Spanish fun: Singapore Dance Theatre in Don Quixote

Joy Wang X.Y. is at the Esplanade, Singapore
March 11, 2016

When Singapore Dance Theatre first premiered Don Quixote in 2014, I didn’t get to see it. I am glad I did this time, because though the dancing on Friday was uneven, the production by Cynthia Harvey is an absolute joy. The spatially multi-layered action on stage reads clearly while keeping it busy, alive; and having trimmed its excesses, the pacing feels just right. And the production design (by Bruce McKinven) envelops the stage in an earthly sort of fantasy. But what of the dancing?

Don Quixote is a ballet in which the technical demands are brutally dis-ambiguous; you either make it or you don’t. That directness, that binaric simplicity is part of its pleasures. Beneath Chihiro Uchida’s slender lines and coltish charm, there are glimpses of simmering sensuality – a ripple through the rococo curl of her arms, the flirty glint in her eyes. But Uchida doesn’t always sustain the vividness of her acting into the bravery of her dancing and the clarity of her pantomime doesn’t readily translate into a speaking, feeling articulacy in step.

Don Quixote is all good fun. The problem in Act 1 is that Kenya Nakamura, Uchida and her two sidekicks make it almost too comfortably good fun. That playground sort of fun rather neglects the ballet’s avarice, its penchant for risk, it’s hearty sense of danger. It is one thing to get through Don Quixote, quite another to thrill us in it. Its breadth of spirit, its generosity needs to be matched by a similar level of witty refinement. Yet to reveal its multiple facets from within its broad contours is a sisyphean task. Too much and it becomes a tasteless display of circus stunts. Too little and it looses its stylistic particularity, its largesse. Both Uchida and Nakamura find their sweet spots in Act 2’s opening duet; the dancing rises and falls to the beat of the music and, it would seem, to the beat of the heart. Uchida sustains that dulcet ebullience into the dream scene but, and herein lies the ballet’s duality, the dream scene is a classical vision. The way a dancer rolls out of balances, the stretch of a line, the angle of the hops all these things matter too (and it should also matter in the dancing of some of the other soloists).

Chihiro Uchida and Kenya Nakamura with Singapore Dance Theatre in Don QuixotePhoto Bernie Ng
Chihiro Uchida and Kenya Nakamura with Singapore Dance Theatre in Don Quixote
Photo Bernie Ng

Uchida and Nakamura supply the romance but for the danger we had to look elsewhere, sometimes a little too literally. In Harvey’s version, the Dryad Queen/Mercedes (without the knife-baiting solo) is a combined role. Though Chua Bi Ru’s Mercedes is more bright than sensuous, the feminine vibrancy of her upper body, the arresting way with her eyes and the spirited manner of her dance suggests that somewhere in there is a potentially thrilling dancer. But the Dryad Queen with its monarchical rigor and sovereign grace is a different sort of test-at once more acerbic and more acidic. And debuts, rarely perfect, are more often than not questions of perspective. Thursday’s Dryad Queen (Li Jie), more technically secure and gifted with an exquisite line, found little variety. Friday’s did, finding more expansive measure (a breath here, a held arabesque there) and greater musical coherency, but didn’t finish that treacherous series of Italian fouettés. We saw, at least, what Chua wants to do with the role and potentially can do even if,on Friday, she didn’t see it all the way through.’

It is in the department of pure technical fireworks though that Nakamura comes alive. He burnishes multiple turns replete with lofty, hovercraft jumps. It is impressive, but for technique to be more than a stop-gap measure of amazement it has to be allied to an equally sensitive sense of music, of character. Fingers crossed that he gets there soon. It was left then to Etienne Ferrére’s Espada to supply the evening’s most complete performance. Ferrére’s dancing, never ostentatious, is thoughtful, intelligent, and finds the ideal symmetry between the accents and inflections of a bullfighter with the clarity and stretch of a classical prince. He produces a frisson all of his own. I missed the arcing backbends in versions more flamboyant but who knew that a purring brush of the foot could be like the siren’s song.

And so it was one of those mixed nights; frustrating and enjoyable in equal parts. For the most part this was an auspicious start to a season that promises much, though. Quibbles aside, the performances on Thursday and Friday showed a company on good form with a production that shows the dancers off beautifully. Now if only they (and we) could have live music.