Old ballets revisited with fresh faces: Singapore Dance Theatre in Masterpiece In Motion

Esplanade Theatre, Singapore
Aug 17, 2019

Joy Wang X.Y.

The 2019 iteration of Singapore Dance Theatre’s Masterpiece in Motion felt like an invitation to revisit old ballets in ways that were surprising and often compelling. George Balanchine’s Serenade, Themes and Variation and Goh Choo San’s Fives are pieces the company has danced over the years. Perhaps one of the chief pleasures of watching their return was the chance to see new dancers bring to old ballets something fresh; something entirely of themselves.

When SDT danced Serenade in 2015 they seemed to surf its tempestuous waves without quite conjuring an aqualine tempest. This time, with a fresh brood of soloists, each distinctive in their own way, it had a startling immediacy and flashes of real bravery. Kwok Min Yi danced the Waltz Girl with sylvan grace; a gentle spirit gliding through a sea of sister nymphs. Elaine Heng brought to the role of the Dark Angel her customary finesse. And the full-bodied eloquence of Chua Bi Ru’s Russian had a rich undertow of drama. The contrast of styles between Kwok’s elegance, Chua’s exuberance and Heng’s graver polish, found its way into the ballet’s gripping heart.

Chua Bi Ru and dancers of Singapore Dance Theatre in SerenadePhoto Bernie Ng
Chua Bi Ru and dancers of Singapore Dance Theatre in Serenade
Photo Bernie Ng

At moments, the corps of women still seemed a little too passive as if letting the ballet flow through them rather than driving it forward; carried by the choreography rather than carrying it. Somewhere by the end however they too find another plane that thrust Serenade headlong into its moving conclusion.

If the company has Serenade well within their grasp, Themes and Variations the other Balanchine on offer proved rather more elusive. That the ballet eludes easy capture is not entirely surprising. The company has danced it well before, with its former principal, the indomitable Rosa Park, as its linchpin. But in the hands of a much younger ballerina and a tired looking Kenya Nakamura it was a reminder of just how unforgiving this piece can be.

Kenya Nakamura and Kwok Min Yi in George Balanchine's Theme and VariationsPhoto Bernie Ng
Kenya Nakamura and Kwok Min Yi
in George Balanchine’s Theme and Variations
Photo Bernie Ng

Themes and Variations begins with deceptive simplicity, the principal couple open with a series of battement tendus, but as the crescendo builds, the ballet starts a dizzying ascent from which very few return unscathed. With its dazzling cornucopia of technical marvels, it is a high wire act that skirts the membrane between disaster and triumph. On Saturday, the result was somewhere in between.

SDT returned to safer ground in Goh Choo San’s Fives. Dressed in red unitards, ten women and five men come together to form live, abstract tableaus; their taut stillness radiating energy.  There are quotations that feel familiar, a group of men falling to the ground recalls Serenade, for example, but Goh’s play with form and gesture contains a sculptor’s sense of theatre that many years on still feels profoundly arresting.

Singapore Dance Theatre in Goh Choo San’s FivesPhoto Bernie Ng
Singapore Dance Theatre in Goh Choo San’s Fives
Photo Bernie Ng

Fives is a work of spare, lean power that continues to be danced with genuine care. Largely an ensemble piece there are small but revealing turns for individual dancers. Of them, I particularly enjoyed the always effective Nanase Tanaka and Satoru Agetsuma, a name new to me but whose dancing promises much.

Speaking of promise, without a single female principal in sight the company appears to be standing on shifting ground. Though if the trio of soloists in Serenade are anything to go by, Swan Lake in December should make for intriguing viewing.