By Ian Ng
Let’s go back five years. It’s the year 2010 and contemporary dance was still rather obscure – as a concept; as a career path through dance; as the main course for entertainment. Nevertheless, seeds were sowed and it was taking root. Two years ago, in 2008, ex-Singapore Dance Theatre dancer Kuik Swee Boon founded the now-acclaimed T.H.E Dance Company. And in 2010, Singapore Dance Theatre (SDT) presented their very first Passages, as a showcase for works developed through the company’s choreographic workshop, guiding dancers in discovering a voice through dance.
And over time, Passages evolved into SDT’s contemporary dance series. Reviving the series, just a month ago, SDT presented four works for the jubilee edition of Passages in the intimate black box space at Goodman Arts Centre.
Making a strong opening statement with an all-male cast was Sticks and Stones by Kinsun Chan. The Swiss-Canadian choreographer used minimalist beats from tribal instruments, starting off slow – the dancers sequentially manoeuvring their long poles. Tempo and tenacity heightened as the piece progressed, and dancers broke away into highly energetic solos and duets—explosive jumps, multiple pirouettes, and crisp floor work. The latter is where it also fell short; the precision of the piece produced a sort of disjoint from its tribal spirit through its lack of recklessness. Up close, the dancers seemed unfocused.
We were then taken for a turn to the spiritual. Bliss depicted the journey of life, one filled with unexpected twists that forces an individual to confront his imperfections to reach a state of acceptance and nirvana, or rather bliss. Drawing on her heritage, choreographer Gigi Gianti fused Indonesian and contemporary styles, building a piece that’s both aesthetically pleasing and rich in flavour. Her flair is in partnering—beautiful and challenging, with creative lifts and sharp, contorted accents that contrasted well with flowing sequences. The dancers were impressive, notably Chua Bi Ru whose stellar technique and expression were captivating to watch. Space was well utilised throughout the piece but there was room for the concept to be further developed.
Without doubt, we were moving into the thick of things. Incandescent Dream by Max Chen aside from being the most creative work that night, also invited us to dream. A sheet of fabric was the only prop, made into a bed, a wall, a cloud. And it morphed as the dance did, from the ethereal to something darker, unpredictable and almost real—the stuff dreams are made of. Rosa Park and Chihiro Uchida were delightful to watch, perfectly synchronised in the segment in which they mirrored each other. Not to be outdone, male dancers Zhao Jun, Kenya Nakamura and Lewis Gardner exhibited strong, powerful dancing infused with moments of calm and tenderness.
Passages ended with 4Seasons, choreographed by Natalie Weir. Originally premiered in 2013, this work was made for the larger stage so those familiar were naturally curious: how would this work out in a black box space? Wonderfully, as it turned out. The limitation of space heightened the emotional aspects of the piece such that each seasonal duet and ensemble segment was played up, with credit also to the clever use of light. Creating unique paths to cut the stage added extra dimensions to the confined space. Maughan Jemesen and Huo Liang were excellent in both execution and expression, while the ensemble was neat.
Produced exclusively for the company, these four works show that SDT is still a force to be reckoned with in the realm of contemporary dance. It’s a fact that competition is real and rife, with excellent upcoming talents from the many independent dance groups inspiring more young ones than SDT ever did. But let’s not forget that Singapore’s premier dance company is known regionally, even internationally, for its execution of neo-classical pieces alongside its Swan Lakes, Sleeping Beauties and Nutcrackers. The company could not have come this far with chops to prove it can.
In any case, it’s always refreshing to see ballerinas trade in their stiff tutus for formless costumes to present their wonderful technique in an entirely different style. Passages thus bodes a bright future ahead, to present a softer side of SDT that we’re less accustomed to seeing.
Images credit: Bernie Ng