Stephanie Burridge

Last month’s preview of the Singapore “da:ns” festival predicted an exciting programme of diversity and unity through dance. Featuring a spectrum of platforms in this world class event from the East and the West – we take a look at some of the best. “I Am Who I Am”, was the theme of the inaugural Singapore Flamenco Festival 2014 organised by Flamenco Sin Fronteras presenting a line-up of events based around the music and dance of flamenco. I also dropped by a performance by one of Singapore’s most established contemporary dance companies, Odyssey Dance Theatre.

  • “da:ns” festival
    Esplanade Theatre, Black Box, Recital Studio and Forecourt; 9-19 October

CENTRESTAGE performances (all at the Esplanade Theatre):
Matthew Bourne’s “Swan Lake”; 9 October
Wayne McGregor|Random Dance in “FAR”; 14 October
“I, Carmen”, choreographed by Maria Pagés; 17 October

  • “I Am Who I Am”
    Singapore Flamenco Festival 2014
    Double Bill – “Ten Layers of Frills/Breaking Silence”
    Goodman Arts Centre Black Box, 25 October

  • “Muses”
    Odyssey Dance Theatre
    Aliwal Arts Centre; 31 October – 1 November

Irreverent but respectful, erotic, audacious and entertaining… Bourne’s contemporary dance theatre version of “Swan Lake” is arguably the most important dance work of recent times spawning a new generation of dance audiences. This iconic work, featuring a chorus of male swans, continues to delight with its wit and physical humour combined with athletic grace, idiosyncratic characters and a menacing underbelly as our protagonist, the lonely Prince, searches for love.

A highlight is Bourne’s movement to Tchaikovsky’s much loved music. He muscles in on the traditional episodes for each segment of the classical version with some sweeping lyrical contemporary phrases broken up with quirky body isolations, some bump and grind reminiscent of a 70’s disco groove and elegant pas de deux across gender lines. This is brilliantly executed in the scene at the Swank Bar in Act 1, Scene 6, where the context matches the style; but comes as an astonishing surprise when the four cygnets separate from the flock to do some head popping and hip thrusting walks as part of their dance in Act 2. The duet between the Prince and the Male Swan is deeply moving and heralds the poignant tragedy and confusion at the end of the piece where loneliness and despair prevails in its most destructive form. Singaporeans revelled in this entertaining, visual treat that was a great start to the “da:ns” festival.

Wayne McGregor|Random Dance in 'FAR'.  Photo Courtesy Esplanade da:ns festival, © Ravi Deepres

Wayne McGregor|Random Dance in ‘FAR’.
Photo Courtesy Esplanade da:ns festival, © Ravi Deepres

The opening of “FAR” revealed a couple in an intimate duet framed by dancers holding flaming torches. It was the only literal reference to the 18th century period of science and reason that inspired “FAR” (Flesh in the Age of Reason), a startlingly inventive anatomical dissection of movement that reflected the curiosity with the mind/body connection of that time.

The extreme flexibility of the dancers, sometimes in the most unlikely places, was brilliantly conceived by choreographer Wayne McGregor through an obviously shared collaborative laboratory process that focused on individuality. Sometimes the bodies seemed to work in a double helix configuration as movement circled the spine and neck to progress to the ribs, hips and a turned in foot only to reboot and move on again. These extreme distortions were beautifully ugly, visceral and majestically innovative. The dancers carved up the space with clean lines that remained within largely a personal kinaesthetic zone that was typically broken by a sudden running phrase as they circled the stage to regroup.

The couplings of the company remained spatially tightly framed as they explored the internal space between them through circling elbows, wrists and hip joints. The detached emotional state of the dancers, reinforced with a contemporary soundscape and back grounded with a pulsating LED lighting screen, became clinical and robotic, yet for me, mesmerising – the only slip into the mundane was a brief conversation by a couple upstage and a hand on the neck of a partner after a sensual duet. Rather like an Indian yoga guru, or a Chinese tai chi master, McGregor has extended the physical parameters of contemporary dance through intense physical exploration to release the mind and spirit revealing a complex humanity that we all share.

While McGregor took a clinical, detached look at the body, flamenco star Maria Pages dived right in embracing and embodying a lustrous, rich womanhood in “I, Carmen”. Joyful, defiant, passionate and supremely confident, she took inspiration from the woman Carmen, rather than the sequential narrative of the tale and infused her performance with fierce intensity. Whether it was the comedy of the ‘handbag dance’ where she fruitlessly searched for those restorative creams that are constantly thrust at women to change themselves; joking with the audience about her extra kilos or doing some heart stopping, pulsating flamenco steps in an apron at break-neck speed while sweeping the floor, Maria Pages was a soul dancing. She certainly would have won an applause metre contest at the festival with multiple curtain calls and a full house standing ovation.

Young dancers are the future and their journeys absorbing. Singapore’s two tertiary dance institutions offer similar programmes in dance and performative studies. Both schools had some outstanding talent on show in choreography by faculty or guest artists. In Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) show, “The Third Space”, veteran Singaporean Cultural Medallion choreographer Lim Fei Shen’s “Choice” stood out for its evocative simplicity and strong performances by the three protagonists. Harking back to an era of bound feet as a traditional practice for Chinese women, it fast forwarded into the present day of free choice, yet responsibility. At “Sifting” the LASALLE College of the Arts show, ex Cloud Gate performer and school faculty Albert Tiong blew us away with his uncompromising choreography in the powerful duet “Touch” wonderfully performed with great maturity Anthea Seah and Lim Pei Em.

Susan Yeung’s 'In My Mind A Thousand Ways', part of LASALLE College of the Arts show, 'Sifitng'.  Photo © Tuckys Photography

Susan Yeung’s ‘In My Mind A Thousand Ways’, part of LASALLE College of the Arts show, ‘Sifitng’.
Photo © Tuckys Photography

The “Shift” programme for new, experimental works took place in the Esplanade Theatre Studio Black Box. Video artist Barbara Matijević in “Forecasting” shared the platform with the city states own Singapore Dance Theatre (SDT) .

Watching an arm move through a video screen to hold a gun and shoot it indiscriminately is disconcerting to say the least…when the computer screen is held between a woman’s legs showing an image of giving birth it is confronting. Sometime was hilarious, as when it explored fetishes…like demonstrating someone in high heels walking on a stomach or giving instructions on how to use a dildo manipulated by the dancer’s hand ‘through the screen. Technology became a hybrid extension of the body involved in presenting multiple “YouTube” episodes via the agile frame and slick movement of Barbara Matijević in “Forecasting”. She delivered her treatise on the obsessive, “YouTube” hungry world we live in with wry humour and instructive irony. The “da:ns” festival’s nod to dance and technology was absorbing in the beginning but we got the idea quickly and it needed more originality in its delivery mode. The small screen was hard to follow and the format laid out early on, although the images changed the structure had few variations to keep me engaged.

SDT has had a wonderful year inspiring audiences with a renewed creative energy in diverse programmes of international quality dance. “Intermezzo” drew on SDT’s versatility but the three choreographies by local dance artist with Frontier Danceland, Christina Chan; resident choreographer of Tulsa Ballet, Ma Cong and professor of dance at Kobe College, Toru Shimazaki, lacked complexity and innovation resulting in a disappointing programme. Chan’s “Traces We left Behind” sat uncertainly between a Bob Fosse look contemporary jazz dance including hat swapping and a light hearted contemporary character exposé; while Chong’s Shadows Edge” became over melodramatic and needed some subtle layering. The most enjoyable piece was undoubtedly “Blue Snow” by Shimazaki, more for its folksy, community feel and gorgeous jewel toned costumes than the inventiveness of the choreography.

“da:ns” festival 2014 excelled in creating a buzz and opening the space to a range of fun, free, educational and quality dance performances. RASAS at the Concourse and Outdoor Theatre for traditional Asian dance, dance kakis (friends) pointing the way to free five-minute classes and professional master-classes and workshops that were also offered. Esplanade continues its dance presentations of world class dance in Singapore in its “da:ns Series” featuring Stuttgart Ballet’s production of “Onegin”, October 31st –November 1st.

Daphne Huang Vargas of Flamenco Sin Frontiers.  Photo © Matthew G. Johnson

Daphne Huang Vargas of Flamenco Sin Frontiers.
Photo © Matthew G. Johnson

Flamenco Sin Fronteras (FSF) is unique in Singapore. The flamenco based company is led by internationally renowned maestro of the art, Antonio Vargas, and dancer/choreographer Daphne Huang. It explores the intersection of flamenco and Asian dance forms keeping to the tradition of the Spanish form where the integration of dance, music, hand clapping and story are intertwined. The company stays close to its flamenco roots while delving into the stylistic elements of contemporary dance and Asian narratives. It has carved a niche in Singapore and is rapidly gaining ground as a company of quality and creativity exploring new aesthetics, crossing boundaries and the expectations of flamenco.

The new multi-disciplinary choreography, “Breaking Silence” embodies this endeavour through the quintessential ferocious foot stamping and hand clapping of flamenco combined with drama and contemporary dance. Directed by Antonio Vargas and made in collaboration with the Singapore Association of Mental Health (SAMH) it incorporated interview material gleaned from an 8 week gestation process with company dancers and SAMH patients.

Identifying four types of mental illness, (schizophrenia, obsessive compulsive disorder, bi-polar and depression), the dance theatre choreography explored these through the development of characters and shadowy ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ selves. The production featured dancers from Flamenco Sin Fronteras, contemporary dancers Bernice Lee, Kai Eng Er, Jared Koh and Butoh dancer Syv Bruzeau, with original musical composition by Yong Kai Lin and Antonio Vargas in collaboration with flamenco guitarist Jorge Padilla.

FSF has been extremely innovative in its approach to the topic through the choice of performers who come from a variety of movement backgrounds, the incorporation of sensitive, often taboo material for the narrative and the commissioning of a composer. This combination resulted in a dynamism that brought the message across in a truthful but imaginative way. As the characters evolved and struggled with their illness, the choreography captured a glimpse of their lives through a neutral stance that avoided the melodramatic, or overplaying of scenes. While one episode unfolded, the other performers remained on the perimeter like caretakers of those exposing themselves to the audience – it was an extremely intimate and absorbing format well supported by a set made of cubes that could be pushed around to suggest safe havens or focal points for the action. A plus for the group is that FSF director and dancer Daphne Huang Vargas is a medical doctor and well able to work in this increasing popular field of artists working with people with special needs. This sensitivity comes through in the performance. Another important factor was the unifying thread of the music throughout composed by Kailin Yong which not only created an atmosphere but underpinned the narrative/characters and provided dance cues through changes in rhythms and melodies. The music did much to maintain continuity and ‘glue’ the disparate sections together. Although quite raw in parts, “Breaking Silence” is a powerful work that opens up the sensitive subject matter with subtlety and compassion.

“Muses” by Odyssey Dance Theatre (ODT) was a precursor to the company’s international exchange dance festival DanzINC. ODT is one of Singapore’s most established contemporary companies founded in 1998 by artistic director Danny Tan. Its activities span international and local performances by visiting and local choreographers, education and outreach community programmes and platforms for emerging artists from Asia. “Muses” reflected this reach and featured choreography by Calvin Goh (Singapore), Farliana Bte M. Ghani (Singapore), Kimiko Komata (Japan), Choi Jaehyuk and Shin Wonmin (South Korea). The Korean artists stood out for their athleticism and agility their distinctive choreographic point of view. Resplendent in white, Choi’s “Call the Soul” exuded poignancy with liquid, flowing phrasing to evoke the journey of the soul while Shin’s “I was Here” was thematically and stylistically streetwise.

This was a packed month of dance in Singapore that embraced diversity; crossing borders, creative boundaries and engaging audiences.