Stephanie Burridge

This month Frontier Danceland’s annual season Sides featured choreography from a residency by Gabrielle Nankivell and Luke Smiles from Australia. T.H.E (The Human Expression) presented a restaging of Silences We Are Familiar With while balletomanes embraced the wonderful performance of Le Corsaire by English National Ballet. I also take note of a very special production next month, Fête Royale by Doulce Mémoire (France).

  • Frontier Danceland’s SIDES 2015
    May 15; Esplanade Theatre Studio
  • English National Ballet in Le Corsaire
    May 16(m); Esplanade Theatre
  • Silences We Are Familiar With by T.H.E Company
    May 28; SOTA Drama Theatre
  • Preview of Fête Royale by Doulce Mémoire (France)
    June 6; Victoria Theatre
Gabrielle Nankivell and Luke Smiles' Order Of Things for Frontier Danceland's SIDES 2015.  Photo Justin Koh.

Gabrielle Nankivell and Luke Smiles’ Order Of Things for Frontier Danceland’s SIDES 2015
Photo Justin Koh.

Quirky, engaging and physically adept, Frontier Danceland has evolved into a group of expressive individuals that combine as a tight knit team. Although contemporary movement is their base, different genres like hip hop, ballet and influences from the East and the West converge into a coherent, yet complex synergy when they perform.

Company dancer Christina Chan’s organically fluid Between has been restaged on a couple of previous occasions – this time tweaking the original piece and construction of three dancers to six incorporating their individual styles and personalities. These qualities came to the fore in the collective work The Rose and the Rhino. Democratic and experimental, it takes a fairly madcap, surrealist approach where anything is up for the spotlight. Inevitably in this process there is a need for reflection to avoid indulgence. Artistically the highpoints are the in sync rhythmic passages that give it a tribal feel as if the dancers are journeying towards a common goal that is interspersed by some crazy moments along the way. As a collaborative exposé it is aesthetically a hit and miss offering, but with such a suggestive title the company could revisit it to gel the overall concept and hone the many disparate, yet rich ideas.

Order of Things by Gabrielle Nankivell and Luke Smiles (Australia) explores new creative territory with the company in a sophisticated, erudite work that challenges the performers physically and emotionally. Taking a time capsule concept, it includes a projection with a countdown clock, and some trivia and factual data about the performers that seeks to juxtapose the ordinary against a wider universal frame of time, space and infinite possibility. In this sense the opening scenes of pedestrian walking that stopped at strategic places on the data ‘map’ mirrored the information on the projections, but the choreography soon moves into the realm of metaphor, innuendo and intense portraiture where individual frailties and larger human concerns are enacted.

As the clock ticks dancers grapple for meaning – a couple twine around each other in an awkward duet that might be about love but as ankles lock around necks, stomachs are pushed again other body parts and the dancers turn upside down it rather speaks of desperation, yet tenderness. Details such as switching the floor surface to white and using a clinically grey rear projection not only open the space to a wider lens but make the arena for the various interactions less personal and exposed.

Throughout, the dancers form into groups that solidify the sense of real time and purpose from which others break away. The choreography fluidly traverses these different structures of diverse realities. The tension of the clock ticking down holds a duel interest for the audience; rarely do we have the chance to clearly anticipate an end time and wonder what will come next before the inevitable darkness of lights out. Order of Things certainly asks questions about the selected time frame for a choreographic work – what the artists choose to say and what is left unsaid.

English National Ballet in Le Corsaire Photo ASH

English National Ballet in Le Corsaire
Photo ASH

The depth and calibre of the artists of English National Ballet emerged in Le Corsaire and it was exciting to watch the complex virtuosity and interpretation from the whole cast.

The ballet appears to be made for the company, echoing as it does many of the dancers’ own dance journeys as the story is one of traversing geographic zones (in the case of the ballet, reflecting the expansionism of the Ottoman Empire). Whether it was in the portrayal of a sensuous odalisque, challenging an opponent through choreographed sword play or through adding that extra twist in a leap before opening the legs to an extended split before landing, the dancers oozed artistry and charisma.

Resplendent with opulence and redolent with the romance of the 19th-century fascination with the Orient, the ballet is inspired by an 1814 poem by Lord Byron while up to nine composers contributed to the score played expertly by local orchestra, Singapore Lyric Opera.

An essential aspect is the athleticism of the several male leads that take us through the flimsy plot. Rather like the film Pirates of the Caribbean, or a tribe of lost boys, the sheer joy and exuberance they bring to the fighting scenes, passionate love duets and comical trickery are endearing traits of the ballet. The pirate hero Conrad, (Junor Souza) and his deputy Birbanto, (Max Westwell) were matched in aerial skills by the slave trader Lankendem (Fernando Bufala). Amid this the Olympian proportioned character artist Michael Coleman, as the portly Pasha, was a counterpoint playing the role with a comical twist involving much teasing, slap-stick and situation gags with the main characters.

The slave girls are not to be left out of this scenario of accolades. Draped in splendid robes of gold, heavy brocade and clusters of jewels sourced from countries like India, Pakistan and Uzbekistan, they sat about the set in languid poses while principals Erina Takahashi as Medora and the lithe, sensuous and athletically graceful Ksenia Ovsyanick as Gulnare, showed their flawless prowess in split jeté sequences, multiple fouetté en tournant combinations and pirouettes around the stage.

Le Jardin Animée 'Dream ballet' from Act III of Le Corsaire Photo ASH

Le Jardin Animée ‘Dream ballet’ from Act III of Le Corsaire
Photo ASH

Act I is set in the bazaar. The focus is on Lankendem and the slaves he is trying to sell to the Pasha. The narrative moves from the arrival of Conrad and the pirates, dances for the slave girls, to a delicate solo from Ovsyanick and a flirtatious, capricious one by Takahashi who fluctuated between swooning at Conrad and teasing the Pasha. A highlight was the airborne leaps and turns from Bufala as Lankendem.

In the pirate cave and den of treasures, Takahashi and Jinhao Zhang (as faithful slave Ali) performed the iconic classic ballet gala spectacular with virtuosity and bravura. In the danced fight between Conrad and Birbanto (after Medora has begged the besotted Conrad to free the captured slave girls), Souza and Westwell pushed the boundaries of the male classical canon with the height and complexity of their sequences of leaps. The love duet from Takahashi and Souza after Birbanto plots to kill Conrad with a poisoned rose unwittingly given to him by Medora had great beauty combining nuanced sensuality with innovative lifts and falls as the lovers confirm their passion.

The Act III “Dream ballet” gave the women the opportunity to perform in perfect sync while the rapacious Pasha drifted off to sleep while smoking a hookah pipe. The ballet is bookended with an image of a floundering ship in a storm reminiscent of thematic depictions by French romantic painter Eugène Delacroix. The pirate’s boat is shipwreck during the storm but miraculously Medora and Conrad find each other as calm waters prevail and they pledge their eternal love.Throughout, the sets and costumes by Bob Ringwood (designer for Batman, Alien 3, Star Trek Nemesis, A.I. and Troy ) place us at the heart of the opulence of Ottoman architectural style complete with latticed arched panelling and onion shaped ceilings.English National Ballet’s Le Corsaire is a production of pure class and quality entertainment. It was an awe inspiring example of what ballet can achieve in the present moment where diverse trainings, cultural backgrounds and soaring athleticism across genders can breathe new life into the time-worn classics.

(l-r) Evelyn Toh, Lee Mun Wai, Anthea Seah (behind) Chung Nguyen, Zhuo Zihao, Wu Mi, Kei Ushiroda in Silences We Are Familiar With 2015.  Photo Bernie Ng

(l-r) Evelyn Toh, Lee Mun Wai, Anthea Seah (behind) Chung Nguyen, Zhuo Zihao, Wu Mi,
Kei Ushiroda in Silences We Are Familiar With 2015
Photo Bernie Ng

When I saw the premiere of Kuik Swee Boon’s Silences We Are Familiar With for T.H.E (The Human Expression) at the Esplanade in 2012, what stayed in my mind was the passion of musician Bani Haykal whose intimate poetry, frenzied electric guitar playing, percussion and ear splitting synthesised score drove the dancers forward. It had a subversive underbelly that supported their quest for love in an increasingly fragmented world.

In contrast to the 2012 performance where he was on stage, this time he works in a spot light one side of the orchestra pit… “How can I bring me to you?” …he asks. This opening question was re-interpreted this season beginning with the dancers racing diagonally across the stage, circling the space at break-neck speed and generally avoiding a central spotlight that evolved into a space for reflection.

Perhaps denoting the concept that love is beyond reason and logic there was a lot of chaos in the choreography; clothes and shoes came on and off; bodies scattered; sometimes disappearing off stage into the orchestra pit and there were manic moments focusing on gestures about empty hands and perhaps hearts. Yet what was touching about this piece that fluctuated between feelings of desolation, loneliness, joy and hope was the empathy of coming together in various ways –it was not always astonishingly romantic or sublime, but often simply companionable and caring.

A lyrical duet between Lee Mun Wai and Evelyn Toh stood out as they intertwined yet appeared to float back and forth from a central point – this was achieved through a series of lifts with bodies parallel to the floor, sustained and suspended in time. Another saw two dancers staying close to each other, caring and helping one another though a slow progression reminiscent of an old couple. These episodes were always juxtaposed against a voyeuristic image of someone watching from the outside surmising that ultimately we generally seem to look out for each other.

Doulce Mémoire (France) in Fête Royale.  Photo Laurent Geneix

Doulce Mémoire (France) in Fête Royale
Photo Laurent Geneix

Zhuo Zihao could be the id of Haykal’s ego. Like an MC he was often an initiator, an observer, a catalyst to the action reflecting the poetic lyrics or urgency of the instruments. Always a compelling dancer and eccentric performer, his role enabled a space, or silence, between the arenas of movement and sound. Rather than synergy, there was friction and a fracturing of emotional space in Silences. In the final scenes the dancers stretch red cords across the space into a web, diagonally high to low, metaphorically representing familial bloodlines, connections and the ties that irrevocably bind us.

As part of VIOLAH! French Festival, next month renowned French company Doulce Mémoire bring the Renaissance court to Singapore in their latest production, Fête Royale. Imagine Leonardo de Vinci and Michelangelo enjoying a visual spectacle of bawdy ballads segueing into celebratory, joyful music and court dancers. Celebrating the 500th anniversary of French King Françios I, the team of musicians, acrobats and dancers present the age of discovery, the quest for adventure, voyages to the unknown in an innovative show with some surprises. Expect authenticity, rich costumes and exceptional performances in this special production next month. As the eleventh-century poet Bérenger de Tours wrote: “Everything in the universe dances.”