Stephanie Burridge

August 2015 was a significant milestone for the city state as Singapore celebrated fifty years of nationhood. Dance was integral to the celebrations taking place in community centres, schools, the August 9th National Day Parade at the Padang and in theatres through regular seasons. Even culturally specific events like Samarpana: The Asian Festival of Classical Dance had a tribute work especially created to commemorate the anniversary. Singapore companies continued to attract top artists and in town this month were UK contemporary kathak sensation Aakash Odedra for Samarpana, François Klaus for Singapore Dance Theatre and Stephanie Lake from Australia choreographing for Frontier Danceland. The month finished with The Mazu Chronicle; a collaboration between The ARTS FISSION and The Philharmonic Orchestra.

  • Masterpiece in Motion
    Singapore Dance Theatre; Esplanade Theatre, August 21
  • Samarpana – The Asian Festival of Classical Dance
    Esplanade Theatre Studio
    – Devi – forms of the feminine Meenakshi Venkatraman; August 22
    – In Rising Aakash Odedra with choreography by Odedra, Akram Khan, Russell Maliphant and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui; August 22
    – Through the eyes of my city Choreography by Kalpana Raghuraman; August 23, 3.00
  • Dancers’ Locker 2015
    Frontier Danceland; Frontier Danceland Studio, Goodman Arts Centre, August 30
  • The Mazu Chronicle
    The ARTS FISSION and The Philharmonic Orchestra; Esplanade Concert Hall; August 30
Rosa Park and Nazer Salgado of Singapore Dance Theatre in Midnight Waltzes Photo Bernie Ng

Rosa Park and Nazer Salgado of Singapore Dance Theatre in Midnight Waltzes
Photo Bernie Ng

Singapore Dance Theatre presented its annual international triple bill repertory season, Masterpiece in Motion – this time featuring a new commission, Midnight Waltzes, by François Klaus; a re-staging of Bournonville Divertissements by August Bournonville and Opus 25 which was choreographed by Edwaard Liang for SDT’s 25th Anniversary in 2013.

A buoyant style incorporating swift, precise footwork while maintaining a nonchalant fluidity with the torso and clear musicality is amongst the most difficult for dancers to achieve – yet this is the hallmark of Bournonville choreography. The fitness level required to relentlessly ‘bounce’ through the sequence of divertissements challenged the company and sadly played to their technical weaknesses rather than their strengths. The men’s footwork and alignment was often unfinished and their energy flagged in places. The women fared better achieving the curved arms with sweeping poses for the upper back and there were some attractive passages, particularly in the Flower Festival in Genzano pas de deux between Etienne Ferèrre and Rosa Park.

Masterpiece is usually a programme of contemporary and neo-classical ballets, and in this context Bournonville Divertissements, an archaic classical work with a painted backdrop and peasant costumes, looked somewhat out of place.

Midnight Waltzes by François Klaus was also firmly within the classical cannon. Although aesthetically pleasing, it had little innovation or contemporary flair. SDT exchanged the painted set of a village scene and peasant costumes in the Bournonville for an indoor/outdoor Russian ballroom scene and silken ball gowns and tails.

Set in the late 19th-century when young ladies were taught what was still deemed the ‘scandalous’ waltz by a dancing master, the ballet’s structure revolves around myriad sub plots. These are briefly sketched but become melodramatic as the flirtatious love affairs between various characters subvert what might be a simply attractive ballet to Strauss waltzes and the drama of Khachaturian. The various roles would benefit from a twist of irony or comedy to support the overtly romantic narrative. Instead it is left to the enigmatic lighting design and flow of silk skirts to enliven choreography that becomes bogged down in a contrived plot.

Opus 25 with a score by Michael Torke and choreography by Edwaard Liang is a wonderful work that shows the ensemble at its best. Opening and closing the ballet is a voluminous red silk cloth that boldly reveals the dancers and engulfs them at the end. As a metaphor it signifies new beginnings and celebrates the achievements of the dancers and the journey of SDT.

Choreographically, Opus 25 cleverly echoes the dynamic shifts and phrasing of the score that is mirrored through the endless ebb and flow of groupings, allowing a starring role for everyone. In true ensemble fashion it features the personalities of the dancers taking them in sweeping patterns and lines that move across the space with an inevitable force. Rapid runs across the stage, surprising lifts and acrobatic feats flow smoothly amongst the pulse of small jetés, expressive gestures and rapid turns. The company devoured the space and embraced the exuberance of the contemporary choreography while the sheer numbers on stage gave it depth and intensity. Opus 25 proved a welcome crescendo in an otherwise safe and slightly dated programme.

Samarpana: The Asian Festival of Classical Dance was an unexpected highlight of the dance calendar for August. Imaginatively curated to span the spectrum of traditional and contemporary Indian dance it featured some extraordinary performances. The programme of dance and music was well supported by lively debates and dialogue sessions.

Bharatanatyam dancer Meenakshi Venkatraman is a star of the future. Her performance of Devi – forms of the feminine had precision in every moment combined with an inherent grace and inner strength. She exuded femininity in the female roles and power in the male configurations of the Trinity: the creator, the preserver and the destroyer. The complex, intricate solo lasts for over an hour and any moment would ensure a clear photograph. Venkatraman’s focus was sublime and intense as she commanded the space with long lines, poignant facial expressions, clear gestures and resounding rhythms.

Aakash Odedra in Rising Photo Chris Nash

Aakash Odedra in Rising
Photo Chris Nash

August 22 proved a day for superb soloists, the evening featuring a programme of four works by UK Indian contemporary kathak dancer, Aakash Odera. Any young dancer who can command the attention of three great choreographers of our time; Akram Khan, Russell Maliphant and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui must be special and he was.

Odedra’s own choreography, Nritta, was a master class in Kathak dance. The endless spinning akin to the Dervish Sufi dancing is complimented by rhythmic pulses of the feet while the torso carves pathways through space in circular motions. At times Odedra dropped to the floor for a succession of knee spins only to leap into the air and continue whirling. Virtuosic and mesmerising.

Akram Khan continued his exploration of the space between the animalistic and the human in In the Shadow of Man. Here, we watched Odera’s shoulder blades contort as if trying to escape from the body like a chrysalis before it flies. Breaking free and spinning freely is contrasted with entrapment and grounded movement reflecting the choreographer’s love of juxtaposition, metaphor and exploration into the man/animal devolution.

The pieces by Maliphant and Cherkaoui both rely on specific lighting designs to create effects and atmospheres for the dancer to play with. Maliphant’s Cut features a series of clear lighting grids progressing like a staircase in a vertical pattern upstage. Odera seemed to catch himself as he tried to push his arms through to the light. Fingers, elbows and toes are framed and become gestural signifiers paralleling the essence of the Indian classical forms Kathak and Bharatanatyam. Yet the cutting edge use of technology, and indeed the cuts of light, become disturbing as they actually deconstruct the traditional form and leave fragments for us to consider what the whole might have been.

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui created a cosmic atmosphere through suspended light bulbs that the dancer moves though and with. It was a beautiful, trancelike work resonating with a sense of our own suspension in place and time as we gravitate towards each other then move apart on our separate journeys.

The final dance work in the festival, Through the eyes of my city by Kalpana Raghuraman, was billed as homage to the nation of Singapore emphasising its cultural diversity, recent history and community spirit. It used a collaborative process featuring the dancers’ impressions and personal narratives about their experiences. A common thread was the notion of both the individual and collective sensibility and the interconnectedness between these polarities. Physically and emotionally articulate solos from Jereh Leong and Sherry Tay added colour and texture to the work that was underpinned by energetic, committed dancers from the group as they transited back and forth between Bharatanatyam and contemporary sections. Often these meeting points became over-played resulting in a cacophony of confusion that needed more subtlety in interpretation. A quieter duet between Yong Mei Lien and Wiing Lui delicately tracing each other’s faces and limbs exploring the spaces in between was a counterpoint and memorable moment.

Frontier Danceland in White Noise by Stephanie Lake (dancers l-r: Adele Goh, Wayne Ong, Christina Chan, Hwa Wei-An, Joy Wang, Adrian Skjoldborg) Photo Bernie Ng

Frontier Danceland in White Noise by Stephanie Lake
(dancers l-r: Adele Goh, Wayne Ong, Christina Chan, Hwa Wei-An, Joy Wang, Adrian Skjoldborg)
Photo Bernie Ng

Dancers’ Locker 2015 featured choreography by Frontier Danceland company artists alongside the premiere of Stephanie Lake’s White Noise.

Standouts were Midlight by Christina Chan and Aymeric Bichon (France), and Adrian Skjoldborg’s quirky improvisation Mercury. Watched voyeuristically by his fellow performers, Skjoldborg turned himself inside out as his elastic body, and mind, grappled with the nature of art in this physical thesis that appeared to be heavily inspired by gaga philosophies. Funny, provocative and unashamedly individual it was open ended and the dancer simply turned off the lights to finish it.

Midlight explored sensuality in a deeply connected way through in a fluid, elegant work created by generating new points of interconnection and balance. Contact improvisation and simply rolling around each other on the studio floor enabled the choreography. The beauty of the work was that it somehow transformed the spontaneous process into a performance piece exposing the power of bodies to tell their own story and transmit this poetry to the audience.

The line up of company artist works also included a dance film by Wayne Ong, and a piece by Joy Wang

The most finished choreography of the evening was Lake’s White Noise. Clad in white, the dancers search to find resonance in a work that revolves around the complexity of group ideas, philosophies, connections and interactions that are constantly in flux through manipulation, subversion, challenges and consequences. It is a metaphor on a grand scale. Yet the promise of the opening robotic sequences that are a powerful syntax to prelude the inevitable fragmentation and disintegration of the collective do not reiterate the intention in the choreography. The evolving tableaux of duos, trios and small groups become overtly literal in their grappling for supremacy or subversion. There is dissonance, aggression, struggle and quiet resolution, but not enough physical innovation or thematic synergy for the dancers to work with.

Tomomi Aramaki in The Mazu Chronicle Photo courtesy The ARTS FISSION Company

Tomomi Aramaki in The Mazu Chronicle
Photo courtesy The ARTS FISSION Company

A symphonic dance-theatre performance featuring orchestral and choral music by Singaporean composers, The Mazu Chronicle plays homage to Asian folklore and the maritime pioneers of Singapore. Real-life stories of early seafarers of the Maritime Silk Road interweave with the legend of Mazu, the patron goddess of the sea. Co-collaborators were Singapore Cultural Medallion recipients, maestro Lim Yau and choreographer Angela Liong who incorporated the creative energies of seniors and youth from the community, with professional dancers from The ARTS FISSION Company and musicians from The Philharmonic Orchestra and The Philharmonic Chamber Choir.

The Mazu Chronicle is sincere in its intention. It is rich with ideas and bold in scale and spirit. There are poignant moments and beauty throughout the five episodes based on stories of the past and imagined futures. Inevitably in such an epic production the task of unifying so many components was challenging and cohesion a problem. Liong’s previous experience with creating site specific works caused creativity to flow from the orchestra, placed on stage, to the rooftop of the Concert Hall with dancers seeming to effortlessly (the backstage lifts worked overtime) transit these heights to suddenly reappear in the choir stalls above the audience.

Liong’s love of history and community gave honest attention to the stories of the maritime pioneers who appeared on stage and the well being of the Elder Ensemble who metaphorically kept the show afloat through constantly manning the imaginary sails of the ship and mustering their ropes that entwined the group. The graphic and sound design was evocative with the Concert Hall being transformed into turbulent seas or the bowels of a cargo ship, although it is questionable whether the repetitive abstract contemporary dance, performed by a group of just seven, worked in this large scale production.

The dancers seemed to be running everywhere but much of the time were dwarfed by the space and intensity of the music. A powerful solo by Yarra Ileto and a delicate one, ‘Shadow of the Sakura’ by Tomomi Aramak were dance highlights, both focusing attention for a moment making the dancers the story tellers and keepers of the tale. Visually the symbolic presence of the Goddess Mazu in an oversized red silk gown presiding over the production in the upper choir stalls, the group of Elder Dancers urged on by the young LaSalle dance students spoke volumes about the power of dance to inspire across generations.

In such a community show it is difficult to acknowledge the high points; however ultimately it was the music composition and orchestra that held the Mazu Chronicle together. The old seafarers that recounted their sometimes harrowing tales struck a chord with the composers, in particular the cello solo, Seaward – Prelude played by Lin Juan and composed by Goh Toh Chai that top and tailed the production was a haunting melody and a fitting take away from a memorable performance.