Stephanie Burridge

  • Stuttgart Ballet in John Cranko’s “Onegin”
    Esplanade Theatre, November 1
  • “Transporting Rituals” by Chey Chankethya, AMRITA Performing Arts (Cambodia) and Blake Shaw of SWEATSHOPPE (United States/Germany)
    ArtsScience Museum at Marina Bay Sands, November 20
  • M1 Contemporary Dance Festival (T.H.E Dance Company)
    Various venues, November 23-December 13
  • “The Blind Age” by Raka Maitra for Chowk Productions
    Esplanade Theatre Studio, November 30

The superb and varied dance scene in Singapore meant audiences had to make some serious choices this month. Classical ballet lovers were in no doubt about how to start their November with the world famous Stuttgart Ballet in town to perform “Onegin as part of the Esplanade’s “da:ns Series”. I caught up with the new Artistic Director of the ground-breaking Amrita Performing Arts, Cambodia, Chey Chankethya in a show at the ArtsScience Museum at Marina Bay Sands and there is a ‘heads up’ on the M1 Contemporary Dance Festival presented by T.H.E Dance Company. Finally I review local company Chowk in a new piece, “The Blind Age” as part of the Esplanade’s Indian Festival of Arts, “Kalaa Utsavam”.

Friedemann Vogel as Onegin and Alicia Amatriain as Tatiana in John Cranko's 'Onegin'. Photo © Roman Novitzky 2 - Copy

Friedemann Vogel as Onegin and Alicia Amatriain as Tatiana in John Cranko’s ‘Onegin’.
Photo © Roman Novitzky

The magic of John Cranko’s choreography lies in his ability to genuinely evoke the impossible passion of unrequited love. We see it in the balcony scene of his “Romeo and Juliet” and in “Onegin”, which soars as we follow our heroine Tatiana as she crosses the threshold from adolescence to a young woman and finally a mature, sophisticated royal princess. Cranko does this through a series of moments that are breathtaking in their virtuosity, heart-wrenching in their emotion and innovative in the complex choreography that never loses sight of the dramatic intention. Despite Alexander Pushkin’s simple narrative that follows a couple’s journey of missed opportunities, imperfect timing and out of sync romance spanning a decade or more, Cranko and the Stuttgart Ballet dancers manage to portray a great, unimaginable love that resonates with the feeling that it could happen to any of us. It is spell-binding stuff that the Stuttgart embodies through its use of high drama, peerless technique and pure risk in letting everything go on stage in the name of high art.

Friedemann Vogel as Onegin and Alicia Amatriain as Tatiana.  Photo © Roman Novitzky

Friedemann Vogel as Onegin and Alicia Amatriain as Tatiana.
Photo © Roman Novitzky

Tatiana’s country girl infatuation with city dweller Onegin is the first major pas de deux in the ballet. She imagines his reflection in her bedroom mirror and dances with him. In a preceding scene with some by-play between the couple in Madame Larina’s garden, Tatiana imagines all the grandeur of life in St Petersburg with a man she creates as a paragon in her mind. In expressing these early stages of romance there is innovation in the genre with off centre partnering, use of the centre of the body with the back releasing out of pirouettes, leaps ending with jazz influenced knee turns and a signal to trends in musical theatre where the dance progresses the plot rather than simply reflects it. During a Cranko pas de deux decisions are made and the next direction indicated. In this instance Tatiana decides to write her imaginary lover a letter expressing her ardour for him. Next time they meet at her birthday party he rips it up in front of her leaving her inconsolable.

As a subset to this theme her sister Olga, fiancéed to Lenski, flirts outrageously with the cynical, bored Onegin; Lenski’s best friend. A duel ensues and he is killed by Onegin who then flees. This is another highly romantic twist to the tale and is close to Pushkin’s heart. Apparently he was a master at this means of conflict resolution, popular during the Romantic era, reportedly fighting twenty nine duels. This episode gives insight into the coldness of Onegin’s character and is a turning point in our view of him. Many years later Tatiana is married to Prince Gremin and hosting a ball amongst the decadent splendour of Imperial St Petersburg. Onegin, after travelling extensively abroad, enters and is captivated by her mature elegance and beauty. Attempting to woo her away from her husband he writes her a letter. While the plot mirrors the first pas de deux this final, tragic chapter resolves the situation between the two protagonists. Probably the most dramatic and moving duet in the classical canon their journey through life is encapsulated in a moving treatise to lost opportunities, pride, prejudice and finally despair. Tatiana was superbly portrayed by Alicia Amatriain who finds the strength to reject her suitor while Onegin, danced with complex emotional verve by Friedemann Vogel, is rejected.

The story unfolds within the stratified expectations, social norms and constraints of Imperial Russia where class divisions and demarcations across family lines were enshrined. In one sense the plot is a simple character study about unrequited love, yet on another level it evokes a microcosm of life in Russia at a time when social restrictions and limits to personal freedom were complex and had consequences. It is often these juxtapositions that create the drama and are brilliantly exploited by the choreographer and the performers. The Stuttgart Ballet deserve all the accolades for one of the greatest ballet companies in the world today but more than that, they make ballet a human experience, beyond fairytales, that can resonate across history, time, geographical and cultural borders.

Chey Chankethya in 'Transporting Rituals'.  Photo © Vanini Belarmino

Chey Chankethya in ‘Transporting Rituals’.
Photo © Vanini Belarmino

Cambodian dancer Chey Chankethya acknowledged her Khmer classical dance heritage with a salutation at the start of “Transporting Rituals”, a performance with Berlin-based new-media artist Blake Shaw. As a traditional Cambodian song rang out in the vast space of the lotus-shaped ArtsScience museum, her collaborator was represented by some strategically placed cameras and a sound/light console. It looked as though traditional dance and technology might be on a collision course; however the two pulled the theme together in a creative exploration of time and place.

Much of the imagery that is projected onto the dancer’s body is, like the dance, smooth and sensual involving the deconstruction and fragmentation of parts of the body and extensive patterns of lines that seem to emanate from within the dancer. Some of this was like a showcase of new media possibilities and the audience was left to make their own connections between the graphic lines, fragmented hands and the ‘live’ dancer. Chey Chankethya is an extraordinary mover who embodies her tradition with the classically upturned fingers, toes and effortless Apsara poses with the knee bent back behind the dancer, but she is equally at home with the flow of contemporary movement or the thrust and street-vibe of hip-hop. This conglomerate is the path she synergises in her journey while the technology seems to react and respond.

A haunting image is the use of an ingenious process known as ‘video painting’ whereby a series of photographs of the dancer at home in Cambodia are pulled away by a paint-like roller revealing layers of pictures beneath that aesthetically and symbolically place the performance and re-affirm the notion of ‘transporting rituals’. The location may change and inspire new movement but the roots are firmly grounded – this comes through in this short, creative development by the two artists who come from worlds that are widely divergent. This disparity predominates as the two artists strive for a flow of connections and to find some common ground – the journey thus far is absorbing. Initiating such meeting points is the rationale for a series of multidisciplinary arts events that embrace the philosophy of the ArtsScience museum.

Jessica Christina in 'Noted with Thanks'.  Photo © Bernie Ng

Jessica Christina in ‘Noted with Thanks’.
Photo © Bernie Ng

The annual contemporary dance festival presented by T.H.E Dance Company is now in its fifth edition. Newly branded as the M1 Contemporary Dance Festival it includes three weeks of performances, workshops and master classes at three venues by not only Asian artists but this time, visitors from Spain and Israel.

Four of Singapore’s most seasoned contemporary dance performers, Yarra Ileto (T.H.E Dance Company). Jessica Christina (formerly T.H.E), Sheriden Newman (Maya Dance Theatre), and Wang Wei Wei (formerly of Arts Fission Company) opened the festival November 27 with their much anticipated collaborative work, “Noted with Thanks”, about identity, being foreigners working in Singapore, and their thoughts and feelings about staying or leaving.

Running to December 13, other festival highlights include the première of a new full-length work jointly choreographed by Artistic Director Kuik Swee Boon and resident choreographer Kim Jae Duk titled “Organised Chaos”. Other showcase performances include “AFX Asian Festival Exchange”, “M1 Open Stage” for emerging artists and the “International Artists Festival Finale” at the Esplanade Theatre Studio. Featuring Israel-born, Madrid-based Sharon Fridman, who has danced for Israel’s Ido Tamor Dance Company and Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company, Japan’s Shintaro Oue, formerly of Nederlands Dans Theater II and Cullberg Ballet and Tung I-Fen (Dance Forum Taipei), it should be a stunning finale for the festival that is an insightful initiative and a dance gem in the regional dance calendar.

Chowk Productions in 'The Blind Age'.  Photo © Bernie Ng

Chowk Productions in ‘The Blind Age’.
Photo © Bernie Ng

Inspired by the 1954 verse play written in Hindi by renowned novelist, poet, and playwright Dharamvir Bharati, “The Blind Age” by Chowk Productions delves into the detritus of war. Human suffering, desecration of life, place and history along with the moral and ethical values that hold cultures and societies together are explored through startling imagery and poignant expression. Starkly resonating with our current times, the original play looks back to the last days of the great Kurukshetra war. The work reflects on the dehumanising of man through policies of aggression and acts of violence that leave people bereft on both sides and expose a dark space inhabited by grieving mothers, disorientated soldiers and lost souls. This state of limbo is encapsulated in the title and Raka Maitra, with co-director T. Sasitharan bring this to the stage in a work that is powerful and metaphoric. Incorporating metallic installations by Khairuddin Hori and live music from local composer/performer Bani Haykal and Rajasthani folk musicians the performance looks for answers, asks for justice and peace through the solace of the indomitable human spirit in order to rise above the chaos.

Maitra continues her journey into contemporising the classical Odissi dance form through meticulous deconstruction to create an amalgam of movement. The content of her body of work is commonly a juxtaposition of text that is of its time but resonates with current issues and concerns. This ambitious production that was beautifully lit and staged intertwining dance and theatre; however the dance was strangely muted and diminished in the direction that focused on the actors and an over literal translation of the text.

Some abstraction was urgently needed to enable the dancers to break free from the stilted dynamic, aesthetic and symbolic boundaries of the Greek chorus format that they maintained throughout. The group of women, moving in unison with small gestures and sustained, short passages followed and responded to the text rather than creatively ‘taking it on’ and asserting their own power within the larger framework. Interestingly, the most successful blending of tradition and modernity, literal translation and abstraction came from the abstract set installation and the musicians who were free in their interpretation. The Rajasthani folk musicians majestically blended ancient instruments, with Haykals’ electric guitar sounds and a violin bow grating on a symbol – the production urgently needed more such innovations and contemporisation.

A sombre, surreal atmosphere pervaded the show and there were certainly some striking moments such as when the group of dancers portrayed hovering vultures. The theatre space was opened up with seating on two sides creating a huge arena for action – this was used as a site for performance but also a symbolic landscape where internal and external journeys were played out amongst the death and destruction. As a parable for our times “The Blind Age” has the essence of a heartfelt narrative with global implications.