By Ke Weiliang
(1,719 words, 7-minute read)
Monday, 20 January 2020. It is 8.45am and I am seated inside one of the dance studios at LASALLE College of the Arts. Over the course of the next 75 minutes, I watch as Pat Jon Gregory and his coursemates from the Bachelor of Arts (Honours) Musical Theatre programme undergo a jaw-droppingly gruelling dance class: 25 minutes of high-intensity interval training, followed by another 20 minutes of physical conditioning, before concluding with a 30-minute drilling of the Fosse dance style.
“Remember, Fosse is all about isolating your body parts,” the dance instructor warns. “If it feels natural, you are probably doing it wrong.” As the students work on their movements, Pat Jon confers briefly with the instructor to clarify the choreography, before heading back to the group to lead a run-through.
The 25-year-old is the newly appointed dance captain for the Musical Theatre graduation production, Chicago, which will be presented in April as part of the graduation showcase The LASALLE Show. Attended by the who’s who of the performing arts industry, the stakes are high for the young actors – make enough of an impression and they might just be cast in their first professional role. But the pressure this year is intensified by Chicago’s iconic stature, its songs and Fosse choreography seared into popular consciousness by the acclaimed 2002 award-winning film adaptation. For these students who dream of seeing their name in lights, there are also the inevitable comparisons to the professional productions that have been mounted at venues like the Esplanade and Marina Bay Sands, not to mention Broadway and the West End.
As the man charged with upholding the integrity of the choreography for this dance-intensive production, Pat Jon sheds light on just how much work and discipline goes into preparing for the show, and takes a moment to reflect on his journey.
How did you get started with dance and choreography?
I grew up in a Filipino family, which meant my weekends were filled with parties. I have been dancing since the age of five – I remember the first thing I learnt to dance to was the Macarena! Then I found out about street dance because of the movie Step Up 2: The Streets (2008), and became intrigued by how dance can make your body feel alive.
My first encounter with choreography was in secondary school, when I choreographed a dance for the Student Council for the school’s Teachers’ Day Celebrations. But it was when I got into Temasek Polytechnic’s Dance Ensemble (TPDE) that I began my formal training in modern dance, hip-hop dance and funk styles like locking and popping. It was a co-curricular activity that encouraged me to play with creating movements of my own. I was very happy that I could, for example, choreograph something contemporary and infuse it with a bit of jazz.
From your love of dance, how did you make that jump to LASALLE’s Musical Theatre programme?
When I was exploring jazz, lyrical jazz and contemporary dance styles before coming to LASALLE, I also grew interested in the singing and characterisation aspects of dance. I began to wonder how contemporary choreographers struck a balance between the abstractness commonly associated with dance and the art of storytelling. I think the desire to learn more about storytelling through dance was the main reason why I made the jump into the Musical Theatre programme.
Can you describe a typical day in the life of a LASALLE Musical Theatre student?
It varies throughout the semester, but typically you wake up around 7am, have your breakfast and then come to school. If school starts at 8.45am, I usually come at about 8am so that I can mentally prepare myself. Because when classes start, it is full speed ahead.
In the morning, you have dance, acting and voice classes. Then you have about an hour for lunch – I prefer to prepare my meal beforehand, so that I can eat right after class and still have at least 30 minutes to myself before jumping straight into another acting, voice or contextual studies class. At about 3pm, you attend rehearsals for the college production that you are involved in.
While rehearsals usually end at about 6pm or 7pm in the evening, the training continues even after official college hours. After grabbing a quick dinner, you catch up on the skill sets that need working on – for me, I usually work on my voice and singing.
By the time you go back home, it is about 10pm or 11pm. Your mind and body are exhausted, so you cool down, shower and unwind. Then you go to sleep and the routine repeats itself when you wake up the next day.
Phew! That sounds intense. How has the Musical Theatre programme prepared you to be a ‘triple threat’? And is that even a desirable trait?
A lot of people think that ‘triple threats’ only need to learn how to act, sing and dance. For me, however, a ‘triple threat’ could also be skilled at dancing, choreography and presentation skills. Ultimately, I think the whole notion of ‘triple threat’ is about being able to adapt to whatever the industry throws at you.
Be it film acting, Fosse work or different styles of singing – the Musical Theatre curriculum at LASALLE has exposed me to a variety of classes that has made me a more versatile performer. At first, I remember struggling really hard with aural skills and music theory, but I came out of Year 1 realising that I could do it. I have actually put those skills to good use outside of college since then.
Beyond these hard skills, LASALLE has also provided me with valuable opportunities that put me in good stead for leadership roles in the performing arts industry. One of my best memories was being appointed associate choreographer for the college’s production of Aida last year. I was really nervous about working with New York-based director and choreographer Joe Barros and thought we would not get much done the first time we met. To my pleasant surprise, we managed to finish two numbers in one day.
Nowadays, whenever I take up gigs outside of college, the first thought that crosses my mind is “Hey, that is actually easier than I thought”. That is how much the Musical Theatre programme has helped me!
How has your time at LASALLE influenced your artistic practice?
Being able to interact with peers from different disciplines provides you with valuable perspectives that you might never have considered and this can be really helpful in pushing your artistry to the next level. If I were to show a composer my dance piece, they might be able to point out that instead of a waltz, it is more suitable as a tap number. Or if I were to show the same piece to a singer, they might tell me “Oh, I don’t think the performer can sing during this part, because the dance is really heavy.”
The past three years has made me realise the importance of being a thinking performer. Before coming to LASALLE, I always followed my instinct when choreographing something, which is not necessarily a bad thing. But I did not have the vocabulary to say things like “I like this because this element is working”, or “This formation does not work”. Over the past three years, I realised that listening to your voice is great, but being able to clearly understand and explain the ‘why’ is equally important – and that’s where our contextual studies classes become very useful.
Even as we train our hard skills, what really gets us by at the end of the day are the values and principles that we pick up in our classes. The principles of determination, being disciplined and being dedicated will come in handy, regardless of which sector of the performing arts industry I end up working in.
What role do you play in Chicago and how have rehearsals been?
I play the role of Amos Hart, the husband of one of the lead characters, Roxie. I am also the dance captain for the production. Rehearsals have been exciting and anxiety-inducing all at the same time! The Fosse choreography featured in Chicago can feel unnatural for dancers who may not be used to certain Fosse positions and stylistic elements, which include contractions, isolations and turn-in positions. Although Fosse typically takes several years to master, we have taken it upon ourselves to learn it within the short span of one year. We are pushing our bodies to bring to the audience the Chicago that they may have first seen in Marina Bay Sands, Broadway or West End, amidst all the other things that we have to juggle in the Musical Theatre curriculum.
To be given such an iconic musical as our graduation production – that is something that we hold really dear to us. We will dance our hearts out and make sure that we deliver our best!
Can you share what your post-LASALLE plans are?
As I work on my honours dissertation this semester, I am getting a clearer sense of the gap that I want to fill in society and the musical theatre industry after I graduate. My immediate goal after graduation, of course, is to earn a stable income and clear my student loans. But three years from now, I aim to enrol into the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, deepen my knowledge of musical theatre choreography and bring that knowledge back to Singapore and Southeast Asia.
I am not trying to emulate what the West has created, but because musical theatre has its roots in the West, I feel that I must internalise it before I can plant a seed and let it grow into something that we can call Singaporean or Southeast Asian musical theatre choreography. It will be a long journey and I hope that I will meet people who will inspire me to keep going!
Chicago is presented as part of The LASALLE Show, a graduation season of programmes showcasing the best and brightest works in contemporary art, design and performance. The production takes place from 22 to 25 April 2020 at the Singapore Airlines Theatre in LASALLE. Ticketing info will be available in due time. Follow LASALLE on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter for updates.
This article is sponsored by LASALLE College of the Arts.
Ke Weiliang (also known as kewl, pronounced ‘k-yul’) is an independent arts and cultural worker based in Singapore. He is enthralled by practices that challenge hegemony, wade into non-binary grey areas, champion self-reflexive behaviour and transcend echo chambers. Weiliang graduated with a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in Arts Management from LASALLE College of the Arts in 2019, and is presently Editor at The TENG Company. He is also the founding administrator of Channel NewsTheatre, a one-way Telegram channel that provides periodic updates on upcoming shows and working opportunities in the Singapore theatre scene.