Mohamed Drissi, musical veteran and professional musical choreographer at his studio in San Po Kong. Photo: Edward Wong

Why one Hong Kong choreographer thinks the city has mediocre musical performers

Mohamed Drissi is part of an international group holding a month-long musical training programme at the Taipei Performing Arts Centre. The Hong Kong native hopes his home city can hold similar workshops

Taiwan is leaping ahead of Hong Kong in cultivating musical theatre talents by launching its first formal training programme in the popular performing arts form this month.

Initiated by Tsai Pao-chang, artistic director of theatre company Tainanren Ensemble, and supported by the Department of Cultural Affairs, the month-long “Musical Theatre Training Project 2016” at the Taipei Performing Arts Centre (TPAC) sets out to bring Taiwanese performers in the genre up to international standards.

Led by Hong Kong-based choreographer and educator Mohamed Drissi, American composer Craig Bohmler and voice coach Harald Emgard from Sweden, participants of the intensive course will learn the five basic skills of musical theatre including body movement, singing, voice, dancing and acting.

While this city has taken the lead in staging musicals – and used to be an aspiration for artists in the region – the scene has been stagnated in recent years, especially when compared with that in Greater China.

“We see more musicals in Hong Kong ... but I don’t think we see better ones,” says the chairman of the Hong Kong Musical Theatre Federation and former senior lecturer at the Academy for Performing Arts.

“There’s always something lacking to make it an exciting musical performance. There are some professionals [in the performances], but they are not musical performers. They are either actor, dancer or singer.”

In musical theatre, there’s a term for those who can sing, act and dance: triple threat (think Hugh Jackman). And they are absolutely essential for a stellar performance as “the cast is the backbone of a musical” Drissi says.
Aside from starring in many successful films, Hugh Jackman (left) is also an accomplished theatre performer. Here he stars opposite Maureen Lipman in a West End production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!
But there are very few solid musical performers in Hong Kong, says Drissi who has been cultivating talents in the city for over two decades. And he blames it on the absence of advanced level training programmes.
Mohamed Drissi

The APA closed down their diploma programme in musical theatre dance in 2007. Today the Extension and Continuing Education for Life (EXCEL), an arm of the academy, offers a one year programme in musical theatre, but the diploma is awarded by the Pearson BTEC from the UK rather than APA itself.

There are also musical theatre groups that organise short workshops, but due to budget constraints, they cannot afford to invite experts from overseas and lack faculty support.

While the Hong Kong government has supported initiatives to promote the art form, Drissi says more investment is needed.

“There is funding for projects we are doing in schools – primary and secondary – introducing youngsters to musical theatre; but it also has to be done in another level,” he says. “You develop the interests of these youngsters ... and you find some real talents … but there’s no place [for further studies] and they have to give up.”

Drissi, who is invited to teach at the TPAC this month, is planning to organise a similar programme in Hong Kong next year. But at this stage, he is still looking for sponsorship to make it happen.

In the end, perhaps what’s more important than having sufficient resources is having a vision and not settling for mediocrity.

“It’s becoming dangerous,” Drissi warns. “We give excuses – well for Hong Kong it’s not bad. It’s not right to think like this. We should be accessing it the same way we go to see a professional musical in UK.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Taiwan makes leaps in song and dance