Stephanie Burridge

Maya Dance Theatre and RAW Moves offered international choreographic platforms this month while Singapore Dance Theatre Artistic Director Janek Schergen restaged Petitpa’s “Sleeping Beauty”. I also visited Frontier Danceland to check out their progress with visiting Australia choreographers Gabrielle Nankivell and Luke Smiles for their show “SLIDES” in May. With the passing of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew it turned out to be a monumental month for Singapore – some shows were cancelled and others respected the event with a pre-show one minute of silence.

  • Singapore Dance Theatre in “Sleeping Beauty”
    Esplanade Theatre; March 12
  • Maya Dance Theatre: RELEASE 4.0
    10 Square @ Orchard Central; March 14
  • Frontier Danceland open rehearsal with visiting choreographers: Gabrielle Nankivell and Luke Smiles (Australia)
    Frontier Danceland studio, Goodman Arts Centre; March 24
  • RAW Moves: Repertory Platform (R.e.P) 2015
    Goodman Arts Centre, Black Box; March 26
Chihiro Uchida and Kenya Nakuma in Singapore Dance Theatre's 'Sleeping Beauty'.  Photo © Bernie Ng

Chihiro Uchida and Kenya Nakamura in SDT’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’.
Photo © Bernie Ng

A production of “Sleeping Beauty” tests the metal of any company. The notoriously difficult choreography requires a female technical wizard for the principal role of Aurora who can dance relentlessly through every Act and age from a 16-year old to a mature princess; a fleet-footed handsome prince; depth in the corps and sumptuous costumes and sets. It is one of the most democratic ballets of the classical canon with numerous minor roles where emerging stars can shine if they are willing to take risks and excel in solos and pas de deux such as The Blue Bird and The White Cat and Puss in Boots. There are also many small suites of dances to Tchaikovsky’s beautiful music that dictates the ebb and flow of scenes. SDT ticked boxes in many of these areas with a strikingly designed production that, despite a few opening night wobbles, was generally danced well by the company and superbly by the principals.

The grandeur of the Imperial French court that the original Petipa 1890 ballet paid homage to is established at the beginning as the royal ladies and gentlemen celebrate the birth of Princess Aurora. Chihiro Uchida is a petite ballerina with an impish persona that was well suited to a young Aurora in Act 1. With assured technique she tackled the demands of the Rose Adagio with aplomb as she received roses from her swains while having to balance on pointe.

Supervised by the Lilac Fairy (Li Jie), the scene moves into its final dramatic stages with the entrance of the wicked fairy Carabosse (Emma Hanley-Jones). Glamorous and powerful, Hanley-Jones swept aside everyone else on stage and delivered her poison to Aurora ensuring she would sleep for 100 years before being awoken by a kiss from a handsome prince. Li and Hanley-Jones were excellent counter-points both in their dance style and stature – one tall and forceful with extended fingers and large, assertive movements; the other persuasive through gentle gestures, and elegant lines in the passages of multiple pirouettes and leg extensions.

Li Jie (Lilac Fairy) and Kenya Nakuma with artists of Singapore Dance Theatre in 'Sleeping Beauty'.  Photo © Bernie Ng

Li Jie (Lilac Fairy) and Kenya with artists of Singapore Dance Theatre in ‘Sleeping Beauty’.
Photo © Bernie Ng

Act 2 is defined by the evocative drapes and scenic decor from designer Tracy Grant Lord. Tones of green and gold made a mysterious glade where Prince Florimund (Kenya Nakamura) and party are hunting with the local peasants and attendant nymphs clad in flowing dresses in the same hues and airy cloth as the set. This light, shimmering effect conceptually support the fairy-tale atmosphere and create a sense of traversing time and place. The Lilac Fairy, arriving on a glittering movable sled, dances with the group before delivering her important message for the Prince to accompany her back to Aurora’s castle.

Nakamura is a gifted dancer with long lines and a surprising ballon. His lightness, high jumps, crisp beats and pirouettes are matched by a charm that was a perfect foil for Uchida’s Aurora – they are an attractive partnership that continues to develop.

Act 3 is set back at the royal court for the Prince’s kiss, Aurora’s awakening and the various dance entertainments before the King and Queen who bless the young couples wedding. In the divertissements, Jason Carter gave Puss in Boots a bold, buccaneering twist but Akira Nakahama could have been more extravagant in her playful, teasing gestures as the White Cat. The Bluebirds and other roles were danced eloquently but overall the mood from the court on-lookers was serious rather than joyous and celebratory. The pas de deux of the protagonists are exhaustive in their technical requirements and Nakamura and Uchida were virtuosic and supported each other well as their partnership spiralled to its romantic conclusion.

The improbable tale of magic, curses, fairies, animals and humans interacting together was ripe for a more spirited performance. The SDT production relies heavily on the talents of the principals and incorporates a style of restrained dignity. Some wide-eyed wonder, wit, humour and facial expression from their fellow performers would have supported the numerous scenes and injected excitement. While “Sleeping Beauty” is obviously an archaic ballet, in the present time it can be fresh and fits well within the genre of romantic fairy-tale fantasy that is enjoying popularity, particularly in current films.

Maya Dance Theatre’s Artistic Director Kavitha Krishnan curated a showcase of nine choreographers from seven countries in the emerging artist’s series titled “RELEASE 4.0” – the fourth edition of this platform. This is the first time the company has had an ‘open call’ for choreographers and ended up with the final selection of Shahrin Johry, Bernice Lee, Sufri Juwahir (Singapore), Raymond Liew (Germany/Malaysia), Rayedem Roumimper (Indonesia), Gil Kerer (Israel), Sanchita Sharma (India) Jin Ju Song-Begin (S Korea/ USA) and Nadhirah Razid (Malaysia). In the series of sketches of ideas there were some fine performances and choreographic statements, thought provoking concepts and fun moments along with over-serious contemporary dance angst. The second half of the programme featured the strongest work.

Shahrin Johry, Star Guo, Pittaya Phaefuang-Sun, and Kenneth Tan in 'The Conference', choreography by Shahrin Johry.  Photo © Grisha Parikh

Shahrin Johry, Star Guo, Pittaya Phaefuang-Sun, and Kenneth Tan in ‘The Conference’, choreography by Shahrin Johry.
Photo © Grisha Parikh

MAYA company member Johry is emerging as a distinctive choreographic voice. His “The Conference” was a simple premise of a meeting whereby there are conflicting views yet a sharing of common space and time. Three men and a woman wore suits in an androgynous nod to the boardroom where power games are played out amidst the furniture of a central desk and moveable chairs. One of the most interesting aspects was the architectural manipulation of these objects in a way to reflect the mood of the moment and the process of decision making – often off-centre or precariously balanced. Johry is a compelling performer who is beginning to create his own symbolic gestures that are repeated in his choreography to create meaning – this piece could well be extended.

Co company dancer/choreographer Lee served up chaotic humour in “I am Unentitled”. As the dancers raced around the theatre speaking to the audience and performing silly antics on stage they revealed a canvas of emotions that enabled dual meanings; the piece was performer driven with great improvisation and verve from the cast. Both Song-Begin and Kerer showed their dance pedigrees in expressive solos. Jin’s homage to the Buddhist monk tradition of 108 bows was strongly articulated making use of repetition, control and stillness that eventually broke into a faster, relentless soliloquy. The accompanying live music created by Begin featured Tibetan singing bowls, gongs and a computer generated soundscape in response to the dancer’s movements made a reflective, powerful work.

“Dive” by Kerer was an intense, mature performance exploring the relationship between the inner and outer self through self-actualisation by touching parts of the body to abet a symbolic opening and closing of the persona in an introspective, yet revealing thesis on the body, mind, spirit symbiosis.

In the opening half Singaporean dancer and choreographer Juwahir performed with Hafeez Hassan to create the comedy of greed with reference to lowly, animalistic origins of man where we seek to accumulate as much as possible even if it is a pile of shoes that do not fit.

Choreographer and dancer Sherman (India) gave a committed performance in “Jwala” traversing between contemporary and Bharatanatyam style while show opener, “Madu” by Malaysian Razid looked at the complex issue of polygamy through a metaphor of balancing tea cups and observing social etiquette despite confused personal feelings about loyalty and jealousy– it was a well structured, elegant work. Similarly “The Benefit of Doubt” by ex-Pina Bausch dancer Liew explored gesture and internal rhythms in a poetic dance that ended with a song of the same title. “Blade” by Roumimper (Indonesia) featured fast, powerful moves but needed some light and shade to cut through the over literal, aggressive nature of the choreography.

Ultimately the diverse quality of dancers and choreographers, combined with so many pieces, diminished the artistic experience and the impact of the stronger works. The time limit was 10 minutes per choreographer and the new venue, albeit in the heart of Orchard Road, was small. In retrospect “RELEASE” would lend itself to a more intensely focused creative experience of around five selected pieces that were deeply thought through and rehearsed to a higher level.

(l-r) Adele Goh, Gabrielle Nankivell, Hwa Wei-An in rehearsal at Frontier Danceland.  Photo © Frontier Danceland

(l-r) Adele Goh, Gabrielle Nankivell, Hwa Wei-An in rehearsal at Frontier Danceland.
Photo © Frontier Danceland

Frontier Danceland is fortunate to have secured a couple of Australia’s premier choreographers as resident artists. Gabrielle Nankivell and Luke Smiles were in town to make a work for the “SLIDES” season, May 15 and 16 at Esplanade Studio Theatre. Both have performed extensively in Australia and abroad and are known for diverse, interdisciplinary dance making. Smiles is a prolific creator known his free flowing, almost eccentric and malleable dance style combined with skills in sound, lighting and costume design and Nankivell is the recipient of the inaugural Keith Bain Choreographic Travel Fellowship (2014) – both have worked together over many years and bring experience and innovation to the Frontier dancers.

The Singapore piece sees them collaborate though a series of tasks that emerge from an intense data collection process that notes times that dancers do things from morning to night and transpose these notations into sections of dance and a devised sound score. While thematically motivated the sparse blocks of movement are intensified through repetition, change of pace and patterning by the dancers – there was a breakaway section for a playful duet observed by the other dancers twiddling their thumbs, for instance. Sections titled ‘head banging’ and ‘holding pattern’ are tried out during the open rehearsal as the dancers adjusted to the process of experiencing the soundscape for the first time, then trying it again to something new. These unpredictable interconnections will mesh as the work evolves and decisions are made; as an open rehearsal it was a treat to see the spontaneity of the process.

Kong Weijie, Lai Weivien, Neo Hong Chin, Germaine Cheng in 'Floating Box'.  Photo © Bernie Ng, MsBern Photography

Kong Weijie, Lai Weivien, Neo Hong Chin, Germaine Cheng in ‘Floating Box’.
Photo © Bernie Ng, MsBern Photography

RAW Moves Repertory Platform (R.e.P) 2015 began with Taiwanese choreographer Chang Chien Hao’s “Floating Box”. Through a series of tableau the five dancers transitioned places while they explored changing configurations around the space. The processes of contact improvisation, gentle nudgings of body parts that resolved into lifts and connected rolls underpinned the choreography. It seemed to work in a loop that could have been entered at any point. However, while it was tightly performed by the company once the pattern was established it rolled on predictably and some sparks of variation might have added interest; there simply wasn’t enough emotional substance to drive the idea of shifting patterns of places and strangers where interactions are forced through often unsought encounters. Despite an opportunity to see some engaging dance passages of fluidity and complexity that demonstrated the developing skills of the company, the visceral experience was pleasant rather than provocative.

Ebelle Chong’s “SSLD:7” created a surreal world where the utilitarian action of baking was juxtaposed with an ephemeral trio that seemed to be spiritually lost – seeking meaning through their clothes and occupying a bizarre world where they inhabited small spaces, sought friendship and purpose amid the paranoia of alienation. While a dancer cooked a cake on stage and the smell wafted through the audience, three hipster performers were engaged in slow motion manoeuvres around the space before coming to rest in a series of postures – the title referred to the human body standing, sitting and lying down while the ‘7’reflected the choreographer’s seven year stint as a homemaker. The scene was like looking through a window at neighbours you didn’t know, or have any connection to, yet you shared a common location (and the cooking smells).

“SSLD:7” was episodic with filmic glimpses of people caught up in their lives foregoing communication and openness – the protagonists were involved in small tasks like timing the baking, checking the smart phone and progressing interminably through what seemed a journey to nowhere in particular. At one point the dancer left her kitchen to place a stocking over the head of one of the trio and manipulated her like a puppet , or a mother holding onto a symbolic umbilical cord – this echoed the end when the same prop was used like a conductor trying to control the movements of the other players. Eventually the lights simply faded on a strong work grappling with points of interconnection for the performers and audience.

The season was strikingly lit by James Tan who created atmospheres that thematically revolved around explorations of both interior and external landscapes. The dancers captured some of this but often appeared unsure of how far they might push boundaries and really ‘live’ the choreography. For a young company, it takes time to establish a clear direction and signature that enables them to take ownership of the work– similarly the choreographers need to ensure their intentions are clear and allow the dancer’s individual voices to emerge.