Rosa Park: a ballerina retires

On December 11th, Singapore Dance Theatre’s Rosa Park brings the curtain down on her career. Joy Wang X.Y. talks to her and offers some personal reflections on a very special dancer.

Dance can be wonderfully democratic. Giselle no matter where you go is Giselle, something not even the vagaries of individual productions can diminish or alter. Singapore, perhaps, is not one of the first places that comes to mind where pure classical ballet is concerned, but in its outgoing principal (ballerina, really) Rosa Park it has had a fine, worthy representative.

It is a serendipitous tale. Park, who came to Singapore by way of Korea (where she was a soloist with the Korean National Ballet), decided to recover from the birth of her twin daughters by taking adult ballet classes at Singapore Dance Theatre. That was 2009. Spotted by her teacher, she was asked if she would like to audition for the company. She did, and by that December she was onstage as Odette-Odile in Swan Lake, a ballet she had danced in as a guest with Royal Swedish Ballet some four years earlier. Park remembers “vividly crying so much before I went on stage, because I was so happy to back on stage after my maternity leave.” Swan Lake “was a huge boost for my confidence,” she adds. Stephanie Burridge at The Straits Times called her “sensational” and other major roles soon followed. Among them she counts Giselle, Juliet, Kitri as her favourites.

Rosa Park (with then SDT dancer Chen Peng) in GisellePhoto Mark Stennett
Rosa Park (with then SDT dancer Chen Peng) in Giselle
Photo Mark Stennett

Park, who sees her job as “not just to wow the audience with my technique, but to show my soul and communicate with them,” made for an especially beautiful Giselle. Describing the ballet as “an absolutely beautiful piece” where its eponymous heroine “is love itself,” she muses that “to forgive someone who hurt you so cruelly yet still love that person takes a huge heart.”

And what heart. Park was a revelation in Giselle, proof of an elegant duality; the clearer a step came into focus the more dramatic urgency it had. That emotional profundity could come from a cerebral, searching lucidity was something she would demonstrate again and again.

Always, she communicated emotion or narrative not through technical stunts or emotional gimmicks but by taking abstract steps and revealing its logic from within. The clarity of her dance, like an inlaid pearl, was remarkable. Park showed you the structure of a step, the scaffolding of a phrase, the sense of the moment, all while maintaining the overall shape of a passage. She gave the impression that the overall sweep of her dancing was made up of a compendium of minute, rigorous details deconstructed and then reconstituted. And yet, at her best, she also conveyed a thrilling sense of rightness. Cascades of steps appeared natural, transparent, effortless. To be ‘just right’, not too much not too little, and with the right measure of authority takes a mysterious alchemy that few dancers possess. Park was, indeed still is, one of them.

Rosa Park with Timothy Coleman in Natalie Weir's BittersweetPhoto MsBern Photography
Rosa Park with Timothy Coleman in Natalie Weir’s Bittersweet
Photo MsBern Photography

And she was often at her best. Standout performances for me include the Wedding pas de deux from Sleeping Beauty at the company’s 25th anniversary gala in 2013. That evening’s classiest performance, it was radiant, immaculate, sweetly generous. Over the course of her seven years with SDT, Park would revisit the full-length Aurora in three revivals. By the third in 2015 she was serenely assured. She was wonderful too in George Balanchine’s Theme and Variations and outside of the classical repertoire, she found a fruitful artistic partnership with Edwaard Liang.

Park, who says Liang’s pieces “are technically demanding and emotionally very sensitive” calls him “a genius” and credits him with “opening my eyes to a whole new level as an artist.” While she says it is very tough to learn while he creates a piece, “Once it is all polished and created you will dive in and fall in love with the piece. Music and movement just flows in your body and everything makes sense.”

Park says that the process of inhabiting a role begins by “spending hours studying materials such as books, DVDs, and watching videos.” After this nod to ballet’s rich history she moves on to examine interpretative choices that best describe the role. And then? “Endless practice;” a process she describes as both “very stressful and madly addictive.”

Rosa Park as Kitri in Don QuixotePhoto Bernie Ng
Rosa Park as Kitri in Don Quixote
Photo Bernie Ng

Other special experiences include learning Kitri from the “living legend” that is Cynthia Harvey, who came to stage her production of Don Quixote for SDT. “While she was here, I always felt like I could not get enough of her. She just pours out information and knowledge. She tries to bring the best out from every individual dancer and not a single movement was done without a meaning.” At the premiere in 2014, Deborah Weiss writing for Dance Europe called Park “a ballerina of delicacy and exactitude…as adept in lyricism as she was in the fireworks.” This March, Park danced it again. She didn’t seem like a dancer on the verge of retirement.

So why now?

“I have been thinking through this for a long time and I think it is the right time to leave. I made myself a promise that I would take my final bow and come down from the stage when I feel certain that I can no longer show my best to the audience. I believe they deserve it, and it is my way of showing respect to them. I want to be remembered as a beautiful and inspiring dancer and although it feels like I’m losing a huge part of myself, I know it is the right thing to do.”

For now, life after retirement is “a blank.” She intends however to fill out the next chapter “with what feels right for me.” She says that, in life, “I just went along with what I feel was right for me and what interested me the most. I know it sounds too spontaneous but at least I always got do what I liked do at that very moment and was happy about it.” It goes without saying that she made her audiences very happy too.

Rosa Park in The Nutcracker by Janek SchergenPhoto Bernie Ng
Rosa Park in The Nutcracker by Janek Schergen
Photo Bernie Ng

Park whose first leading role in Sunhwa Arts School was Marie, and who made her professional debut with Korean National Ballet in that same role, is now also retiring with Marie. The poignant symmetry is not lost on her and for a career that “has never panned out as I planned,” it should be a fitting ending.

And so on 11th December this gracious artist will take her final bow. Be there.

Singapore Dance Theatre’s Nutcracker runs from 7th December to 11th December at the Esplanade Theatre, Singapore. For details visit