Stephanie Burridge

Singapore Dance Theatre took the opportunity to showcase their 2015 calendar of events for media and invited guests in a comprehensive studio performance while the local scene was inspired by the return of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan’s stellar production “Rice” at the Esplanade Theatre. An unexpected highlight for February was an intensely empowering, empathetic site-specific performance “I Carry your Heart” in the foyer of the National University Heart Centre performed by dancers and musicians around granite sculptures created by Singaporean renowned multidisciplinary artist Dr Tan Swie Hian.

  • Launch of 2015 season by Singapore Dance Theatre
    SDT company studio, Bugis +; 11 February
  • N Dance and Yoga Company: “I Carry Your Heart” (ch: Nirmala Seshadri)
    National Universality Hospital Courtyard; 12 February
  • “Huayi – Chinese Festival of Arts”
    Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan: “RICE” (ch: Lin Hwai-min)
    Esplanade Theatre; 28 February
Singapore Dance Theatre in 'Serenade' by George Balanchine.  Photo © Dennis Ng

Singapore Dance Theatre in ‘Serenade’ by George Balanchine.
Photo © Dennis Ng

The dancers at Singapore Dance Theatre continue to impress with their versatility and superb dancing across eras, roles and genres. Despite the audience being a few feet away in a studio setting with stylized practice costumes, they excelled in the snippets of the repertoire to be staged this year. Rosa Park as Aurora in “Sleeping Beauty” shone in the balances en pointe as she accepted the roses from the line of princes awaiting her favours at her birthday party while the corps lilted through the patterns and flowing style of the Act 1 ‘Garland Waltz’ with verve.

A highlight was the performance of the First Movement of Balanchine’s iconic ‘blue ballet’, “Serenade”. Although a ballet that is best seen further back to enjoy the complexity of the choreographer’s masterful staging, nevertheless the company pulled together the intricate lines and patterning in this showcase. Up close, the several, smaller witty sections that came about through various episodes in the studio during Balanchine’s creative process – like a dancer reclining on the floor that came about after a fall – had added emphasis.

Toru Shimazaki’s “Blue Snow” was a favourite when premiered at the 2014 Esplanade “da:ns” festival for its folksy rhythms and stunningly rich palette of costumes while the first movement of Goh Soo Chan’s “Schubert Symphony” was an elegant foil.

The “Bourneville Divertissements” is a new addition to the repertoire and great fun for the company as they gleefully slapped their tambourines egging on their fellow dancers in the tricky heel, toe, tarantella and brisk footwork and rapid changes of direction synonymous with the famous Danish Bourneville school style.

SDT will also produce a full length “Swan Lake” in December to close a busy schedule of local and international performances.

Neewin Hershall and flautist Vishnu Veluri in 'I Carry your Heart'.  Photo © Jeff Low (Style Revisited)

Neewin Hershall and flautist Vishnu Veluri in ‘I Carry your Heart’.
Photo © Jeff Low (Style Revisited)

Site specific, multidisciplinary dance is not new, however rarely are all the creative elements linked so closely or inexorably tied to the ethos and empathy of the location as they were in N Dance and Yoga Company’s “I Carry Your Heart”.

Part of N Dance and Yoga’s mission is to research through the somatic connecting the body and mind; thus the collaboration with National University Hospital provided an excellent platform. “I Carry your Heart” was a beautiful performance that was sincere to the brief of creating an interdisciplinary work in the hospital heart Sculpture Garden. The vision of the hospital staff worked in conjunction with the artists in the creative development of this moving work. Their foresight to integrate art in the heart centre as a symbol of healing and rejuvenation through commissioning Tan Swie Hian’s granite sculptures was also implicit in the poetics of the dance choreography and musical composition played by the musicians.

The context was a multicultural celebration with Singaporean Bharatanatyam exponents and creators Nirmala Seshadri and Neewin Hershall working with French Butoh performer, Syv Bruzeau, and local musicians Samuel Wong (pipa), Johnny Chia (guzheng) and Vishnu Veluri (flute) playing traditional Chinese songs. Tan’s inspiration for the hospital Sculpture Garden, is based on the poem “I Carry your Heart” by American poet E.E. Cummings.

The spirit of life cycles, rebirth, love and acceptance that exist in the lines of the poem resonated through the dancers as they pressed against the crevices of the sculptures. They seemed to listen to the messages in the writing and then, like Michelangelo’s “Slaves”, seemingly emerge such that their bodies became a palimpsest of imprinted traces that transformed and propelled the choreography forward. They intertwined, mingled with the audience and repeated various leitmotifs around the solid forms and benches in the space. The performance culminated as they entered two pools of water containing giant shell-like sculptures separated by a narrow wooden bridge. Like the plaintiff, melancholic sound of the song that rang out through the cavernous space, they remained apart echoing the song lyrics about two lovers who were destined to be separated by a river.

Although a degree of improvisation occurred as the dancers journeyed around the objects and the space, the serene pace and sustained quality of the movement maintained a peaceful flow that was very powerful. It was performed by mature artists and the concept and ethos of the heart unit encouraged collaboration giving space to each component of the performance that was honoured in its own way while forming a cohesive entity. The audience stood around and followed them on the journey with several patients brought down (some in wheelchairs) while others looked on from above over the glass balconies. The group reminded us of the empowering spirit of dance that can be a transformative force when evoked through simple, heartfelt and sincere collaborations with people, the space and each other.

RICE.  Photo © Liu Chen-hsiang

Photo © Liu Chen-hsiang

Rather like theatre doyen Jerzy Grotowski’s process of ‘method acting’, choreographer Lin Hwai-min (林懷民) created “RICE” (稻禾), somatically with his dancers so that they lived and experienced life with the farmers as part of the creative process. Cloud Gate Dance Theatre (雲門舞集) not only train in tai chi dao yin, the Asian martial arts and meditation form that underpins their performance style, they also practice calligraphy and have worked on the land for previous works such as “Legacy” (薪傳, 1978).

The physicality of working alongside the rice farmers of Chihshang (池上) through rain, wind, sunshine and cold gives a ‘felt’ experience to the performance and a truthfulness achieved through an empathetic association with the actions of planting, irrigating, harvesting and burning the fields – in “Rice” the seasons of farming are symbolically entwined with the cycle of life. There is a raw spirituality to the work that is visceral, unexpected and almost heroic in its embodiment of the complex simplicity of these life cycles.

Videographer Chang Hao-jan (張皓然) has captured the rice fields for two growth cycles enabling us to experience invigorating washes of colour that are so vivid that the energy hurtles towards the audience like multiple tsunamis where we become immersed in wave after wave of moods and feelings. But there is also attention to the detail of grains of rice, the dust of pollen, wind, mist and tongues of fire. The creative team cleverly reveal more as the piece progresses progressing from a half screen mode at the start of the choreography, to an intimate square framing a duet, to a full screen exposure, including the floor, for the final fire scenes. Amid the enormity and lushness of the projection the scale of the dancers may become diminished; yet Lin pulls the work together with sensuality and earthy passion as the rituals of life occur. The messages are direct, without pretence or illusion, and are totally mesmerizing. The stage is a holistic platform where there is a sense that the mundane activity of rice harvesting played out metaphorically is the essence of life and Lin Hwai-min’s well known Buddhist philosophy of caring for the earth, humility and empathy with humanity shine through.

As often with Lin’s works the music is an eclectic east/west mix: “Rice” includes Hakka folk songs, Japanese drumming, an opera excerpt from “Norma”, some Mahler and incidental sounds of rain, wind, insects and more. Silence is used poignantly as a time for reflection – particularly after the energy of the fire section where we are left to contemplate the final plumes of smoke and haze – ironically it seemed to set several members of the audience coughing.

 Huang Pei-hua and Tsai Ming-yuan in 'Rice'.  Photo © Liu Chen-hsiang

Huang Pei-hua and Tsai Ming-yuan in ‘RICE’.
Photo © Liu Chen-hsiang

While there is an overtly raw, hyper-realism factor in this production it is abstracted and balanced by the juxtaposition of the on-screen natural earthiness against nuanced human emotions. For instance, ‘Pollen 1’ is a beautiful lilting dance for three couples with the men creating spatial patterns with long, quivering bamboo poles while the women are lightly lifted and manipulated through the air mirroring grains of pollen in the wind.

The sensuality is heightened in ‘Pollen II’ that is danced in a small square of the projection with two dancers locked in a physical embrace that is sublimely original as they wrap themselves around each other connecting torsos, toes and elbows in an erotic exploration. We witness a symbolic birth as a group of women ritualistically circle a dancer in a red dress, legs splayed open to the audience while images of golden red, ripening grain are projected. In the final scenes the poles become a tool for the men to assert themselves through acrobatic moves and mock battles.

Throughout there are sweet moments of nostalgia as time passes denoted by the ever sweeping circular runs of the dancers, the spiralling of torsos and continual entrances and exits that are a leitmotif for an endless, natural rhythm. The final moment echoes the beginning; a woman stands indomitably, knees half bent looking into the distance yet she is diminished against a panoramic perspective of the landscape. After the destruction of fire she signifies emergence, renewal and the onset of a new cycle but must acknowledge also her place is the wider scheme of existence and the overpowering forces of nature.