My name is Mitch Leow, and I have just wrapped on a production of Sally Cookson’s “The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe” at Nicholas Hytner’s beautiful Bridge Theatre by Tower Bridge in London. This marks the culmination of my 15 year stage career on the West End stage, starting with “Turandot” at the Royal Opera House in 2005, and then “The Lion King” at the Lyceum theatre the following year.
I have plans for the new year – mainly to develop my voice as a writer for stage and screen, as well as finding new roles to play in musical theatre. I am an activist for representation on the world stage. There are offers for participation in workshops. I enrol on a playwriting course for budding writers.
I accept a job at a top-tier gym in London, aiming to find a separate occupation to pay the bills whilst I navigate through new terrain in the theatre scene.
13th March Friday
An ominous Friday: Announcements by government officials regarding the measures adopted by the UK government play on a loop in news cycle everywhere. ‘Herd immunity’ is the topic of discussion on everyone’s lips. I stare, knitting my brows together, at the screen as the official says the words, “Many families, many more families, are going to lose loved ones before their time.” The language of war rhetoric in the address is obvious. I cannot quite believe what I am hearing.
16th March Monday
The events of this week will result in a complete scramble for the citizenry in the UK. The governing body decides to lockdown the country in stages, starting with schools first. There is a panic as impending lockdown shifts into gear.
I am informed by my gym that I will not be starting my new job until further notice. Several projects are put on hold. Auditions and castings are halted in light of the rising concern over the infection rate of the virus in London itself.
Theatres report rising level of sickness amongst cast members in shows, resulting in a concert version of a West End show being shown instead of a show with a full cast.
I get messages and calls from family and friends in Singapore wondering about my situation in London. Am I safe? Am I going to be looked after? How will I fare if I had to go into lockdown in my tiny rented room in London that I share with several other city workers who are already working from home at this point in time?
A friend who works in Singapore Airlines contacts me and strongly advises me to consider taking the trip home to Singapore to shelter this storm. I book the ticket the same evening and contact a fellow Singapore compatriot who had his masters studies halted in the midst of this pandemic. I tell him when I am flying and he is put on a wait list for a flight out of London.
23rd March Monday
I get on the phone and say goodbye to a few friends whom I consider to be a second family to me in London – they are my lungs and my heart; my support system. I tell them I will miss them, and that I cannot wait to see their faces and hug them again.
I get to Heathrow airport and check in. My Singaporean compatriot gets a call from the MFA and confirms a seat for him on the same flight as myself. He packs and rushes to the airport in the span of four hours.
As we are boarding the plane, UK officials are announcing the lockdown of the entire country that will start the next day. When we leave the ground, as we are borne into the air by a Singaporean vessel leaving behind London soil, I feel a gathering heaviness in my heart. I know I am safe, but I cannot deny the kind of pain I was feeling, tearing myself away from the life I have been living for the past 20 years.
April – May 2020
I go through a 14 day quarantine when I get home, and am directly ushered into a Circuit Breaker here in Singapore. I understand the vulnerable situation that my parents are in. Throughout this time, I can never see my mother in person – she is a stage 4 breast-cancer survivor. I live, and breathe, and dine, in a separate part of the flat to my father who has high blood pressure.
I am impressed by the measures rolled out by the Singapore government to assist all of their citizens in this uncertain time. I am even more impressed by the scientific approach to shielding, contact tracing and isolating that is happening on this island. Through all of this, Singapore has tried to leave no man behind in the fight against this pandemic.
I keep an eye out for the news in the UK. I mourn for the theatre and arts industry that was once the envy of world. Theatre companies are going into liquidation. Employees in theatre related jobs are put on furlough, and are facing redundancy. Most of these people are my friends. All casting news slowly diminish to silence.
Most days I wake up, and stare out the window at the pool outside the flat. It is out of bounds. Most days, I wonder what will happen if I decide not to move from the bed and just allow myself to wallow in my sorrow.
14th May Thursday
I unceremoniously, but graciously, turn 40 on this quiet Thursday in the midst of the Circuit Breaker. My sister comes over to the flat with a tub of vanilla ice cream and a candle, making sure that she has her surgical-mask on all the time. Vanilla ice cream is my favourite thing to have in the hot tropical Singapore weather. She dials her mobile, and there on Facetime is my mother, my nephew and my niece. She lights the candle and there is a cacophony of “Happy Birthday” in English and Mandarin.
At twelve midnight, I receive an international group video-chat. My best friends from college are calling me from their various locations in the world – London, Scotland and Brooklyn. Gemma is busy doing DIY on her flat now that she has all the time during lockdown. Liam finds himself in his old family estate in Glasgow with his parents. Chloe is heavily pregnant at 8 months, and is glad that the hospital in NYC will allow her husband into the hospital with her when she goes into labour.
A friend sends me well-wishes on my birthday along with this message:
“Be part of this year’s historic National Day Parade 2020! We are looking for good brave dancers ready to commit for two months starting from 10th June 2020. If you think you have it, please contact us with your name and details as well as an audition video for the duration of the Circuit Breaker.” – Zaini Mohd Tahir
My friend knows that I have danced for Zaini before – twenty years ago. I give myself a few days to consider this. Over this period of isolation, I no longer feel agile and flexible. Even my heart feels brittle. I wonder if I am able to produce something on video that will allow me to be seen by the choreographer.
I get out of bed. I decide to go for a run. I feel heavy and uncoordinated, having spent so much time indoors. Still, I feel good from running. I keep this up for a few days. I start to take my phone with me on my runs. In the absence of people, I film myself dancing. I clear the floor in my bedroom of furniture, and I summon the lessons of so many dance teachers, instructors and mentors. They respond like a beautiful memory, awakening my body to the moment of action. I recall my Graham teachers saying, “Dance is glorified behaviour. A dancer is an athlete of God. To dance is to say to the world – I am here; I exist; watch me fly.”
I walk into the huge studio in MDC Nee Soon Camp. Immediately, I see the familiar faces of the choreographer and producer. I wave empathically at them. In the expanse of the enormous studio with a high ceiling, wide mirrors and a luxurious clean dance floor, my mind explodes into the space. The moment of relief is the most beautiful thing I have felt in the last couple of months. All through the audition, I am uncertain – I keep questioning myself; I am like a newborn giraffe trying to stand on its barely formed legs. However, the rush of air into the lungs feels good, and the oxygen that is finding its way into the heart and the brain is refreshing and exhilarating.
I get home and I have no idea what will come of the audition. But it is the first time in months that I have felt hope. And I sense that it is good.
I call my friend in London and tell him, “I feel like myself again.”
We are in the midst of rehearsals, setting movement to a piece of music by singer-songwriter, Namie. Zaini talks to us about musicality, dramatic intention in movement, and improvisation. He asks us to consider, evaluate, and push the boundaries of our own artistry in this process.
I am meditating on the movement for the piece. I am at one with my breath. My body is ready to react to the instant.
I hear the words of the song as if she is saying it to me.
“A lone bird stood still
In the middle of the flock
Wings over its face
Unsure of its place
Should it stay or should it go?”
I marvel at the artistic soul and its pursuit to express the universal – how wonderful it feels that the words that express my own anxiety is captured by another artist. My vision becomes hazy. I realise I am welling up.
I look around me at this collective group of dancers. Some – like myself – are vocational artists who have followed their paths for years. Our lives have all halted so dramatically during this time of crisis, mostly with no salvation in sight. Others – the younglings – are just starting out, learning the ropes, and relishing the experience of being in a group and moving together as one. All of us, with different disciplines, different paths in life, suddenly finding ourselves together for this one purpose.
“Can you just imagine
Birds of different feathers
Flying in a flock together”
I wonder how best to honour my journey as an artist – as a dancer, a singer, an actor and a storyteller – at this present time. I understand so deeply what a dancer is. A dancer is a human being living his life to the fullest. A dancer is a body capturing the music, the rhythm, the vibe, the intention of the narrative. A dancer is an exemplar of behaviour and action. A dancer is a testament to discipline, dedication and long, long, long hours of hard work.
The West End theatre industry that I was immersed in for the past 20 years is in stasis. There is no lifeblood. All activity is currently halted. The governing body is not offering any help. Theatres are shutting down. Thousands and thousands are losing their jobs. We are waiting for a resurrection that may not come.
This strange and unique show of resilience on our little island by a small group of 50 dancers gives me hope – that with intellect and know-how we can resurrect the arts. It is the most marvellous mission of protecting the arts with all of the scientific measures that we have, and all of the precautions that we can take to still allow this precious living thing to breathe life again.
This National Day, upon my own reflection, does not feel like a celebration. The world we live in today is drastically changed. Change is one of the most uncomfortable things to deal with, to tolerate, much less to celebrate. However, in the struggle of recent months and the triumph of the measures taken by the Singapore governing body and its citizenry, it definitely calls for an occasion to display our collective spirit as Singaporeans, to commemorate the efforts by all Singaporeans, to be united in our national effort of recovery. The hard-earned success that we have attained at this time is the result of planning, caution, and an immense level of care in all sectors, including the work by all performers involved. There is no better display of resilience, endurance and persistence than that embodied by the dancer – who has spent every ounce of energy, every waking minute, every dream and aspiration to make these moments on the stage and in front of the screen come true.