Stephanie Burridge

This month features the launch of a major dance performing arts archival initiative in Singapore; a glimpse of a serious emergent choreographic talent in Dapheny Chen for Re:Dance Theatre; and a Singapore world premiere for Thai dance choreographer Pichet Klunchun and his company.

  • Launch of “Work in Process – Documenting the Performing Arts in Singapore”
  • Re:Dance Theatre, “Co:Lab 2014” – “A Box Full of .This”; June 7, Goodman Arts Centre Black Box
  • Pichet Klunchun Dance Company (Thailand) – “Nay Nai: The Reality TV Show?” (A TheatreWorks Commission); June 18, TheatreWorks, 72-13 Mohamed Sultan Road
Janek Schergen, Artistic Director of Singapore Dance Theatre, in a dress rehearsal of 'The Nutcracker' in 2011 - one of the works featured in "Works in Process". Photo © Tan Ngiap Heng

Janek Schergen, Artistic Director of Singapore Dance Theatre, in a dress rehearsal of ‘The Nutcracker’ in 2011 – one of the works featured in Tan Ngiap Heng’s “Works in Process” collaboration with LASALLE College of the Arts.
Photo © Tan Ngiap Heng

“Work in Process” is a project to document the rehearsal process of performing arts groups in Singapore using photography, video and interviews. It was initiated by dance photographer Tan Ngiap Heng and is a collaboration with LASALLE College of the Arts. He tells me…

“I have been a photographer working for the performing arts in Singapore for over a decade. In 2011 I decided to start using photography to document rehearsals of performing arts productions. I have my own artistic practice as a photographer which has been influenced by the aesthetics and techniques found in theatre and dance productions. And as I delved deeper into my own process as an art maker, I was interested to observe and learn from the artistic process of my friends in the performing arts. And indeed, it has been enlightening to see how artists form their artistic goals, generate ideas and materials and then craft a theatre or dance piece. There has been a lot of insight into process as well as practical ways of collaboration. And of course there has been lots of inspiration watching other artists courageously tackle the challenge of creating wonderful art.

“The photographs that I took were of immediate use to the companies whose productions I documented. It became part of their archives and was used in their programme booklets and even mini exhibitions at the front of house. It became clear to me though that if the rehearsal images could sit in a public accessible archive, this could be a wonderful cultural resource and teaching aid. As a photographer, I also know the limitations of photography; it can be hard to understand without context. So in 2013, LASALLE College of the arts became my institutional partner in this project which we call “Work In Process”. The archive not only includes the images and videos taken from the rehearsals, we also have digital copies of collaterals and programme booklets. We have process notes from the rehearsals and we also conduct post production interviews with the director, a performer and another important creative for each production. We strive to make the archive a rich source of materials that would be useful to the performing arts or history researcher.”

One of the works featured is “The Nutcracker” that was performed by Singapore Dance Theatre at The Esplanade Theatre, December 2013. Staged and choreographed by SDT Artistic Director Janek Schergen, the ballet is set in pre WWI, turn of the century, Shanghai. The central characters remain unchanged and it includes the ubiquitous chorus of local children who delight in playing various parts.

There’s more about the project at

June 7. Ex Cloud Gate Dance Theatre dancer and now Artistic Director of Re:Dance Theatre, Albert Tiong, mentored founding member Dapheny Chen, for the company’s annual emerging choreographer’s platform, “Co:Lab 2014”. Chen proved to have a distinctive choreographic talent.

Collaborating with designer Tan Wee Gene, Chen’s full length work “A Box Full of .This” explored a pet peeve for Singaporeans – the squeeze for space. A new development on the Singapore skyline are architectural units known as ‘shoe box’ flats – a plus is a personal, private space, while the disadvantages are a claustrophobic atmosphere as the walls seem to be closing in.

Lim Ming Zhi, Seow Yi Qing in Dapheny Chen's 'A Box Full of .This' for ReDance Theatre.  Photo © Bernie Ng

Lim Ming Zhi, Seow Yi Qing in Dapheny Chen’s ‘A Box Full of .This’ for ReDance Theatre.
Photo © Bernie Ng

The use of a complex set design is rare in contemporary dance in Singapore, especially for young choreographers, and the collaboration opened up new physical and emotional possibilities for the collaborators and enabled them to create a work that thematically resonated with the local audience. The spatial configurations, changing patterns and placement of the dancers in the space were determined by moving panels that took up half the stage. This created many opportunities for innovative dance movement and layers of emotional complexity as the six female dancers respond to this ever changing structure. It created indoor and outdoor physical spaces juxtaposed with metaphoric internal and external binaries that were intricately explored.

Much of the movement conveyed the duality of being confined physically as well as emotionally through the prohibition of space. The performers danced within a small frame with fast, idiosyncratic moves that often became robotic and bridged the gap between contemporary and street dance. At other times there was stillness as a dancer sat in a window frame or watched voyeuristically on an outside bench while others revealed their inner selves. The subtle layering of the work was reflected in the unfolding panels of the architectural set as well as the layers of meaning in the choreography.

Founded in 2012, Re:Dance Theatre is relatively new in the local dance scene but are making their mark with  innovative, fast paced movement vocabulary and the use of local narratives as the basis of their work. They create through an organic process delving deep into the psyche exploring metaphors that resonate with their audience. It is recognized as a group with a distinctive vocabulary that is tight, well-disciplined and very current in terms of directions in contemporary dance. The group can dance cohesively in unison as well as perform individual sections with personal signatures. One weakness is the use of their voices that seems to be a feature of their work – a script writer and a voice coach would add to the overall performance quality.

Artistic Director Albert Tiong has supported this full length work by company artist Dapheny Chen through allowing her to take risks and realise her choreographic vision through investing in the set design, the creative process, and adequate rehearsal time for the dancers to sustain the choreographic concept.

June 18. Anything coming from Thailand at present is framed within some sort of political lens. When it begins with the text, “All the World’s a stage”, it becomes very interesting. The programme notes for Pichet Klunchun’s latest commission “Nay Nai”, asked us to read between the lines, and although the projected script quickly diverged from the well-known Shakespearean passage, the message about playing roles and acting out characters in our brief lives, before the inevitability of death, was clear.

Pichet Klunchun Dance Company in 'Nay Nai'.  Photo © Kong Chong Yew 1

Pichet Klunchun Dance Company in ‘Nay Nai’.
Photo © Kong Chong Yew 1

Seductive, yet poignant, jazz piano music started the piece. Nothing happened on stage except video projection until Klunchun’s cast of characters emerged – this included four male dancers and four transparent, digitally lit costume ‘characters’ on hangers that were to have essential roles in the performance. The dancers began with bonding games and charades with the costumes – pairs of suggestively erotic boots with neon lit laces, four pole dancing posts and various paraphernalia marked an arena where roles were to be played out in the spotlight.

Computer engineer Priyakorn Pusawiro gave the scene a certain ‘dance arcade’ decadence that came complete with neon detail on costumes, thumping music and strobe lighting at the start and end of the show, bookending it within the symbolism of the text.

After a loud blast of music the four dancers paraded their costumes around the stage before attaching them to ropes and hoisting them above the performing area. They hung above the performers throughout the show like the upper echelons of society looking down at those struggling to impress below. There was irony in two of the costumes that denoted garments for a general or a king, complete with neon lit epaulets and a plumed hat; and a pink frock with lit up beads, fit for a leading lady or a queen.

Known for his avant-garde and risky explorations into the contemporary Thai world via the Thai Khon dance language and royal court traditions, Pichet Klunchun Dance Company juxtaposes Nay Nai, inspired by a story from the Thai Royal Court during King Rama VI’s reign, with the concept of a TV game show format where contests live and play together but also compete. Nay Nai can be described as ‘gentlemen in waiting’, (supplanting Nang Nai, the previous generations of ladies in waiting), who aspired to be good looking, top athletes, scholars and soldiers. Essentially they embodied various attributes that pleased the King and in this aspect they had a certain status incurred through their closeness to the royal court; yet their lives were mundane involving endless training and moulding themselves to perfection as they awaited their destiny. Klunchun ponders not only this shift in the balance of power of the sexes, but the change in preparation for the role including plenty of machismo. It was intensely physical, funny yet bitter sweet in its distortion of reality.

Pichet Klunchun Dance Company in 'Nay Nai'.  Photo © Chong Yew

Pichet Klunchun Dance Company in ‘Nay Nai’.
Photo © Chong Yew

Much of this was shown through a series of increasingly exhausting wrestling matches where the four dancers flung themselves relentlessly together aiming to pin the other to the ground. Stripped to a pair of boxer shorts, they began with heaving boxing bags onto their shoulders, charging at each other, then placing these as ‘home bases’ that the athletes touched to begin the next pairing for battle. Each episode was preceded by vocalised humming sounds and watched voyeuristically by the others waiting their turn. Although these battles were absorbing and very much within the martial arts traditions of Thai theatre and dance, I felt the choreography needed to build from fragmented shows of strength to almost a dance that sustained rhythm and flow…although a couple of sequences hinted at this. Perhaps a more responsive audience would have laughed at some of the comic situations and applauded the victors of each bout egging the performers on to add to the drama.

Well into the choreography, a series of softer, feminine photographic poses struck another humorous chord as each dancer posed before others joined in the ‘frame’ to make an aesthetic picture echoing the western Victorian notions of tableaux vivant. Again, the observations of the other dancers as they circled the central figure, gave a sense of competitiveness as each aimed for the perfectly struck pose. The facial expressions and physicality of the dancers was palpable in this slower section where balance, control and simplicity were the focus.

A Thai karaoke number sent them into sections of Khon dance. It was a joy to watch the sculptured arcing of bent back fingers, upturned toes marking the floor and knees carefully lifted to an exact position. This mesmerising sequence continued until each dancer lowered his suspended costume and exited the stage making a pugnacious victory gesture indicating a job well done. Or perhaps there was some sort of enigmatic resolution that would seal their fate as they moved out of the light and the public space. Klunchun continued his Khon movement until finally coming to rest on a chair placed at the back of the stage to the strains of disco music with coloured lights and strobe. The other dancers grooved onto the stage to take their bows and join him behind the chair but he sat still, indomitably staring ahead; like a patriarch who has seen it all before.

Tantalising and teasing for the artists and the audience, the piece blurred masculine/feminine boundaries, expectations of the sexes, the roles we play as we aspire to our goals and ultimately the politics that dictates the possibilities of our lives. On stage, time was suspended; and as the dance theatre piece progressed we became immersed in a space where there seemed to be a circle of relentless, pointless activity lost in a time warp with no beginning or end. The elements that could perhaps conclude the journey were symbolically suspended above the dancers while the boots on the edge of the performance arena were decorative and not designed for running. In a highly provocative work that was multi-layered and cleverly abstracted, Klunchun re-created an eccentric scenario that was daunting through its revelation of situations and circumstances that are beyond our control. The sense of entrapment persisted despite watching the players emerge as good friends, yet competitors, from a series of games they could not seem to win. The single line, “All the World’s a stage” was the final projection – it left us wondering about the fate of the Nay Nai, and indeed their country.