Singapore Dance Theatre
1-3 May, Pentas 1, klpac
Part of the pleasure of watching Singapore Dance Theatre perform in Kuala Lumpur is the sense that they both are and are not ‘our’ ballet company. When the company started in 1988, Malaysia’s Ellie Lai was one of the seven original dancers. Every year, the company doggedly tours its Ballet Illuminations mixed bill program to Kuala Lumpur and Penang. For as low as RM18 for this current season, Malaysians can watch sparkling talents, young dancers on the rise, and the world’s finest ballet choreography, from the classical frou-frou of Petipa to the twentieth-century neoclassicism of Balanchine (whose copyrighted ballets are tightly protected by his trust, and therefore unavailable to the masses via YouTube) as well as the world’s newest choreographic darlings.
And when it comes to ballet companies, Malaysians don’t have much other choice; SDT artistic director Janek Schergen repeatedly calls his the only professional ballet company in this region. If by ‘this region’ he means Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore (thereby conveniently excluding rival companies in Bangkok and Manila), then that’s a very familial statement indeed. So perhaps we should welcome them as family. And if, occasionally, a ballerina happens to fall off pointe, or a male dancer lands his entrechat rather sloppily, as Malaysians it’s our prerogative to indulge in just the tiniest bit of schadenfreude at the expense of our Singaporean neighbours.
But it’s becoming increasingly to find fault with SDT. When the lights went out before the opening number, Balanchine’s Divertimento No. 15, and I heard the stirrings of Mozart in the darkness, I felt as excited as a child about to see the curtain rise on her first Sleeping Beauty. If you aren’t born and raised on the subtleties of Balanchine, it’s difficult to appreciate the depths of Divertimento, but the shifting patterns of the women in white tutus decorated with pale blue bows and the men in princely pale blue doublets are certainly diverting. Delicate triumphs of design emerge from the froth. At one moment, the men face front and repeatedly entrechat – jumping into the air and crossing their straight legs against each other in at least two beats before landing – which is echoed later as two women glide to the front on tiny-stepping bourrées, while the other three female soloists are lofted to the back by their male partners, beating their legs languidly in flight.
Like most of Balanchine’s ballet work, Divertimento was made for the dancers of the New York City Ballet, who were chosen precisely for their capacity to perform its fast intricate style. A Divertimento not performed by NYCB is a different beast, but not, in this case, a lesser one. SDT makes it their own. All the women are as fresh-faced and brightly smiling as an ad for Korean whitening cream. They find drama in this plotless ballet, making the most of opportunities like the little jazzy turned-in turned-out foot motif. Balanchine is murderously difficult to execute, but the SDT soloists are valiant. Nanase Tanaka tackles her tricky solo – which requires her to leap in second with her legs open, but not fully straight, and then, in the air, find a split-second to flicker them taut – with an enormous smile. Li Jie, a tall dancer with shapely legs and beautiful feet, is equal to the multiple one-legged relevés in her variation, serenely assuming a position on pointe on one foot, going down onto flat foot, and pushing up again onto pointe, all without compromising her position.
When a male soloist misjudges a turn, and instead of landing facing the audience, he lands facing Chihiro Uchida coming onstage, he saves the moment by sweeping open his arm to acknowledge her instead of the audience – and I hear Janek sitting in front of me give a little grunt of appreciation. Uchida is, as always, a brilliant diamond of a dancer. She carries off the devilishly fast footwork of her variation with utter confidence and musicality, magically finding moments to suspend time in perfect poses. Later, she chaînés in lightning-fast turns towards her partner, grabbing his proffered hand out of the air at the very last moment, before he whisks her off into the chivalrous throng.
SDT’s other principal female dancer, Rosa Park, steals the limelight in the next work, Natalie Weir’s duet Bittersweet. The Middle Eastern wailing of The Gladiator soundtrack sounds a little dated, but the drama of the work, highlighting Park as a woman in a red dress in a world of deep blue shadows, soon takes over. Bittersweet sometimes seems contrived for the dancers to show off their physical tricks, but Park’s expressive style suits it. When she folds to the ground over the arch of her foot, she seems to despair. Her développés plead. Even the straightness of her legs has a tragic inexorability. Her partner Jake Burden, although physically capable, does not seem emotionally connected. Bittersweet was originally made for Park and the distinctive dancer Timothy Coleman, who has since left the company, so perhaps Burden hasn’t quite settled into the role. During his solo on the diagonal, he hardly acknowledges Park; he looks like he’s performing to the audience. But he’s a strong partner, and the climactic duet moments, like when Park rushes towards him and he catches her, swoops her around and swings her up to the side on the strength of her momentum, are emotionally satisfying.
Shadow’s Edge, a new work by Chinese-American choreographer Ma Cong, commissioned for SDT’s premiere at the Singapore da:ns Festival last year, is the highlight of the show. From the opening image of Rosa Park lifted by two male dancers, on her back with one delicately trembling leg pointed at the ceiling, to the final moment – Park once again lifted, and the other dancers splayed out in a circle like a crop circle flattened by the force of a launching space craft – Shadow’s Edge is a whirling fireball of a dance which is sure to become a mainstay of SDT’s repertoire.
Eight male-female couples flood the stage, the men clad in tight orange pants and the women in orange leotards over bare legs and pointe shoes. This in itself is cause for celebration. Some may remember the Tutu Fiasco in 2012 when SDT was denied entry to Malaysia because their short classical tutus (although worn over opaque tights, and with ruffles of tulle disguising the crotch and bottom) were deemed inappropriate for Malaysian audiences. Compared to those, the costumes of Shadow’s Edge, created by Susan Roemer, are positively scandalous, but, boy, are they beautiful. The torsos of the men and the backs of the women are covered in flesh-coloured net, but instead of looking like a sop to propriety or merely necessary for structural integrity, the taupe fabric is subtly pleated, so it looks like the dancers have aerodynamic scars, racing stripes cut into their flesh.
The choreography is lush and contemporary, full of supple torsos rippling down over parallel legs, or centres held erect while hands and feet flicker at the periphery. To the sound of modern, conversational strings in an inventive score by Bryce Dressner, pairs of men sail the women, legs unfolding into splits, above their heads across a blue-goboed sea of light. The well-rehearsed company looks in its element. Maughan Jemesen displays her flexible back and a contemporary sensibility in her duet with Kenya Nakamura. Later, they contrast splendidly with Li Jie and Nazer Salgado, with the two couples in separate spotlights. As they are lifted by their partners, the ballerinas strike strongly accented positions in the air, like hawks on the wing. Among the corps, Alison Carroll’s dark eyes and fluid arms elevate her from the ranks, but, throughout the work, Rosa Park rises above, both literally and figuratively.
In the middle of the work, the group coalesces under a sun-like pool of light in the centre. To a layered chorus of voices, the dancers pulse in and out, like a sea anemone with an endlessly shifting repertoire of designs, now in sync, now in canon. It seems like the climactic end of the work, but then the music shifts, the lights turn stark, and the dancers take off again in another direction. As the program notes: onwards!
After such riches, another ballet seems superfluous. I spent most of the final work of the evening, Choo-San Goh’s Double Contrasts, in a sated daze. The large cast, half clad in black (the sophisticates) and half in white (the young energetics) came and went to the virtuosic piano score, in a pale blue wash of light. Under a ‘night sky’ of suspended crystals, the work looked like a jewelbox in a Swarovsky showroom. Maughan Jemesen stood out as a brash white-wearer, briskly whipping out her jetés en tournant. Statuesque Li Jie was appropriately cast as a sophisticate, and the moment when she coolly bourrées away from her partner Salgado, who reaches up a wistful hand as if to touch her cheek, was one of the few emotional moments I managed to snatch from the endless dazzle of comings and goings.
Two hours is perhaps a little long for a mixed bill of ballet, especially one with stylistically similar works, but the audience definitely got its money’s worth. Sadly, during the Saturday matinee at klpac, there were very few people there to appreciate it. Despite some inventive ticket pricing by SDT, the company again struggled to find its audience. Considering how many ballet studios and eager little ballet students there are in the Klang Valley, this is a real shame. I know how difficult it is to draw a crowd in KL, and I can only suggest that SDT send personalised mailings to every single dance studio at least a month in advance, with lots of colourful posters and flyers. But really, Malaysians, stop being so lazy. We may not be willing to fund our own professional ballet company, but the least we can do is sit up and pay attention when our southern neighbours come to town.