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Singapore Dance Theatre: 'Swan Lake'

by Stephanie Burridge

March 15, 2012-- Esplanade Theatre, Singapore

Founded in 1988, Singapore Dance Theatre is the city state’s flagship dance company. Featuring both classical ballets and contemporary works, its enviable repertoire includes the choreography of Nacho Duato, Jiri Kylian, Graham Lustig, Nils Christe and Singaporean luminary, the late Goh Choo San. Swedish born Janek Schergen was appointed Artistic Director of SDT in 2009 – Shergen can be credited with maintaining and adding to this world class repertoire, assembling an international cast of young dancers and considerably raising the technical standard of the company.

Like many companies in the world today, SDT is a melting pot of cultures and dance backgrounds albeit with a definite Asian focus – a solid Australian contingent and dancers from Korea and Europe join the majority of the company, who hail from Japan and China. With such diverse physicality and training, achieving the unity and coherence required for Swan Lake definitely has its challenges. In addition, Swan Lake demands a ‘heart on your sleeve’ approach, which doesn’t come naturally to all dancers. As a result, restraint and containment, rather than aggression and assertion prevailed in this performance.

As Odette/Odile, Korean born dancer Rosa Park was technically superb: beautiful extensions, use of the back, light footwork and secure pirouettes in every variation. While the body spoke volumes, Park’s facial expression remained serene and interaction with her partner failed to light any sparks between them or the audience. Park was ably partnered by Chinese born Cheng Peng as Prince Siegfried whose face, technique and physical facility have the attributes of a danseur noble; but he urgently needs to extend his emotional range. The narrative and the movement seemed somewhat disconnected, and his steps had the same intention despite different aspects of the story. That said, he made a superb partner for this petite dancer; she soared sublimely in her lifts and the side split jetés in the black swan pas de deux were truly marvellous.

The corps was at its best in the first Act where their formations, musicality, small jetés and beats synchronised well. Sepia toned costumes looked great in the various tableaux and the setting (outdoors, beneath the painted backdrop of a rural panorama, in steamy Singapore) made sense. The scene was lifted considerably by the pas de trois of Timothy Coleman, Heidi Zolker and Tomoto Takahashi. The two women had attack, precision and artistic flair in the difficult jumps en point, numerous beats, and fast, sudden jetés. Coleman, as Benno, had a vivacity that many of the other dancers could have emulated. Blessed with long legs that extended into superb arabesque lines, he could use more ballon in the numerous jumps and tours in his solos.

Many of the young dancers performed the divertissements in Act 3 , highlighting the special qualities of each. The character roles were a source of weakness throughout the ballet – the queen, the tutor and various attendants were not convincing and remained wooden in their reactions to the dancing centre stage. In larger, established companies , the genre of character dancing is well established – young dancers grow up with their mentors and heroes in these roles and they are an integral part of the classical repertoire. These roles are well known and anticipated by audiences, key to the narrative and underpin the plot.

In Acts 2 and 4, the company performed the steps carefully and elegantly, but not fluidly - torsos needed further extension, shoulders and wrists needed to create the exaggerated lines of the swans. The Dance of the Little Swans required stronger foot work, synchronicity and general joie de vivre! The final scene back at the lake with Rothbart incorporated the original Russian ending - Siegfried banished Rothbart with his cross bow and the lovers were reunited. The pair stood on a low craggy platform up stage and held a simple embrace while the curtain slowly descended – dramatically, a little anti-climactic.

In the context of its regional location and the rich cultural heritage juxtaposed against a colonial past, staging Swan Lake in Singapore raises some interesting questions. How can SDT put a personal stamp on the ballet? The company recently attempted this with great success in Shergen’s 2011 interpretation of The Nutcracker by setting it in pre-WWI, turn-of-the-century, colonial Shanghai. How to cement a local identity is always in the background for SDT; at present the company, with its European dance sensibility, sits uncertainly within the arts milieu of Singapore as it confronts these challenges. This production of Swan Lake needed something more imaginative to make its mark and engage audiences.

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