TEXT Inara Sim
Over the past decade, the Macau Glee Club has grown out of the living room of its founder into a magnificent theatrical beast. Refusing to let the pandemic prevent its performers from treading the boards, its 10th year was its biggest yet – and its organisers are looking forward to even more drama in the future.
Everyone back to your starting points, let’s go one more time, from the top!” calls Emma Seward, founder and director of the Macau Glee Club, at the top of her voice. The kids on stage break into a rendition of ‘The Polar Express’ – the title track from the Christmas film of the same name – as up to 150 other members of the club, ranging in age from three to 63 years old, make their way down the aisles of the theatre, singing and dancing, before filing up to the stage en masse. It’s a glorious sight and testament to how this Macao club has grown in size, strength and ability over the past decade.
That scene was at a rehearsal for the Macau Glee Club’s spectacular Christmas show that took place at the city’s Parisian Theatre last month. It was a performance that celebrated the troupe’s 10th anniversary – a marvellous achievement after Seward set it up in 2010 ‘with the purpose of introducing kids and adults to the wonderful world of performing arts’. Over the years, the club has run regular workshops, classes and shows in Macao, helping to develop local talents and prepare them for the arts industry in the city and beyond.
Much like its American TV show namesake ‘Glee’, the Macao troupe grew out of humble beginnings. “I literally started with three kids,” admits Seward. “Two of them were mine and we were working in our front living room. We were new to Macao and I realised the city offered good ballet and hip-hop classes but there was nothing in between. No jazz. No musical theatre. No contemporary classes. I’ve lived my life as a dancer, so I wanted to show that avenue to my kids. I wanted to show them how much fun it can be.”
Glee has really set the benchmark in Macao for kids who want to perform.
– Joel Fesalbon
Seward is an acclaimed director, producer and choreographer who has worked with some of the world’s biggest names in music and theatre. In her native UK, Europe, Australia and Asia, she’s worked for MTV, performed concerts with the likes of Whitney Houston and Elton John, choreographed the Hong Kong Rugby Sevens’ opening ceremony and has even worked on theatre shows with celebrated Chinese director Zhang Yimou. But starting a club for young people was a whole new venture for her and her family. After a few informal living room classes, she turned to her husband Tomos Griffiths – until recently the executive creative director for gaming operator Sands China – for his help in organising a show at the Sands Theatre. “It just snowballed overnight,” she says. “We arranged an audition and my neighbour Gail Wallace’s teenage children brought all their friends along. Once we did that first show, we suddenly had 120 kids signing up for classes.”
The club needed a name. At the time, TV series ‘Glee’ had popularised musical theatre and the ‘show choir’ concept to a new generation of kids and teens, so Seward says the name felt like a no-brainer. “We were all addicted to that show,” she says. “It was the perfect name for what we wanted to do.” The club then grew quickly and with support from partners and sponsors, its popularity hasn’t wavered since those early days.
Today, the club is made up of local kids who hail from more than 20 different countries and, of course, Macao – a reflection of the cultural diversity in the city. Three of its first starry-eyed students have gone on to dance professionally and now even teach their own classes at the club. “We were 13 or 14 when we joined Glee,” says one of them, Ruperto Abelgas. “We were already breakdancing, so seeing another side of it – the performance side – was really good for us. After a few years, Emma saw our crew dancing together and gave us the opportunity to start teaching hip-hop classes.” Fellow Glee alum and now teacher, Joel Fesalbon, agrees. “She pushed us more and more, and made us better,” he says. “Glee has really set the benchmark in Macao for kids who want to perform.”
The club’s success is highlighted every year when a handful of Glee’s young performers compete in the Dance World Cup (DWC) and often bring home gold medals in their respective categories. Then there are other successes like former Glee member Enzo Hilaire becoming a finalist in France’s ‘The Voice Kids’ talent show last year, João Constancia becoming a member of popular BoybandPH in the Philippines and Trae Robin acting in top Australian movies and on TV. And COVID-19 has failed to stop the show going on – quite the reverse, in fact. Through the pandemic last year, the club not only kept on rolling but even expanded its schedule. “We decided to do summer workshops,” says Griffiths, “which would never have been possible in other years as so many people are usually away over the summer. With COVID-19 keeping us all here in Macao, people were looking for things to do – and we were able to give that to them.”
Seward also had more personal time to devote to the young performers last year as the travel restrictions which were put in place limited her work commitments outside the region. “It really allowed me to be able to teach more and to be totally engaged with all my classes,” she says. Griffiths, a world-renowned performer and former Phantom of the Opera star in the UK’s West End, joined his wife at the helm of the club last year. He adds: “We’re living through a global pandemic. It’s a difficult and tough time. There’s been a lot of negativity around, so it’s been great to have something positive for the kids to focus on. We’ve got to try and keep things as normal as possible for them, which luckily we’ve been able to do in Macao.”
Glee represents different things to different people. Some kids will forge a career out of singing and dancing while others simply revel in the new friendships and community atmosphere. Abby Barry, whose daughters Harper and Marlee both attend the club’s classes, says it’s about more than just dance. “The teachers are so passionate and really bring the essence of joy that dance represents,” she says. “But it’s not just the technical side of dance that they’ve been learning about. It’s experiencing the warmth of friendships, the skill of collaborating as a team member and receiving encouragement from their peers which has helped build their self-confidence as performers and individuals.”
It’s also given some young – and young-at-heart – talents the chance to perform on stage together. Mila Just and her daughter Sofiya joined the club last year. For the mum, it was a chance to get back into the pastime she loves and, as an added bonus, she could do it together with her daughter. “As an adult,” she says, “it’s not that easy to find dance classes in Macao. I think it’s amazing that Glee is now offering adult classes – it doesn’t matter what your age, your background or your experience is – they give everyone the opportunity to dance.”
So what does the future hold for the club as it enters its second decade? “When the borders open we would love to get guest teachers in to run workshops,” says Griffiths, “like West End and Broadway stars who are experts in their fields.” Seward adds: “We’ll keep it fresh and exciting. We’d also love to have more local kids join. Everyone is welcome! Most importantly, though, we’ll keep giving them these performance opportunities and moments on stage, which is truly the best way to learn.”
Meet the cast
Orlando Vas, 22 years old
Having recently returned from studying music overseas, Orlando Vas has rejoined the club he was once a member of after a 10-year hiatus. “Glee really gave me the chance to explore different styles of music,” he says, “and helped me discover my passion for opera. It really leaves me speechless to be back here and on stage again with Glee after so many years.”
Carina Shestakova Tavares, 11 years old
Carina Shestakova Tavares joined Glee in 2019 and is currently enrolled in six of the club’s classes. She is a talented young dancer. “I really want to be a dancer or an actress when I get older,” she says. “Glee really helps to develop my skills in both areas. It’s not only fun but the training we receive is amazing.”
Ines Choi, seven years old
This little girl may be new to Glee but her love for the club has grown quickly. “Dancing in Glee is so cool,” she says. “You get to do cartwheels and solos. I’ve never done drama before but the acting and singing classes are so much fun. It really feels like I’m in a movie!”