Against the backdrop of the stunning Singapore city skyline, Forces of Dance by Singapore Dance Theatre (SDT) was held at the Esplanade Outdoor Theatre as part of da:ns festival 2021. It was indeed a delight to witness the ballet company’s first time on that unconventional and beautiful stage.
The night opened with Piano Concerto No 2, Opus 102, by Edmund Stripe. Dressed in black, the dancers perfectly complemented the skyline — their extended lines and flawless technique harmonised with the perfectly constructed lines of the skyscrapers. To watch SDT perform on stage up close was a treat – every micro-facial expression or drop of sweat was visible. They did not disappoint. Not that one was looking out for it but it was almost impossible to spot any mistakes. Not even a global pandemic could cause the dancers to lose their finesse. This neo-classical work featured quick footwork, pirouettes, jumps, grand battements (high kicks), partner work with overhead lifts, lovely formations, female dancers going en pointe, penchés – everything you would expect from a ballet company. What was most captivating was a moving duet towards the end where the music took a darker tone. A series of intricate partnering moves where the female dancer seems to entwine herself in various positions around the male dancer. The delicate and tender counterbalances were simply breathtaking.
In stark contrast to the opening piece, Sticks and Stones by Kinsun Chan is a ballet for 12 men that exudes primal energy. Wielding long sticks about twice their height, the men were topless and wore black pants with tribal-like accessories. If the first piece set up traditional conventions of what ballet usually is – perfect lines, poise and grace, this piece challenged that with its raw masculine energy. Unlike in Piano Concerto No 2 where the dancers’ bodies never touch the floor (except their feet), in Sticks and Stones, the men go on all fours, roll, crawl, slide and execute a lot of floor work. For the first time in the night, audiences witnessed male partnering. Although the movement language of the work was still visibly rooted in the ballet form, we see the ballerinas wriggle, shake, fling their limbs and even swagger.
The choreography of the sticks played heavily in this work, creating mesmerizing hypnotic formations in the air. The piece began with the men huddled in a group while they moved the sticks above their heads in random fashion, creating an image of a living morphing organism. At other times, the men stood in a circle with the top of the sticks coming together, forming a hut-like structure. One of the most striking visual images produced by the sticks was when the men stood in a line and moved the sticks in cannon, resulting in a wave-like effect — somewhat reminiscent of the Helix bridge in the Singapore skyline.
Earthy tribal group energy was also channeled by hitting the sticks on the ground in ritualistic fashion. The men also stood in a line across the stage, each holding the sticks in front of them as they took turns to perform animalistic solos and duets with rapid and wild energy. A spectacular display of raw power and strength, we saw dancers going from crouched hunched positions to explosive jumps.
Juxtaposed against Singapore’s Central Business District, Sticks and Stones at the Outdoor Theatre suggests that the race up the corporate ladder is perhaps just another version of fighting for survival in the wild.
The night closed with the premiere of The Third Reset by Christina Chan, a work which continued to tamper with expectations of what audiences would usually expect of ballet. To begin the piece, the dancers, dressed in pedestrian clothes, walked out on a brightly lit stage in a row and took a bow. In another scene, the ballerinas would go into a preparation just before a pirouette would be done but instead, collapse to the floor.
Unlike in a proscenium theatre where one would not usually be able to see the ballerinas preparing and standing backstage, the outdoor theatre did not have any curtains.In all 3 works, one could see the ballerinas waiting at the sidelines before emerging into the spotlight. Chan made use of this throughout the entire piece. During a duet segment between 2 male dancers, the rest of the cast simply adopted relaxed seated positions in a row at the back. Such choreographic choices allowed all of the dancers’ pedestrian movements – walking, running, adjusting their clothes – to be seamlessly integrated into the piece. This gave the effect that the dancers were simply being themselves — there was no jarring change in character as a dancer stepped out into the light.
Her sixth choreographic work for SDT to date, Chan’s ability to draw out and harness each dancer’s unique movement language was obvious. In a series of dynamic solos, we witnessed a huge range of movement qualities where each dancer’s personality and personal voice shone. The overall tone of the piece exuded a certain breathtaking calmness and ease in movement. Still rooted in the ballet language, perhaps Chan’s movement tendencies for The Third Reset could be seen as a kind of Gaga*-influenced ballet – the dancers seem to move with structure yet with great freedom. A sense of quiet strength and fluidity pervaded the piece.
The triple bill, Forces of Dance, is definitely a testament to the versatility of the dancers of Singapore Dance Theatre. And just for a night, we forget COVID-19 ever existed.
Forces of Dance by Singapore Dance Theatre played live at the Esplanade Outdoor Theatre from 8 – 10 Oct 2021 as part of da:ns festival 2021.
*Gaga is the highly-influential movement language developed by Ohad Naharin, when he worked as choreographer and Artistic Director of Batsheva Dance Company.