An evening of diminishing returns: Ballet Under The Stars in Singapore

Singapore Dance Theatre at Fort Canning Park
July 8, 2016

Joy Wang X.Y.

In its 21st instalment of Ballet Under the Stars, Singapore Dance Theatre programmed two triple bill weekends. The first had a contemporary slant, the latter a more classical feel. Friday’s programme was an interesting mix; seeing August Bournonville’s Bournonville Divertissements and Marius Petipa’s Paquita in the same evening is a wonderful lesson in history and continuity. In between, Shadow Edge by Ma Cong (马聪) was an enjoyable return to the 21st-century.

Much of Bournonville’s choreography exists in constant motion – laterally, vertically, horizontally – yet movement also has to be finished, clear. Only then do the rounded shifts in weight, the way it surges, collects, gathers in a breathless carousel, sing. When a dancer tilting over his or her axis leans into the wind, the pregnant contours outlined play with ideas of risk, of happy, life-giving sort of risk. Here, dancers trace sphericals of space through air as if frolicking with a higher element. Bournonville is not a throwaway, lightweight pleasure.

Singapore Dance Theatre in Bournonville Divertissements(here with Beatrice Castañeda, Huo Liangand Akira Nakahama)Photo Bernie Ng
Singapore Dance Theatre in Bournonville Divertissements
(here with Beatrice Castañeda, Huo Liangand Akira Nakahama)
Photo Bernie Ng

When the company first performed Bournonville Divertissements last year, the choreography felt sketched rather than danced. La Ventana was still sketchy. The leads, May Yen Cheah and Kensuke Yorozu, were brittle, obdurately static with little care for stylistic subtleties. But there were small returns elsewhere. With both the men and women in A Folk Tale, footwork was neater, épaulement freer and musical accents clearer. Etienne Ferrère unspooled silken yarns with velvety dancing, and he and the sweetly coltish Chihiro Uchida were delightful in Flower Festival of Genzano.

Ma Cong’s Shadow’s Edge with its sparse, minimalist design is simultaneously gestural and abstract. At some moments it takes the form of generic prettiness, but at others cleverly and darkly toys with stark architectural patterns that build, regress and finally grow to an inexorable climax. The pyramidic groupings and stripped down aesthetic appears to express a collective, universalist idiom that is inherently subverted by the dancer’s own distinctiveness; bodies meld differently into a visceral communitas. Visually, it makes for an interesting dialectic. The men emancipated from classical restraints are more purposeful and powerful here. Among the women, Uchida and Kwok Min Yi’s transparent through-body fluidity and the Maughan Jemeson’s tensile intensity, combined both grace and strength.

Chihiro Uchida and Chen Peng in Shadow's Edge by Ma CongPhoto Bernie Ng
Chihiro Uchida and Chen Peng in Shadow’s Edge by Ma Cong
Photo Bernie Ng

It is a bold choice to close an evening with Paquita; you either go out in blazing glory or… Each variation in the ballet is a historical heirloom excerpted largely from classics both surviving and lost (to see the way it was danced, look to Alexei Ratmansky’s restaging for the Bavarian State Ballet). Each touches on one or another aspect of a dancer’s skill and the ballerina, in omnio paratus, encompasses them all. Now, Paquita is a showcase not an exam which is why variations are often loosely arranged and chosen to display a dancer’s individual gift. Here too, there were plenty of switcheroos (for one, the jumping variation was taken in the pas de trois) and peculiar choices. Jemesen turned the beautiful adagio variation with its reposeful spaciousness into a terse, stuttering affair. Kenya Nakamura leapt high and spun forcefully but didn’t quite make up for his lacklustre partnering with its laboured supported turns and precarious lifts. As in in the Bournonville small details of style were lost.

Singapore Dance Theatre in Paquita(centre Chihiro Uchida and Etienne Ferrère)Photo Bernie Ng
Singapore Dance Theatre in Paquita
(centre Chihiro Uchida and Etienne Ferrère)
Photo Bernie Ng

Ballets like Paquita structured around a principal couple need a linchpin, someone who knows what it means to command a stage. For years, Rosa Park (the company’s other principal who was conspicuous by absence) has been that redoubtable ballerina authority. But no company can, as this company often has, rely solely on one or two dancers in major classical roles. Dancers presumably only grow accustomed to the spotlight by being in the spotlight; and if that means the viewer (at least this viewer) has to tolerate a few nervous starts then so be it. Some dancers are worth waiting for. So the question here is not why Li Jie was dancing the lead in Paquita, but rather why she seemed so ill-prepared (the botched fouettées were the least of her problems). Was it nerves, technical inhibition, lack of preparation? Meanwhile, the best moment came at the beginning of Nanase Tanaka’s variation. Tanaka always an elegant, understated dancer balanced and tipped over her vertical in search of that golden mean – it was just right.