Stephanie Burridge

The first half of December saw a flurry of activity across several dance sectors in Singapore. I had a busy weekend December 6 and 7 as moderator for a panel at the first International Conference on Bharatanatyam 2014 before rushing to the Critics Forum panel at the M1 Contemporary Dance Festival followed by the “Open Stage 2” evening performance. I also caught Singapore Dance Theatre’s stylish production of Don Quixote” at the Saturday matinee. First up this month I review the ballet and then give a report card on the M1 Contemporary Dance Festival performances hosted by T.H.E (The Human Expression).

  • “Don Quixote”, Singapore Dance Theatre
    Esplanade Theatre, December 6 (m)
  • M1 Contemporary Dance Festival
    “Continuum Dance Exchange”, November 30, Goodman Arts Centre (GAC) Black Box
    “Organised Chaos”, December 4, Esplanade Theatre Studio
    “MI Open Stage Show 2”, December 7, GAC Black Box
    “AFX” Asian Festival Exchange, December 10, Esplanade Theatre Studio
    “International Artist Festival Finale”, December 13, Esplanade Theatre Studio
Chihiro Uchida of Singapore Dance Theatre as Kitri in 'Don Quixote'.  Photo © Bernie Ng

Chihiro Uchida of Singapore Dance Theatre as Kitri in ‘Don Quixote’.
Photo © Bernie Ng

Around the world companies have often finished the year with a traditional full-length classical ballet. Singapore Dance Theatre (SDT) celebrated the close of 2014 by bringing a new work into the company repertoire; “Don Quixote” staged, after Marius Petipa, by the legendary Cynthia Harvey. The colourful ballet revolves around the frolics in a small village between the innkeeper Lorenzo’s vivacious daughter Kitri, her lover Basilio, and her father’s intended choice for her, the pompous and wealthy Gamache. To add to the mix along comes an old and delusional knight, Don Quixote, and his sidekick, Sancho Panza, on a mission to rescue Dulcinea, the imaginary woman of his dreams. Essentially all the characters are embarking on a quest for love and the journey takes them from the village, to a gypsy encampment and back to town for a dazzling wedding where, with the help of Don Quixote, the marriage of the young lovers is finally approved.

This seems the thinnest of plots and an awkward narrative that is hard to piece together and connect over the length of the production. Nevertheless it is an opportunity for vigorous dancing with a Spanish influence by the village maidens and a troupe of visiting matadors in Act 1; wild gypsy abandon in the Act 2 foregrounding the much loved ‘Windmill scene’; and brilliant pas de deux by the principals at their wedding in the finale. Kitri’s fan dance is iconic and a mark of the highest attainment for a ballerina who must continuously hop en pointe while flirting with the audience through coquettish gestures with the fan and her body postures. This is soon followed by a series of prescribed 32 fouettés. For Basilio there are spectacular one arm overhead lifts, series of tours en l’air and more.

SDT has a wonderful Kitri in Chihiro Uchida who danced impeccably while she flirted and teased throughout the ballet; she was well supported by Kenya Nakuma who danced Basilio’s solos precisely and partnered Uchido with boyish charm and a sense of fun. They were an engaging pair that energised the other dancers and added to the humour of the plot by always being one step ahead of Chen Wei as the blundering knight and the clowning of Mohamed Noor Sarman as Sancho Panzo, who gave this figure a comical twist.

Cervantes’ tale is considered the first modern European novel. The interest lies in the central character; a supreme idealist who ignores the passage of time – this leads to self-deception and an unrealistic sense of his abilities and importance. As we watch him battling a windmill imagining an enemy force in Act 2 there should be pathos juxtaposed with the comedy of the situation as the irrevocably loyal Sancho Panza tries to save him. A degree of belief in the character is essential to the show adding a dramatic layer that balances the lightness of the plot and sustains it as a full-length ballet. The stage adaptation, and film versions, inspired by the Cervantes novel, captured this brilliantly in “The Man of La Mancha” with the classic song “To Dream the Impossible Dream” resonating with all that Don Quixote aspired to. It touches a chord within all of us.

Unfortunately the SDT production was let down by the weak acting and the portrayal of the central role Don Quixote. There was also a lack of innovation in creating a rapport between all of the character roles and the other dancers who needed to take some risks to perform with more expression and individuality. Laden with the archaic gestural language of traditional ballet complete with multiple innuendos and signals back and forth by the protagonists, the numerous small scenes in the ballet depend on strong character development to tell the story; while the corps de ballet’s role is mainly to react and comment via their dance passages and exclamations amongst themselves while they watched the tale unfold.

Australian designer Bruce McKinven gave the costumes a colourful, fresh perspective by simplifying the villager’s outfits and using vibrant tones while his imaginative set designs incorporated a slightly Surrealist approach by making the sides of the painted ‘village buildings’ curved. The use of an animated stage cloth (with a moving windmill and horses depicting Don Quixote’s travels) was also an added production value that worked well.

Overall the restaging of “Don Quixote” by Harvey was a real coup for SDT. She enlivened the corps and injected new verve and flair into the principals. Being a quintessential Kitri herself she imparted invaluable wisdom about performing that role in particular. The Spanish influence came through with clever accents for the corps such as the playing of castanets and explosive dances for the matador and his friends. Yet despite its primarily entertainment ethos, the narrative of “Don Quixote” relies on several contrasts: age and youth, realities and fantasies; class and wealth differences and more. If these are not highlighted and exploited across the spectrum of characters the ballet become unbalanced and looks like a dated showcase for virtuosic grandeur rather than a cohesive collage of complex dualities.

The M1 Contemporary Dance Festival hosted by Singapore’s T.H.E Dance Company continued for almost three weeks, involving over 90 artists in two full-length productions plus six choreographic and performance platforms for independents from over 14 countries. There were showcase opportunities for emerging choreographers from around the Asian region and tertiary dance institutions and over 45 public classes led by many of the performers. Adding a Critics Forum that also involved a mentorship programme for young dance writers into the packed programme opened a space for dialogue and conversations about contemporarily dance between the artists, critics and visiting festivals directors.

An important aspect of the festival is cultural exchange between artists and partner festivals such as the Damansara Performing Arts Centre (DPAC) Malaysia, Yokohama Dance Collection (Japan) and Guangdong Dance Festival (China). In 2014 new partners included MASDANZA Festival in Spain, Fukuoka Dance Fringe Festival in Japan and Gwangjin International Summer Festival in Korea. This places it as an increasingly important regional dance festival that has now been recognised through major sponsorship.

Showcases by tertiary students are part of the dance calendar in Singapore. The interest lies in the combination of institutions, the choreography they bring and the next generation of talent on show. In “Continuum Dance Exchange” the performance honours went to the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts for their gutsy portrayal of the current situation between pro-democracy groups, significantly led by students around the same age as these dancers, and mainland China.

Although Christine Gouzeli’s “Fragile Matter” was conceived before the Hong Kong protests its depiction of the struggle for supremacy over oppression, individual rights over conformity resonated deeply and drew cheers from the audience. The varied dance material conveyed the message along with a ‘puppet costume’ of a general’s coat that could either stand alone as a symbol of power or was inhabited by a dancer assuming this role. This choreography combined innovation and courageous individual expression. For a complete opposite in style and mood Natalie Wier’s ‘Excerpts from “Where the Heart Is” created for QUT was poetic and subtle.

In the “AFX” Asian Festival Exchange, performances are collaborations between two artists from different countries, the challenge being to bring choreography to the stage that coherently unites diverse training, cultural backgrounds and ideas.

“Absence” by local T.H.E Second company member Marcus Foo, in collaboration with Korea’s Jin Byoung Cheol, was the most complex piece. The middle section, with a devised script for a drag queen character sporting a blonde wig and sunglasses performed by Foo, bordered on indulgence but became allowable when it was bookended between some seriously high voltage dance passages and great group cohesion. However interweaving the theatrical components with the movement eluded the team and they appeared as separate, unrelated entities.

“The Body Speaks” by Lee Ren Xin with Japan’s Miwa Okuno was a delicate exploration of live and projected bodies. The use of squares for both the video template and lighting design that enclosed the bodies of the dancers in geometric spaces was conceptually interesting and could have been pushed further to synthesise the intention and relationship between the two elements.

“I See Blue Skies” by Malaysian Wong Jyh Shyong in collaboration with the dancers, was a collage of ideas that promised a reflection on our world embracing both ‘light and darkness’. Uniform-clad dancers found themselves in a confused place where conformity ruled, scenes including some street influenced moves interspersed by reflective moments. After a time they removed their outer clothes to evoke reverting to babies as they gurgled and writhed to a sound-scape that mirrored their purpose. This looking backwards through time created a theatricality that was literal rather than an abstract metaphor that could have offered a possibility of a larger, shared purpose.

Of the various showcase performance the best was certainly left until last. The “International Artist Festival Finale” included seven wonderful choreographers/dancers who were seasoned performers and creators from diverse countries including Spain, Israel, Japan, Sweden and Taiwan. Choreographer/dancer Tung I Feng and Daniel Wang’s movements were as smooth as silk as they moved in and out of the floor and around each other in precisely woven patterns that belied the easy, free-flowing style of movement. Behind them a circle of microphones stood like sentinels and soon became important players in “How to Say”, a work that explored dance, language, and live spoken word. The microphones were incorporated in a semiotic way where the use of sounds and words were deconstructed to embrace a holistic meaning that integrated with the body – they were swapped between the dancers, used to caress and sporadically functioned as devices to amplify sound in the traditional sense.

Arthur Bernard Bazin (above) and Alejandro Moya (below) in ‘Hasta dónde’ by Sharon Fridman.  Photo © Bernie Ng

Arthur Bernard Bazin (above) and Alejandro Moya (below) in ‘Hasta dónde?’ by Sharon Fridman.
Photo © Bernie Ng

Soloist Miwa Okuna flipped the previously used white floor to black and also reinvented conventional dance vocabulary in “Highlight of Decline”. Images of rotting fruit, skin and fire were projected behind her as her extraordinarily flexible body worked like a marionette confined to a point upstage, as if life was pulling the strings, and there were brief moments of control that then defused. Collapsing knees, turned in feet and elbows, sudden thrusts backwards were all evident as she seemed to want to rise from the floor but was weighed down by the predestined pathway of life were beautifully ugly and visceral. Backed by relentless, pounding sounds it became a dance of rising and falling and an intense metaphor to the stages of life as we move in and out of control. Okuna gave a strangely elegant performance that showed the power of the body to move us through simplicity and innovative kinaesthetic expression.

Next up two male duets ended the programme. Although completely different in style and content it was inspiring to watch four superb mature male dancers moving with such a creative and independent spirit. Shintaro Oue’s “BO.LE.RO” was a comic denunciation of the expectations of the famous Ravel music. Red crosses of tape marked places where acrobatics, comedy sketches, weird confrontations and interactions occurred between the dancers in a one-upmanship game. They clown around, wrestle, roll and create a dance between them that interwove across the space like a game and united them in passages of movement incorporating exquisite timing and intense physicality. Like shadow warriors continually moving the dance become an organic play between them.

“Hasta dónde?”, a duet by Sharon Fridman also worked on an interactive, organic premise. At first dependent on each other, as seen when Alejandro Moya carried Arthur Bernard Bazin on his shoulder, the couple soon moved into a harmonious unity that was mesmerising. Driven by a compelling waltz of the same title by Luis Miguel Cobo the pair achieved an evolving interaction that was harmonious and seemed driven by the internal pulses of the bodies. It transcended a contrived approach and like the music, engaged the audience in the rhythms of the dance and the ebb and flow of bodies working together. It was an uplifting, powerful experience for the dancers and audience alike.

Apart from the showcase platforms there were two full -length premieres created for the festival. The first, “Noted with Thanks”, was mentioned last month. No doubt the most anticipated performance, though, was a new work resulting from the on-going collaboration between T.H.E Artistic Director Kuik Swee Boon and resident Korean choreographer Kim Jae Duk who explored the concept of ‘organised chaos’ in a new choreography adopting this title.T.H.E has remained relevant in Singapore through risk taking and constantly pushing the boundaries of contemporary dance in form, content and context. The group obviously worked through collaboration and improvisation for “Organised Chaos” which left individual dancer’s signatures on the final work that became a conglomerate of their collective experiences. It built systematically, but also randomly, and the choreographers became facilitators and ‘curators’ of the overall concept as it was experienced and internalised by the dancers. As elements of order began to emerge through some group sections, the use of numbers and commands to give directions were juxtaposed against ‘break away’ dancers persisting with personal moments and material. Although this was an intention there was an imbalance between these two worlds. In “Organised Chaos” the lack of any powerful sections for the women was also a concern and a noticeable choreographic weakness.

T.H.E. Dance Company in 'Organised Chaos'. Photo © Kuang Jingkai

T.H.E. Dance Company in ‘Organised Chaos’.
Photo © Kuang Jingkai

The lighting by Finnish designer Anna Rouhu was a feature of the performance. Overall, many of the theatrical components were minimal and incorporated ‘found objects’, home movies and simplified sound design. Often this aspect could have worked better. For instance, dancer Zhuo Zihao was stationed at the back of the stage with a video camera scanning close ups of his face and magnifying his eyes against a scrappy, improvised notice board. Piles of torn paper scattered the floor and a microphone, again laden with paper scraps was suspended centre stage above the dancers. These acted like installations where creativity could emerge as the dancers found some point of connection to work with.

Less illuminating were a number of mouth organs stuck in dancer’s mouths that played as their heads jerked forward. These images were disturbing in one sense and completely meaningless, like a joke on the spectators in another. At times it was almost like we were being provoked to find our own meaning from the stage paraphernalia that could equally have signified nothing at all. Inevitably some moments worked better than others in a process that valued eccentricity and individuality and brought this to the stage as a production.

Although the performance fluctuated between being quite profound to almost silly the audience remained focused and there was a sense of anticipation. As usual the T.H.E dancers worked relentlessly giving their all to what was required and this was appreciated by the audience. In the second half they began to incorporate some ballistic unison sections that seemed to drive them on and generate new energy – the movement became like an urban tribal folk dance as they flung their arms forward and stamped out wild movements in unison. I was reminded of Hofesh Shechter’s forays into incorporating folk dance elements with contemporary choreography. In this case, it served as an important thread to interweave so many disparate parts.

“Organised Chaos” was raw with sections like an on-going workshop whereby the framework allowed the choreography to evolve during performance. In particular the chaotic sections in the beginning were theatrically under-developed with many of the images over long. Nevertheless it was a significant moment in the company’s progress exemplifying their confidence in exploring new directions through innovative processes and choreographic design. For the festival, it was weighty enough to give the M1 Contemporary Dance Festival a pivotal focus where the conversations on the nature of creating contemporary choreography and the interplay between the choreographers, dancers and the audience were open to debate. All up a stimulating and provocative festival generating dance dialogues and conversations across borders.