. The performers were also a bit nervous in the beginning and took time to warm up before they belted out in confidence. The overall musical quality, however, proves the potential of the Choir in becoming an outstanding world-class show choir.
Due attention ought to be given to the way different songs were staged and how the stage space could be fully utilised. For instance, the levels of the risers provide ample opportunity for complex layering and orientation in space but these were not used to greater dramatic effects by the Choir. Most blocking was done by way of performers moving forward to the front of stage, while there was an obvious lack of attention to either sides of the space. The choreography for the songs was also mostly done in unison, and although the performers were very much in sync with each other, variety in movement was compromised as a result. Overall, the performativity of the group can be enriched with more body language and movements to add to the well-balanced vocals. This is perhaps because performers had less stage experience than their American counterparts, and did not receive as much training in theatre-style dancing. But even so, the Choir’s performance is no less captivating and equally touching, and there is little doubt that they are off to a good start.
Watching these young stage performers makes one wonder how accommodatingHong Kongis towards emergent art forms that do not seem to conform to stereotypical conceptions of what ‘art’ (or entertainment for that matter) is. From the downright artistic (high art) to the showbiz entertainers (low art),Hong Kongis quick to show its support to renowned stars, especially those with international acclaim. If Broadway musicals, Yoyo Ma recitals and Lady Gaga concerts sell out, what would local audiences make of productions, like show choirs, that feature the best of both worlds of art and entertainment?
Art works perhaps are neither high or low art in nature—the difference merely lies in how they are treated and received. All it takes is an open mind to welcome new initiatives that re-invent genres and break down the boundaries between different forms. With its ease in blending together songs of different styles and performance genres, show choirs may indeed have the potential to usher in a new era in musical performances, where the world of theatre and music and dance can converge in the span of one song and be embodied by a single choral group on risers. Even though show choirs predominantly feature youth performers, this art form should not be taken lightly. With humble beginnings in school auditoriums, it remains to be seen where the show choir genre will go next. (Don’t forget that the Andrew Lloyd Webber classic Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat started out as a 15-minute pop cantata for a preparatory boys’ school in London in 1968 and is now a phenomenal West End production!)
Brought to Hong Kong through director Mr. Horace Mui, The Show Choir Hong Kong listed “redefiningHong Kong audience’s attitudes towards choral singing” as one of its aims in its profile in the programme.
Positioning itself as radically different from British traditional choirs (where choristers dress in long robes and stand absolutely still while singing Bach), this Choir is no doubt a young group of talents to watch out for in years to come, both locally and internationally.