Balanchine/Liang/Petipa: Singapore Dance Theatre, Masterpiece in Motion

July 8, 2017
Esplanade Theatre, Singapore

Joy Wang X.Y.

To dance Balanchine, Liang and Petipa in a single evening is ambitious programming and one well worth watching (What was with all those empty seats?). Ambitious programmes also demand ambitious dancing.

That ambition was only intermittently glimpsed at in the opening piece, George Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments, set to Paul Hindemith’s score and from the choreographer’s oeuvre of black and white works. It is a leotard ballet, which is to say that the speaking body is its most eloquent defence. The upturned palms are inquiring and then demonstrative. As Melancholic, one of the four humours that its soloists are named after, Huo Liang draped and coiled with expressive, muscular languor as if imitative of Grecian sculpture; simultaneously relishing and contemplating its own power. By turns the ballet is meditative, witty, dynamic and at the end its pure architecture produces its own kinetic frisson. By and large however it got a quotidian performance; bleach clean and without much chymos.

In 13th Heaven, a world premiere, the language is recognisably Edwaard Liang’s. There is the same percolating upper body, the same limpid strength and viscous quality. But this time, under the planetaries’ haunting glare he directs those long-distance stares elsewhere towards something more primal and elemental. There are quotations from his other works but 13th Heaven (a name derived from Aztec mythology and performed to music by Oliver Davis) feels more explicitly emotional; and emotional in a narrativized sense.

13th Heaven by Edwaard LiangPhoto Bernie Ng
13th Heaven by Edwaard Liang
Photo Bernie Ng

In the opening section, where the sixteen dancers dance collectively, there is almost a nameless pain etched in May Yen Cheah and Wan Jiajing Jerry’s bodies. Two couples dance duets, the first (Chihiro Uchida and Kenya Nakamura) disquietingly emotive. The second (Li Jie and Nazer Salgado), with its tribal impulses, more playful and combative. It ends with Uchida exiled from the circle in an image akin to ritual sacrifice.

For now, 13th Heaven does not necessarily succeed on the merits it makes claims to – there are esoteric references to ‘relational fulfilment’ and ‘relations of unity and isolation in the program notes. The ideas alluded to are often generic even cosmic. Rather it seems to be located between twin impulses; the sense of a story contained within an aesthetic that leans heavily towards abstraction. It is already an interesting work; perhaps those ideations and intentions will emerge later. More importantly Liang and the dancers share a certain affinity which wasn’t always the case in Paquita.

Singapore Dance Theatre in PaquitaPhoto Bernie Ng
Singapore Dance Theatre in Paquita
Photo Bernie Ng

In most recent new-old productions (Ratmansky for the Bavarian State Ballet, Smekalov/Burlaka at the Mariinsky), the aristocratic rigor of Paquita has softened, taut lines have fashioned contours, majesty has learned to coexist with romance. SDT’s staging, a one-act more conventional affair, provides no such context. And without that, Paquita as a Russian teacher once said with choice economy, “is ballerina.” Just as well since Etienne Ferriere looked out of sorts as the male lead.

In truth though, Paquita is a bevy of ballerinas. It needs that and it didn’t quite get it. Now, Paquita is difficult, but it shouldn’t have looked as difficult as it did on Saturday. Of the soloists, men and women, only Nanase Tanaka summoned the sort of chic elegance and calm épaulement one associates with this courtly edifice.

Uchida into her second decade with the company still has a dewy grace which works both for her and against her. In 13th Heaven, partnered beautifully by Nakamura her ethylene fragility was touching, irresistible. As the lead in Paquita, the role’s proscenium reach and its exclamatory ‘look at me’ brilliance eludes her. She dances in small, diced spaces, drifting through air rather than conquering it. But Uchida, who featured in all three pieces, brought Paquita to a dignified finish; no simplifications, no obvious technical flaws. There is something to be said about professionalism too.