Stephanie Burridge

Both local and international offerings from Renaissance Basse danses, to Singapore Dance Theatre’s iconic outdoor dance performance picnic Ballet Under the Stars (BUTS) and the da:ns festival 2015’s Festival Commission and Residency preview are featured in this month’s “Scene”.

  • Fête Royal by Doulce Mémoire (France)
    Victoria Theatre; June 6
  • Preview da:ns festival 2015
    Festival commissions and residency programmes, Esplanade Theatre studio; June 10
  • Ballet Under the Stars by Singapore Dance Theatre
    Double Contrasts (Goh Choo San); Rubies (George Balanchine); Lambarena (Val Caniparoli)
    Fort Canning Green; June 13
Doulce Mémoire (France) in Fête Royale Photo Laurent Geneix

Doulce Mémoire (France) in Fête Royale
Photo Laurent Geneix

Fête Royal by Doulce Mémoire (France), created by Denis Raisin Dadre, musical and artistic director, with choreography by Hubert Hazebroucq, was an absorbing production. The magnificence, a refined tableaux vivants, not only gave an expression of Renaissance French life but also a reinforcement of the belief in the harmony between earthly concerns and the cosmos. The setting was the court of King François I, an excellent dancer and supporter of the arts.

As they sprang off their toes (rather than initiating the jumps from a deep plié), the dancers gave a glimpse of the origins of classical ballet and the codified forms that came later in our dance history. Although the women were shrouded in heavy, ankle length skirts, it was the age of men in tights – the elegance of the postures and extended positions below the knee of aesthetic importance. Keeping an upright stance, they incorporated turned out positions for the phrases of complex small steps. While the emphasis was on grace and poise, there were also some skittish, incongruous jumps and combinations.

This choreographic diversity was also reflected in the musical structures and meter of this period, underpinning a gamut of creative possibilities within the ten ‘tableaux’ of the ninety minute programme. Patterns of couples moving in and out of a central point, circling and changing partners typified the period where the French royal court dancers were restricted by heavy cloaks, enormous puffed sleeves, head pieces and chest ornaments which required the head and torso to remain static while the arms were held in decorative, simple poses. Both men and women danced with decorum, delicately touching hands and bowing; however sometimes there were suggestive innuendos which elevated the dance from a demonstration of a period form into rousing entertainment and enjoyment for the audience. Something the company could have exploited further in their interpretation of these not only historic, but intentionally sexualised dancers.

Equally impressive were the musicians playing on period instruments that were as intriguing in shape as they were in sound – shawns, dulcinas, recorders, a lute and Renaissance drums. The meter-changing melodies were rhythmically challenging for the athletic dancers who often jumped off the beat and mid phrase with nimbleness and energy.

Amidst the dancing, a thin narrative led from one scene to the next. Adhering to the magnificence tableux frame convention, each scene was dictated by the drawing of a card – rather like a tarot card with an image that denoted the plot for the next section. There were love, battle and death dances along with scenes depicting allegories such as “The Harmony of the Spheres”. Unfortunately no French translation was provided for lyrics that appeared to be explicit and comical, with titles of the tableaux such as “Mad Dance”, and “Rustic Dance” featuring ‘ludicrous dances and songs’ tantalising the audience and giving us a taste of the bawdy, playful side of the period.

Above 40, created and performed by Kuik Swee Boon, Jeffrey Tan, Albert Tiong and Silvia Yong Photo Bernie Ng

Above 40, created and performed by Kuik Swee Boon, Jeffrey Tan, Albert Tiong and Silvia Yong
Photo Bernie Ng

It was an important and rare performance. The choreography was painstakingly constructed from a combination of observations from paintings of the Renaissance period, accounts in books ranging from plays to dance histories. One quibble would be that the company prized research and authenticity over entertainment and performance. Letting go to bring the joy of celebration to the re-enactment of the court of French King François I would have lifted it to an ecstatic level.

A centre piece in the Singapore dance calendar is the annual da:ns festival presented and curated by Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay. Not only does it bring in an array of acclaimed international talent, emerging artists and give space to a wide range or participatory opportunities, it has become an important platform for commissioned works and residency programmes. Although the festival will run October 9-18, some commissions and residency programmes are well in place. TOROBAKA (2014) created by Akram Khan (UK) and Israel Galván (Spain) is co-produced by the Esplanade and while the acclaimed production that sees Kathak and Flamenco face off has already toured internationally from the UK, it will be performed in Singapore for the first time this year as part of the festival.

Following trends around the world, Esplanade programmer Faith Tan has commissioned Above 40 from four of Singapore’s pillars of choreography and performance; Kuik Swee Boon, Jeffrey Tan, Albert Tiong and Silvia Yong. Although young (in terms of the growing number of examples of senior artists who are returning to the stage to perform, most recently 100 year old Australian Eileen Kramer), this quartet has been directing and creating rather than performing in recent years. Taking risks to reinvent the artist within is challenging but rewarding if new directions can be forged and innovation can rise above the individual personalities. Kuik Swee Boon’s company T.H.E in collaboration with Kim Jae Duk will also be exploring backstage site-specific spaces in another commission, Impulse.

SoftMachine, created by Choy Ka Fai  Dancers: Xiao Ke and Zi Han  Photo Courtesy Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay

SoftMachine, created by Choy Ka Fai
Dancers: Xiao Ke and Zi Han
Photo Courtesy Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay

Choy Ka Fai’s SoftMachine project has been gently brewing over the past two years. In his quest to discover the roots and truth of Asian dance, he has travelled extensively in India, Indonesia, Japan and China to research, photograph and interview luminaries about their work and practice. The resulting archive of regional artists has worked as an invaluable standalone exhibition with text and evocative black and white images of 80 artists, displayed in the Esplanade concourse last year. Returning to Singapore to ‘activate’ the voices through a choreographic project with selected artists from the countries; Choy plans to make an on-stage production incorporating the projected images and his research.

In the form of a live documentary, SoftMachine incorporates four portraits of the personal journeys of Asian dance makers Rianto (Indonesia), Surjit Nongmeikapam (India), Yuya Tsukahara from Contact Gonzo (Japan), Xiao Ke and Zi Han (China). The juxtaposition of the still images, voices and contextualised worlds of the projected dancers against live invocations of the essence of these artists’ journeys is a concept that not only layers the aesthetic experience but foregrounds the evolution in contemporary expression across this broad region. The media preview saw exploration, humour and self depreciation as the dancers clashed both physically and culturally on some key points.

Luckily I caught Singapore Dance Theatre’s ‘contemporary’ programme of Ballet Under the Stars on the second night avoiding the downpour of the first. Goh Choo San’s Double Contrasts suits the company and appears to be made for their versatility and neo classical style. The piece is somewhat calculating, pitting the white clad dancers representing a purity of style and innocent emotion against the black clad group that exudes sophisticated elegance. Led by Rosa Park, the black group captured the nuances of the complex piano scores with a mix of turned in and out poses that interestingly echoed the next work, Rubies, by Balanchine. Chihiro Uchida and Etienne Ferrère were a cohesive partnership portraying the youthful exuberance of the white group with fluid lifts, clean lines and crisp footwork. Goh Choo San created works that suited the Asian body. He incorporated an emphasis on small gestures for the hands and feet, fluidity and speed rather than the Balanchine style where elongated positions, long limbs and high lifts predominate.

Singapore Dance Theatre in George Balanchine's Rubies Photo Bernie Ng

Singapore Dance Theatre in George Balanchine’s Rubies
Photo Bernie Ng

As an opening piece that segued into the more complex patterning and precision of the Balanchine, Rubies worked well; however much more was demanded of the dancers to pull off this extraordinary work. Resplendent in audacious red, the ballet exemplifies the brashness of the jazz age and is a celebration of American Broadway and theatricality.

Part of Balanchine’s Jewels, it is set to Stravinsky’s “Rubies: Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra” (1929). As with all of Stravinsky’s music, it challenges the dancers to capture the essence of the quixotic changes of meter, rhythm and tone. Balanchine pays homage to American sass with hip thrusts, turned up wrists, flexed feet and typical interlacing of legs and groupings. Anchored by the partnership of Uchida and Ferrère, who captured the spirit of the choreography with a light touch and fun approach, SDT generally struggled with the complexity and feel of the piece. Li Jie was well suited to the style with a taller frame and high leg extensions that she used as a counterpoint to the duet. Her dancing instilled some much needed verve and personality into the piece but she could have pushed this further.

I have watched SDT perform Val Caniparoli’s Lambarena many times and am always attracted to the witty mix of ballet movement with the African essence of the choreography. Colourful full skirts swirl as bodies pulse out the African beats of the music. Women on pointe at times sit oddly with earthy hip thrusts and pulsing bodies in deep pliés. Yet it works in harmony with music that mixes African traditional music with Bach. The pulsing beat is contagious and requires the dancers to be earthier and enjoy the grounded qualities of this work which contrasts with the airy, lighter moments. A highlight was the solo towards the end where Chihiro Uchida seems airborne, executing tiny jumps and rapid footwork, moving in and out of parallel curved positions to extended arabesques and small, darting phrases. It was a prelude for the ending with a joyous dance by the whole company.

SDT is a talented ensemble whose versatility allows them to transit a wide range of classical, neo-classic and contemporary repertoire. The group hails from many countries, individual in style and personality, and the programme for BUTS exploited this with well chosen roles for the dancers across the repertoire. The company technique has lifted dramatically in recent years but transmitting the soul of the choreography across the footlights can be pushed much further. Under the starry sky on a balmy night, it was time for them to let loose, enjoy the dancing and engage the audience in the spirit of the dance.