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'CATS' need to learn cat walk
(China Daily)
Updated: 2004-04-12 08:33

Chen Shanglan was the fifth to take the audition last Monday afternoon. Dressed in an army green T-shirt and black gymnastic pants, she performed a short aerobic piece choreographed by herself to dynamic music.

Chen Shanglan was the fifth to take the audition last Monday afternoon. Dressed in an army green T-shirt and black gymnastic pants, she performed a short aerobic piece choreographed by herself to dynamic music. [newsphoto]
Then, upon the request of the jury, the 24-year-old introduced herself in English and displayed some typical feline movements.

Chen is one of the 24 applicants auditioning for Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical "Cats" which is coming to Beijing this month.

As in many other cities, the hit musical will recruit some local "cats" to breathe fresh air into the production as well as to make it more identifiable and involving for local audiences.

Although only 10 local cats are required and they will only be able to move in limited space on stage and join in a few choruses in the musical, more than 500 people from across the country have applied for audition, according to China Performing Arts Agency (CPAA), the promoter of the "Cats" Beijing tour.

CPAA selected 24 hopefuls and invited a jury composed of musical experts and professionals to give the first-round audition. Later this week, 10 of them will be chosen to be the local "cats."

Chen was the only applicant who had received no formal singing or dancing training, but she said she was not afraid of competing with others and did not care much about the result.

"My colleagues saw the notice in the newspaper a month ago. The requirement is the ability to sing, dance and speak a little English. They thought I am qualified and encouraged me to apply. And so I came," she said.

A graduate from English Department of Beijing Language and Cultural University two years ago, Chen speaks fluent English and she was the only English-speaking applicant at the audition.

"It's interesting to take part in an audition and I just came for fun," She said.

"Actually, I have no clear idea what kind of person they need and I just bought a DVD of the musical to imitate some movements of the cat. If I succeed, it's an opportunity to get close to well-known artists and at least I could get a free ticket. If not, I won't be all that sorry."

Liu Yongxia's attitude was different from Chen's. The 25-year-old Liu was unsatisfied with her performance so much that she shook her head and sighed regretfully during the interview. One of the first students majoring in musicals in Beijing Academy of Dance, she expected much of herself.

"I was a little nervous and forgot some choreography that I had prepared carefully," she said.

But Liu had her brighter side. She was the only one to display her vocal talent. Her singing impressed the jury, although singing is not the main task of the local "cats."

Besides the talented individuals, dancers from Beijing Guolun Xinxing Arts Centre performed the entire "Jellicle Songs of Jellicle Cats," one of the popular parts of the musical.

Established in 1998, Guolun Xinxing Arts Centre is one of the few Chinese ensembles mainly working in musicals.

They have performed "Beauty and the Beast" and "Cats" in Japan and China. Coincidently, later this month they will perform a new production "Passionate Night" in Beijing and the show features some scenes from "Cats."

"It's natural for us to take the audition and it's a great opportunity to experience the real 'Cats' if we are selected," said Li Xionghui, a member of Guolun, who is also a researcher from the Music Department of the Central Academy of Drama.

"We have received training with Japanese Four Season Musical Troupe and some Broadway directors and choreographers, so I think we have a good chance of being selected," he said.

Most of the applicants were confident, but the jury did not find their ideal "cats."

"Most applicants were not as cute and intimate as we expected. Guolun's 'cats' were better than others but not that good, although they have already performed the musical themselves," said Zhou Zhiqiang, director of the Art Office of the National Grand Theatre.

The jury thought that the applicants did not quite capture the characteristics or personalities of cats.

"I could see that most of them studied the video of 'Cats,' but they just copied the superficial movements or gestures of the cats," said Mu Yu, a musicals expert from China Academy of Arts.

"They are good dancers or singers, but not lovely 'cats.' As they performed, you feel far away from them. They failed to touch you," said Zi Juan, a professor from the Musical Department of Beijing Academy of Dance.

The Chinese jury's comments were reinforced by the foreign crew last Wednesday morning when they paid an advance visit to Beijing to promote the show.

Jo-anne Robinson, director and choreographer of "Cats," told China Daily: "What we pick is personality. Yes, they have to move in a proper way; have facility to play like a cat and sing in English in chorus. But the first thing is that they should have their own characteristics. It's not enough to be wonderful dancers or singers."

Robinson has worked for "Cats" for 23 years since she served as assistant to the original director Andrew Lloyd Webber for the premiere in London in 1981.

"Working with Webber was the most exciting experience for me and the world tour of 'Cats' has made the excitement last until today," she said.

Music supervisor Fiz Shapur said that the show would like to find some "cats" who could do stunts such as acrobatics.

"It's a great opportunity to utilize unique Chinese talents and skills in the show. That's one reason making the show always fresh while touring for so many years. It's a kind of cross-culture experience for both us and the local performers," he said.

However, it seems that there were some communication problems between the crew and the Chinese promoters, who did not seek any acrobats for audition.

Robinson briefly outlined how the Beijing "cats" would be trained. She said they would show the Chinese performers photographs and video of real cats for them to imitate various feline actions.

"They should concentrate on imitating and they will have to do their home work very hard so that they look the same as our professional 'cats,'" she said. "Actually, it's always a very interesting process to choose local 'cats.' I watched Chinese performers' shows and know they are in pretty good physical condition and show excellent techniques. I believe we could find those whose thoughts, minds, intelligence and physical movements are all like cats."

Cast members Silindile Nodangala, Paul Warwick Griffin and Angela Killian also shared their experience of touring with "Cats."

"It's an amazing musical that makes you feel a lot and understand a lot in life. Before I performed in the show, I hated cats, which symbolize bad luck. They often frightened me," said Nodangala who stars as Grizabella and sings the famous "Memory."

"To prepare for the show, I had to raise a cat. On the day I joined the cast of the musical, I sat down face to face with the cat and spoke to her: 'I am not afraid of you.' We gradually became friends and I now have five cats at home and they are running everywhere."

Killian who acts Jellyorum and Griddlebone said: "It is a musical 'going beyond' the language barriers. Webber created the musical which not only touches the audience's hearts but thrills us performers. We are fascinated to tour around the world with 'Cats."'

The super lovely Rum Tum Tugger's player Griffin said: "With 'Cats' I have visited a good many incredible places. I feel equally as excited about working with Chinese cats."

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