Singapore Dance Theatre in Masterpiece in Motion

Esplanade Theatre, Singapore
August 20, 2016

Joy Wang X.Y.

This year, Singapore Dance Theatre’s Masterpiece in Motion featured the return of two old-new works, and one company premiere, each wonderful in their own right. But the viewer’s experience of every individual piece depends as much on the choreographer’s skill as it does on the dancers who give it meaning and life. As a result, some fared better than others.

Goh Choo San’s Schubert Symphony transforms the central conceits of classical dance and its main structural motif — the ballerina and her court — into a pastel fantasy. It is here, where choreography is composed of varieties of the same things, that small sweet flourishes are amplified, unmissable.

Too often, hints of community felt forced, musical grace notes lost. Ballet, in whatever its iteration, is also (and only) dance. It shouldn’t feel, as it often felt on Saturday, listless, repetitive. An unimaginative Kenya Nakamura also meant that Li Jie was left to charm alone, which she does when she floats through the tail-end of a musical phrase, or when perched in arabesque she catches second wind.

Kenya Nakamura in Schubert SymphonyPhoto Bernie Ng
Kenya Nakamura in Schubert Symphony
Photo Bernie Ng

Of the rest, perhaps only Chua Bi Ri and Elaine Heng (as one half of the four demi-soloists) captured something of its romance. But these are slender offerings; Schubert Symphony needs a combination of these women’s best qualities. It needs dancers like Chua who lift their eyes and embrace light. But it also needs dancers, like Heng, who possess the lower body integrity to draw out its wittier intonations. And above all, it needs an ensemble of dancers who delight in turning the familiar into something exciting. Dancers who play with the dynamics of classical shapes in a way that without distorting line lend it vibrancy. Strangely, the piece had more lustre when the company danced it last year at Ballet Under The Stars.

Inspired by Austenian themes and styled, coincidentally, after Edith Wharton’s novel, Age of Innocence bears the marks of Edward Liang’s style — movement is fluent, appealing, sensuous. Liang’s work teeters somewhere between formal abstraction and something dangerously closer to sentimentalism. Important then, that emotion instead of being pasted on comes from within the choreographic pulse and is eloquently stated through dance.

The work’s interiority emerges slowly, stealthily from a tapestry of unspooling private narratives. Personal biography is also history’s artefact. And in a world of phantom choices and reductionist gender norms, how many led unexamined lives?

The music by Philip Glass and Thomas Newman, disquietingly lyrical, is imbued with dichotomous yearnings. This company still captures that eerie paradox but it’s haunting mnemonic texture; the sense of movement filtered through palimpsest spatio-temporal layers was less distinct. The last time the company danced Age of Innocence the duets with its arches, and dips, rushes and risks pushed more boundaries. Still, it saw fine performances from Chihiro Uchida, Nanase Tanaka, Etienne Ferrier.

Singapore Dance Theatre in Age of InnocencePhoto Bernie Ng
Singapore Dance Theatre in Age of Innocence
Photo Bernie Ng

The evening concluded with the company premiere of Nils Christe’s Symphony in Three Movements. This is not a work, I imagine, that would claim representativeness over war’s reality. It offers, instead, an image of how we, in contemporaneity, might experience life’s most harrowing faces. The iconoclasm of Stravinsky’s score is mirrored by the work’s modernist energy. Dancers reach into dark pools of space and then retreat into crouching, fetal positions. The stark variegations of light and shade, of expanse and constriction, is accompanied throughout by geometry’s unsettling dispassion. An anatomy of trauma, perhaps. As Helen Vendler wrote once of a poet’s juxtaposition of savage extremes and formal control’, ‘Its impersonal chill confronts personal desolation’. No doubt with time the company will unearth yet more emotional possibilities but here at last, was a piece — danced with urgency and immediacy — that belonged to the company as a whole.