SINGAPORE: A collective gasp rose from the audience as the 36 performers ran out on stage, the long strands of balloons they held swaying gracefully in the air.
Instrumental music played as they ran around the stage using the giant balloons to create beautiful shapes and formations, the bright lights affixed to 12 garlands – each 18m in height – twinkling in the evening sky. As two of the three performers carrying the garland slowly released it in unison, audience members – made up mostly of Primary 5 students – screamed in excitement.
The students in attendance were enjoying a preview of this year’s National Day Parade (NDP), and the giant balloon garlands featured in the second act of the show segment were an obvious hit with them. But far less obvious was the sheer amount of hard work, strength and stamina required to create and execute this visual spectacle.
WORSE THAN A 2.4KM RUN
Garland performer Ronnie Lai is a self-professed natural on stage. The 22-year-old, who is waiting to enter university, has been in the drama club since he was a child, and studied theatre when he was in junior college.
Performing on stage and hearing the audience cheer, he says, always gives him an adrenaline rush. But this time round, it’s better.
“Doing it for my country’s birthday is extra meaningful,” he said. “And when the audience saw the balloons and got so excited, it felt really nice, like my hard work, sweat and tears was all worth it.”
Indeed, being a balloon garland performer is a strenuous task.
With a 10m wire attached, each garland stretches out for close to 30 metres. The balloons themselves are the size of car tyres.
If this does not already make the garlands difficult to manoeuvre, the performers also have to contend with the weight of a 4kg battery pack and the drag from the helium-filled balloons when they run. It is like pulling a 20kg weight, the organisers said. Even when they are standing still they have to resist the upward pull of the balloons.
To make things even more exhausting, jogging slowly from position to position will not cut it. Performers, it turns out, have to sprint – while bearing the weight of the garlands.
“They look deceptively light, but they’re quite a beast to manoeuvre and manage on stage,” said Joshua Chia, a company commander from the 3rd Singapore Division and the person in charge of the balloon garland performers.
“It’s like non-stop running,” added Ronnie. “We always say it’s worse than a 2.4km run.”
GETTING IN SHAPE ... AND OUT OF EACH OTHER’S WAY
Getting in shape was, therefore, a key part of the training the team of performers had to go through. Since April they have been training together about two to three times a week, running around a parade square and making sure they could meet the timing required of them.
“A basic level of physical fitness is definitely a key factor, in order to achieve the graceful, effortless look,” explained Joshua. “Throughout the act, there’s a lot of precision needed in achieving symmetry across the stage, as well as timeliness in arriving in positions.”
“There is just so much to coordinate,” he added. “Just trying to do a simple forward run that involves six people having to run in a synchronised manner ... even without the balloons, it was tough.”
“The pace and spacing has to be precise, aesthetically pleasing and correct so we don’t collide with one another and the garlands don’t get tangled up.”
This, said Ronnie, turned out to be the main challenge.
“We had to run together, in step and in cadence,” he said. “Even things like perfecting a circle is very important, so we don’t look lopsided and we’re evenly spaced out on stage.”
As Ronnie easily strapped on the battery pack and deftly looped the long garland wire around his arm, it is clear that he knows what he is doing. But he admitted that it was not always like this.
“When we first saw the balloons, we got a shock at first,” he recalled, grinning. “It was like, wow, they’re huge!”
It was tiring at first, he added. But after multiple rounds of practice, the balloons became easier to handle. Little tricks and techniques he picked up along the way also came in useful.
“You could say we learnt from our mistakes,” he said, as he held on to the balloons and ran around the stage without having to catch his breath. “For example, things like tightening the strap of the battery packs so it fits snugly on us, or knowing which hand to use to hold the wire ... there are so many little things to take note of.”
Working together with his friends, he added, was also of vital importance.
“It’s one thing for you to remember your own steps, and remember where you’re supposed to go, but we also need to know where everyone else’s markings are,” he said. “So a lot of teamwork is required.”
But with the cheers of thousands of audience members ringing in their ears, it is clear that the team’s hard work has paid off – even if the real show has yet to come.
“Watching them on stage with the beautiful garlands made me shed a tear,” admitted Joshua. “They were performing for their friends, family and parents.”
“And I’m proud to say that they gave them a spectacle that they would definitely be proud of.”