Stephanie Burridge

WDA AngersIn July, a sizable contingent of Singaporeans travelled to Angers, France, for the World Dance Alliance (WDA) Global Summit, “Contemporising the Past: Envisaging the Future” hosted by the Centre national de danse contemporaine (CNDC) and Angers University. Frontier Danceland dancers and emerging choreographers attended the Choreolab to work with dance luminaries Robert Swinston and Germaine Acogny; while MAYA Dance Theatre performed in the showcase and attended master classes and workshops.

We were all wowed by the power and audacity of Olivier Dubois’s apocalyptic full-length work for 18 naked dancers “Tragédie”; and I revelled in the precision and nostalgia of Swinston’s Merce Cunningham-based “Event”.

Another major occasion for Singapore at the conference was the launch of the seventh book in the Routledge “Celebrating Dance in Asia and the Pacific” series, “Evolving Synergies: Celebrating Dance in Singapore”. The book was launched at the University of Angers by Claire Rousier, Adjunct Director of the CNDC, who gave an impressive speech outlining the risks and challenges of producing such an anthology that includes many voices from different cultural backgrounds. ‘Unity and diversity’ is a catch phrase that is often used to describe many aspects of Singapore whether associated with the rich heritage of food, the multiracial mix of its people, or the complexity of the local arts scene.

Before leaving for Angers, I caught up with Ricky Sim and his company RAW Moves at a dress rehearsal. This month’s “Scene in Singapore” also includes a review of Singapore Dance Theatres iconic “Ballet Under the Stars”. Now in its 19th edition, it is a much anticipated outdoor dance spectacle loved by the dance community and anyone wanting to share a picnic on the lawns above the city lights on a balmy evening.

This month’s features:

  • International launch of “Evolving Synergies: Celebrating Dance in Singapore” at the World Dance Alliance Global Summit
  • RAW Moves, dress rehearsal of “FREE”, created by Artistic Director/choreographer Ricky Sim.
  • Review of Ballet Under the Stars (BUTS), Singapore Dance Theatre

Evolving Synergies - Dance in Singapore coverJuly 9. The WDA gathering in Angers saw the launch of “Evolving Synergies: Celebrating Dance in Singapore”. Singapore is a meeting point for dance from the East and the West. With myriad festivals, performances in theatres, the community, schools and site-specific spaces, it is a vibrant player in the evolution of Asian contemporary dance which is burgeoning throughout the region. In the Singapore context, storytelling, personal reflections, memories and local histories have been the basis for dance choreography with artists drawing from eclectic, embodied backgrounds. Indian, Malay and Chinese dance vocabularies and a variety western contemporary dance techniques come together in an amalgam of creativity to make new poetic statements about our world through movement.

Some excerpts from the Artist’s Voices section of the book tell the Singapore story from personal viewpoints:

Ryan Tan, one of the Artist Voices in 'Evolving Synergies Celebrating Dance in Singapore'.  Photo © Darren Teng

Ryan Tan, one of the Artist Voices in ‘Evolving Synergies Celebrating Dance in Singapore’.
Photo © Darren Teng

“…When I create, I get inspired by music, talents, societal issues and events – things that provoke me, things that matter to me and to people, and that plants a strong desire in me to tell others about it…. dance should bridge lives, improve lives – it should be relevant…” Ryan Tan, Creative Director of O School.

... Never have I seen Singaporeans so alive, discussing issues close to our hearts with such urgency. …Contemporary dance can play a vital role in this national discussion because it provides outlets for opinions to be aired creatively. Perhaps it will be in these times that the elusive Singaporean identity in contemporary dance will be strengthened…” Lee Mun Wai, dancer and choreographer for T.H.E (The Human Expression)

“…I make dance like a novelist and journalist: reflecting on the pulses of Asia and documenting glimpses of the worlds beyond. I make dance in order to make sense of what happens to us, here, now, and always…” Angela Liong, Artistic Director/Choreographer, The Arts Fission.

Evolving Synergies: Celebrating Dance in Singapore, edited by Stephanie Burridge & Caren Cariño
Publisher: Routledge
ISBN: 978-1138796133
Due for publication: August 30, 2014
For further details click here

Kong Wei Jie and Melissa Quek in Raw Moves' 'FREE'.  Photo © Bernie Ng

Kong Wei Jie and Melissa Quek in Raw Moves’ ‘FREE’.
Photo © Bernie Ng

July 3-5. Talking to Artistic Director Ricky Sim about his company RAW Moves at their dress rehearsal before the season of the new choreography, “FREE”, gave some insights into his current thoughts and directions. Always articulate and enthusiastic about the power of dance to reflect and illuminate our lives, he described his latest creation as “a freefall into the depths of possibility”.

A look at the company Facebook page gives some intriguing concepts of what this idea meant to some of the dancers. Obvious ones such as soaring like a bird were stacked against ideas about freedom of speech and the freedom to be oneself. I found probing the concept of freedom contextually complex and diverse… after all historically Singapore is often known for its order rather than chaos.

As the 11 dancers traversed the space in methodical walks and pathways I began to notice elements of breaking away from the pack to assert a personal moment from their own narrative. A feature of the choreography is the intention to interact with the audience. There will be no seating and in a post modern, democratic spirit, those watching are free to mingle with the dancers and join in if they feel like it. Sim notes that he is, “particularly interested in the exploration of the concept of freedom for both the dancers and the audience who become equal partners in the performance – each having to react to and accommodate each other as narrative and spontaneity interweave.”

I found the structure of the dance quite refreshing in the local landscape of young dancers and choreographer bent of seeing how fast they can move in choreography that highlights speed and technical wizardry. The neutral stance of the dancers allowed the audience to ponder their own thoughts and consider what freedom might mean to them. For one dancer, it was feeling the breeze in her hair as she stood before a fan. In a macabre twist at the end she was taped to a wall so she was no longer able to move… a jibe at Singapore’s latest decision by the Media Development Authority (MDA) that Singaporean artists can rate the content of their own work (G to R18+) rather than the previous method of companies applying for a licence. While some are pleased to dispense with the paper work, for others like Sim and many local artists, this ‘self-policing’ initiative has been controversial and caused ongoing debate. It is seen as a policy to encourage self-censorship and an incorrect classification can incur a fine of $5000. In a rare political moment for dance in Singapore, each RAW Moves dancer attached a label with this amount of money to a part of their body in an ironic reference to how this might be rated.

July 19. For its 19th edition of “Ballet Under the Stars” (BUTS), Singapore Dance Theatre staged two programmes over two weekends. I watched the first comprising “Piano Concerto No. 2, Opus 102” by Edmund Stripe; “Bittersweet” by Natalie Weir (a World Premiere), “Chant” by Val Caniparoli and “The Winds of Zephyrus” by Edwaard Liang.

SDT seemed to have a surfeit of neo-classical repertoire in this season. It highlighted the precision and finesse of this rapidly developing company of young artists but was in danger of sidetracking the audience as the structures and much of movement vocabulary was similar. Although the company looked at home in the programme of the three ensemble pieces by luminaries Edmund Stripe, Val Caniparoli and Edwaard Liang, some variety of mood and expression was urgently needed.

Rosa Park and Timothy Coleman of Singapore Dance Theatre in Natalie Weir's 'Bittersweet'.  Photo © MsBern Photography

Rosa Park and Timothy Coleman of Singapore Dance Theatre in Natalie Weir’s ‘Bittersweet’.
Photo © MsBern Photography

The exception to this genre of ensemble abstraction was the new commission, “Bittersweet”; a striking pas de deux by Australian choreographer Natalie Wier. In a programme that gave few opportunities to establish deep rapport between the dancers as they surged through passages of rapid entrances and exits this stood apart. It was a chance to engage in extravagant emotion in the glorious phrases of movement with some spectacular lifts and complex partnering.

“Bittersweet” should have been a soaring, emotional work laden with complexity with many opportunities offered by Weir who set the duo in evening clothes, off-centre and gave some achingly beautiful moments for both dancers; Korean trained Rosa Park and Australian Timothy Coleman. Yet they never found each other’s soul while dancing so physically and intimately together. Park’s petite frame and wondrous precision remained aloof and isolated from Coleman’s expression that worked through his whole body. Caught in the cross fire of two shafts of light he writhed towards his lover, reaching out in melodramatic gestures while she remained contained within herself.

In one sense, “Bittersweet” was a fascinating clash of East/West sensibility and varying cultural approaches to theatrical expression. In another, the gala length choreography was simply too short to build a connection and instead focused on spectacle, such as a one arm lift that seemingly came from nowhere. Ultimately it was also a reflection on the direction and repertoire of the company; taking risks to expose heartfelt passions, or perform in a naturalistic dance theatre style choreography, is a missing aspect of their skill set and working with choreographers such as Wier may be a move in the right direction to push this side of the dancers and take them out of their comfort zones.

Stripe’s “Piano Concerto in F Major” was a treat in dance musicality as he captured the phrasing and essence of Dimitri Shostakovitch’s poetic score. The ensemble of seven female and six male dancers performed the intricate footwork, pirouettes and sustained partnering with professional flair; however the couples could have probed the nuances of the innovative pas de deux to give some contrast to the mood of the piece. This was left to the elfin frame of Chihiro Uchida whose airy ballon, precision and sheer exuberance in performing the complex steps in her solo was a highlight of the evening.

“The Winds of Zephyrus” by Edwaard Liang was the final work of the night and structurally echoed the first with ensemble dancing interspersed by partnering and a central duet. Although stylistically crafted, the choreography that evoked the wind from gentle breezes to a strong force restricted the dancers rather than set them metaphorically free. The constant manipulation of the women in the lifts that settled into off-centre held positions gave it tension rather than the flow the music and costumes demanded. Sandwiched between these pieces was a real gem.

Singapore Dance Theatre in 'Chant', choreography by Val Caniparoli.  Photo © MsBern Photography

Singapore Dance Theatre in ‘Chant’, choreography by Val Caniparoli.
Photo © MsBern Photography

“Chant” by Val Caniparoli is a contemporary masterpiece that sensitively reflects the global world we live in. As a commission for a company in Asia it is superb. The music of Lou Harrison, “Double Concerto for Violin and Cello with Javanese Gamelan” was referenced in the choreography through bent back wrists, elbows and ‘pan-Asian’ classical dance movement reminiscent of perhaps a Balinese legong pose or a Khmer hip lift by a dancer before moving into a new position. These beautiful, grounded moments were blended with soaring lifts that came to earth with the dancers folding their bodies together in angular, animalistic positions that were later contrasted by lines of men and women purposefully crossing the stage.

While “Chant” encompassed much of the vocabulary and structure of contemporary classical ballet it was distinctive, exuding a spiritual force that engaged the dancers and the audience. The metallic costumes and golden light added to this and the outdoor setting was compatible in a way that set it apart. In contrast to the other work in the programme it took a more egalitarian approach to the sexes with the women sometimes supporting the men and sharing the initiation in the duets. The structure built throughout so that the leitmotifs of repeated phrases amassed into a primal, ritualistic unity that echoed the strength of the music and resonated with the human spirit.

SDT’s second BUTS programme featured George Balanchine’s “Allegro Brillante” and “Theme and Variations”, Edwaard Liang’s “Opus 25”, and a repeat of Weir’s “Bittersweet”.