Friday, December 12, 2014

Don Quixote, Singapore Dance Theatre, Esplanade, 6 Dec 2014

The Singapore Dance Theatre premiered Petipa's Don Quixote last weekend (between them and the Royal Ballet, this is an oddly fashionable Christmas choice this year!), adding their first new full length ballet in seven years. It was staged by ex Royal Ballet Principal Cynthia Harvey (whose dancing I've become quite fascinated with after a few short clips on Youtube), and Saturday's first cast had Rosa Park as Kitri, and Chen Peng as Basilio (pictured).

Funnily enough, this is only the second time I've seen the Singapore Dance Theatre in 9 years, despite it being the sole classical ballet company in Singapore. (In fact, the last full length ballet of theirs I saw was one I was actually in...!) The company changed quite drastically in the time that I was living overseas -- seeing a new artistic director, a new generation of dancers, and a renewed focus on local modern choreography. Lacking the familiar taste of the company which I in many ways grew up with, I came back and satiated my dance appetite with younger companies instead, but am now finding my way back to this old friend.

Unfortunately, I found the reunion sadly underwhelming. I'd never seen or read Don Quixote before, and suspect that a lot of the confusion I felt came rather from the inanity that is Don Q rather than the staging, which is a shame. The ballet appears to run two parallel narratives -- that of Don Q and his intrepid imagined adventures, and the simple story of village love between Kitri and Basilio. The piece tries hard to connect these disparate elements from the beginning by having a prologue scene where Kitri and Basilio somehow find their way into Don Q's sitting room, while pursuing Sancho Panza who is pursuing a chicken. Though the programme booklet took pains to spell this out, I simply could not understand what was happening on stage at all. The other attempt at intertwining the storylines, where Don Q takes Kitri to be Dulcinea, is equally incomprehensible.

I suppose all these are concerns I really should take up with Petipa. However given that they must make do with this odd backbone of a storyline, I feel like any company bold enough to tackle it must be adept enough to relay the story's subtleties, so as to prevent the whole piece from devolving into a random assemblage of variations. The dancers themselves must make the story and its undercurrent of humour come to life, but SDT unfortunately fell quite flat in this respect. Much of the corps looks nervous and self conscious on stage, and of the leads only Park and Akira Nakahama as Cupid seem to possess the requisite dynamism and lightheartedness of the piece, but it's not enough to carry the rest of the cast with them.

The company only really began to shine through in Act 2's dream, when all the theatricality had been stripped away. Much as I remember it to be, this is a beautiful and poised company, in that they specialise in the more pristine aspects of classicism. Saccharine sweet flower waltzes, doleful swans and willies, tend (or at least tended) to be much more their thing. The dryads therefore proved much more familiar and enchanting territory. Then in the tavern, the awkward characterisations and waning energy of the corps return, but it is thankfully saved by Park and Chen executing a tickling faked death.

Act 3 is then also rescued by Park and Chen's excellent wedding pas de deux. Both are technically on point but sadly the same cannot be said for most of the rest of the cast. Throughout the piece there were common trips and misplaced landings, and many even looked disinterested to be there. One of the few who actually possessed visible stage presence was the background but distinctively noticeable Stefaan Morrow, an apprentice with the company whom I look forward to seeing more of in future productions. Singapore's talented dancers have sadly been a rare breed, but this tide is hopefully about to turn, following the new options made available in arts educations and arts careers several years ago. The first wave of that initiative should be graduating now, and it will be very interesting to see the careers they pursue.

On the whole, I was perhaps too demanding of my evening and couldn't stomach Petipa's classical abstractions, especially after diving straight into it from MacMillan's realisms. All the same I do think it's a good idea for the company to keep its focus on modern choreographies, and wait for a stronger crop of dance actors before attempting the more intricate full length ballets in the future.

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