I’m definitely not a critic, but i am for sure very critical when i watch ballet performances, especially when it comes to SDT(Singapore Dance Theatre). Even though i only actually started watching SDT since 2004, i’ve watched enough to know the company’s strengths, and the company’s gems.
Even though SDT has maintained its reputation with its contemporary repertoire, SDT’s ballet performances have definitely taken a back seat. Why is that so? Because many veteran dancers have left, and i dare say that at least half the company consists of new dancers. When i say new dancers, i mean that they have just graduated from pre-professional school.
Dancers like Sakura Shimizu, Kellie van der Ploeg, Natalie Clarke, Alexandra Sklavos, Tan Ya Ling, Robert Mills, Toru Okada, Bryan Wong, Fu Liang, Zhang Jun, Jacek Bres etc, have all left. Previously, these dancers have all been cast in solo and principal roles. Xia Hai Ying and Chihiro Uchida are the only outstanding dancers who still remain. Imagine the horror of casting ballets when these dancers left. From an audience point of view, there is definitely no one in the company who fits the role of a male principal dancer because all of them are relatively new and young with little experience. Chen Peng for one, took over the role of the principal dancer after Jacek left(when Fu Liang left, Mills, Okada, Zhang etc, were still around, so there was an alternative), and from the time he took on the roles, i have never seen him perform well enough to deserve the principal roles. As for the ladies, because Hai Ying has been the main principal dancer for at least a decade or so, things haven’t changed much. And with Chihiro’s potential being spotted and Rosa Park joining them, they don’t have too much to worry about. But with the absence of Clarke and Shimizu, something seems to be missing. Shimizu has been known for her portrayal of solo character roles(like Snow Queen, Myrtha, Fairy Godmother etc) and her strength and attack. There doesn’t seem to be anyone in the company who can quite match her. Clarke on the other hand has very clean technique and has had fine performances as Sugar Plum Fairy, Giselle, Sylph etc, is also hard to replace. Liu Xiao Mi, who has also been with SDT for almost a decade, fluctuates a lot with her weight and her strength, along with every performance.
So watching SDT today in a full-length romantic ballet was a little scary for me. I was more afraid of the casting than anything else. But Hai Ying was Giselle today(Chihiro and Rosa are the other 2 Giselles), and she for sure, was the saving grace of the whole show. I had doubts about her ability to portray a youthful Giselle(due to her age) though she is doing it for the 3rd time , but she proved me wrong, and i immensely enjoyed her portrayal in Act 1. Her ballones and ballottes were light and sharp, her personality, exuberant and truly in love. Her mad scene, though not the best, was convincing and heartbreaking to an extent. Chen Peng on the other hand, struggled with his steps and was mostly not synchronised with Hai Ying’s(he tended to be half a count late), showing the lack of chemistry between them. His acting however, was above average, and i found it to be more superior to his dancing. The peasant pas de deux was danced by Liu Xiao Mi and Ma Dian Lian, and i was appalled at this casting. Xiao Mi struggled with her extensions, and her dancing was definitely sub-par, as compared to what i’ve seen of her in the past. My only guess is that she lost muscle mass while trying to lose weight(her weight yo-yos a lot), because she for sure, made it look very effortful. Dian Lian on the other hand, presented himself to be amateurish. He did not have clean technique to begin with, and to say it crudely, it was painful to watch him. His double tour en l’airs however were decent. He too was behind counts, and i can only say that the music was indeed a little too fast throughout Act 1. The corps was ok- though the corps was small, they were not as tidy. One dancer was consistently behind the others in terms of agility and precision. I think it might have been Amy Bale, but i’m not really sure if it’s her.
Act 2 was an eye-opener to the inappropriateness of the local audience. They laughed when a wilis appeared while Albrecht was kneeling at Giselle’s grave. Then they laughed again as a wilis with a veil courued across the stage. They do not know for sure, the sheer difficulty of ‘floating’ across the stage. I think they must have been tickled by the veil. (Is it that funny?) When Giselle made her entrance with the veil, and the veil was pulled off stage while a string attached, the audience broke into laughter, which i was appalled at. IT’S NOT FUNNY! Chen Wei only danced in this act, but only very briefly. What i saw from his dancing scared me a little. He looked like he was still a student in ballet school. He struggled with his jumps and turn out, very unlike his dancing in the past years. Maybe it was the character shoes he wore. Hai Ying was brilliant as Giselle, even though i’ve seen better interpretations. She is not the strongest at jumps, but she makes up for it in many other ways like her artistry and her adage and control. Chen Peng on the other hand, couldn’t match up to her. He, like many other male dancers in the company, struggled with the music, extensions and beats. He could not do the usual double cabrioles, and his brises were not as sharp. He was quite a good partner though. The corps was ok as the wilis- the main problem with them was that they were not in unity. It was like they each had their own way of dancing as a wilis. Xiao Mi was Myrtha, and again, i saw her struggle in elevation. Her grand jetes were effortful and jerky, and not as elevated as Myrtha should be. I did not see the iciness that Myrtha should display- it was very flattened i guess? The final scene was very convincing, and i was in fact quite won over in the finale. The acting and emotions displayed by Chen Peng and Hai Ying were appropriate, and i could actually feel the remorse from Albrecht, and the mercy and undiminished love of Giselle.
Was that harsh? I think it is. I loved SDT in the past, and even though the company has had a big turnover, i don’t see a reason why i should like it less. But i keep getting disappointed with their ballet performances(though their contemporary performances are by standards, good), and i keep going back to SDT because there simply isn’t any other company in SG to feed my ballet appetite. I hope their ballet standards will improve in time to come under the new(not so new actually) artistic director.
Photos of SDT in Giselle almost a decade ago in the very same theatre:
Guo Fei, who along with Hai Ying at one point, was a principal dancer who left.
Cheng Hsien Fa, who now owns a ballet school with his wife, was also a principal. He’s an amazing dancer too!