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Interview: Heidi Zolker and Aaron Yap of Singapore Dance Theatre’s ‘The Nutcracker’

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Singapore Dance Theatre’s The Nutcracker will run from December 4 – 8 at The Esplanade.

The Nutcracker - Spanish - Photo Credit Dennis Ng (3000x2000)

Magical and full of fantasy, The Nutcracker, which tells the tale of a toy coming to life, is probably the most famous of ballets. We spoke to dancer Heidi Zolker and set and costume designer Aaron Yap about what to expect in this production.

From Australia, to America, and even China, you’ve danced in many places. Are there any differences in the art of ballet in all these places?

The experience of dancing in different companies is remarkably similar. That is one of the great things about dance. Even though we all have different backgrounds and nationalities, we have all trained in the same art form. We all work together and have rehearsals and classes together, and combine to put together shows that people can enjoy.

What do you love most about being a ballet dancer?

Heidi Zolker dancing with partner Timothy Coleman

Heidi Zolker dancing with partner Timothy Coleman

Being able to perform for people is really special. I’ve always loved being on stage and sharing the experience with an audience. It can be a lot of hard work, and is sometimes painful and tiring, but the rewards are big. It is a very unique way of life.

Could you tell us more about The Nutcracker and your role in it?

The Nutcracker is a great ballet for this time of year. The music is very iconic and festive, and it is great for Christmas-time. I am dancing as the Dewdrop in the Waltz of the Flowers, and I am also performing the Sugar Plum Fairy. It will be an exciting end to the season and we are looking forward to performance week in the theatre.

What can audiences expect from this production?

Our Nutcracker has a slight twist: The opening party scene is set in pre-WWI Shanghai. This is followed by the beautiful snow scene and transformation into the Land of the Sweets. There are lots of costumes, characters, and dancing – it will be a great way to celebrate the end of the year.

Aaron Yap

Aaron Yap

How did you get started in costume and set designing?

I started out set and costume designing by sheer luck (twist of fate) actually. I used to be a performer in a Chinese opera company, and due to my relatively advanced knowledge with visual arts and graphic design skills among my colleagues in the opera company, I started designing setting visuals for the company’s repertoire shows. Then in 2004, when the opera company wanted to stage a new show at the Esplanade, the artistic director just turned to me to design it, and that was how I first attempted to design a set for theatre.

But it was in 2007, when I felt that I was going nowhere in my previous job in a travel agency, that I decided that I should go pursue something that I am really passionate about, and I enrolled in LaSalle College of the Arts, studied technical theatre, and since then, I’ve been really going full-on with set design. As for costume designing, it was through a competition held by Singapore Dance Theatre and LaSalle that I got my first taste of costume design. At that time, SDT was looking for student illustrators, set designers and costume designers from LaSalle to collaborate with them, and I was encouraged by my then-lecturer to take part in it, which I did, and eventually became the set and costume designer for their Peter and Blue’s Forest Adventure production.

Do the two jobs require different skill sets, or do they have similar needs? Do you find it hard coping with both jobs?

To put it very simply and generally, the basic skills required are about the same. You need to have a keen sense of aesthetics and a good knowledge of the materials you are using. The difference between them, I feel, would be that for set, you are looking at it from a distance, so the designer should look at the “big picture”, whereas for costuming, the designer should zoom in on the minute details, so as to make the dancers stand out as much as we can.

Coping with both the set and costume elements of a production can be tiring at times, because each requires as much attention from me. But looking at it from another perspective, it gives me better control of the overall aesthetic visual of the production.

Nutcracker

What can we expect to see set-wise and costume-wise? What was your inspiration in designing both?

This version of The Nutcracker has been adapted to be set in Shanghai at the turn of the last century. As such, the first act of the ballet features more Oriental elements, which is not so commonly seen in other adaptations of this dance. Also, for other versions, I feel they are mainly targeted at adult audiences (even though it is meant for family entertainment), whereas for our version, the emphasis is more on the younger audience, and as such, the design for the set is more colourful and whimsical to appeal more to them. For instance in the Land of Sweets, the basic architectural framework of the palace has lollipops and candy canes embedded into the architecture, and the same for the throne in the palace, to give it a really sweet and child-like, dreamy atmosphere.

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About Sharmila Melissa Yogalingam

Ex-professor, Ex-phd student, current freelance critic, writer and filmmaker.