The Singapore Scene: “One @ the Ballet” with SDT

In his regular series of journal entries, guest blogger Harper Watters, who recently joined the Houston Ballet corps, has been looking at a dancer’s transition from student to professional.

On the other side of the globe, two young dancers – Chua Bi Ru and Kwok Min Yi – are also taking the first steps in their professional careers with Singapore Dance Theatre. Directly from Singapore, special guest Germaine Cheng catches up with both, ahead of their debuts in the Company’s production of The Sleeping Beauty:

It is nearly one o’ clock and I am surrounded by striking photographs of Singapore Dance Theatre’s dancers in various pieces such as Swan Lake and George Balanchine’s Serenade. A bunch of unabashed, aspiring ballerinas point and emulate their graceful poses (I just about resist the temptation!).

We’re gathered – young children, parents and ballet lovers – atop the picturesque Fort Canning Hill, in Singapore Dance Theatre’s (SDT) foyer and the excitement never stops building towards the Company’s presentation of One @ the Ballet. This sold-out edition of the monthly educational presentation helps to explain the various characters in the Company’s upcoming production of The Sleeping Beauty and how the story unfolds over a prologue and three acts.

Artistic Director Janek Schergen is an animated guide through the ballet, peppering the story with explanations of mime gestures and insights into each role. The dancers then perform extracts from the ballet – notable highlights include senior artist Chihiro Uchida’s dainty Aurora rising to meet the technical challenges of the Rose Adagio, duly escorted by the four Princes’ quirky, humorous acting, and able partnering.

SDT Senior Artists Rosa Park as Aurora and Chen Peng as Prince Florimund.  © Dennis Ng

SDT Senior Artists Rosa Park as Aurora and Chen Peng as Prince Florimund Photo: © Dennis Ng

Schergen concludes the afternoon by saying that when he first staged this production on the Company in 2010, he “thought (he) had pushed the Company too far”. But now, he’s proud that SDT is capable of putting on what is considered to be “the pinnacle of classic ballet” with every dancer in the Company taking on multiple roles throughout the evening.

After the event, I have the opportunity of speaking to two young dancers, Chua Bi Ru and Kwok Min Yi, (who also happen to be very good friends of mine). Both of them trained at Singapore Ballet Academy (SBA) before moving overseas to pursue full-time dance training in 2009. Bi Ru went on to train in Wellington at the New Zealand School of Dance, while Min Yi received her training at English National Ballet School (ENBS) in London. They both joined SDT this year.

Kwok Min Yi © Justin Koh

Kwok Min Yi Photo: © Justin Koh

Germaine Cheng: Congratulations – you’re both dancing with SDT now! What does it feel like, especially since SBA used to be in the same premises as the Company and you were training in such close proximity to professional ballet dancers?

Bi Ru & Min Yi: It’s great to feel that we’ve arrived, and that we’re on the same level as dancers we looked up to as students. SDT is the only professional ballet company in Singapore and it has always been a model of inspiration and something we strived for. We feel very fortunate to have been offered jobs with the Company, and it’s a double blessing to be working at home!

GC: Were there any dancers you particularly looked up to?

BR: We were very young, and had a huge admiration for everyone in the Company! I particularly looked up to Natalie Clarke, who had taught me at SBA and danced principal roles with the Company.

MY: I am thrilled to be sharing the stage with Chihiro Uchida, whom I was very inspired by back then, in a professional capacity.

Chua Bi Ru © Milk Photographie

Chua Bi Ru Photo: © Milk Photographie

GC: You’ve been involved in various SDT productions as students. How is this production of Sleeping Beauty going to feel different?

BR: Of course, the Company has undergone many changes since we’ve been involved –dancers have come and gone, the Company’s now bigger… But making the transition from being an extra dancer to part of the Company hasn’t been difficult. We simply had to.

GC: It must be like a homecoming to be dancing at SDT. Was there a sense of familiarity as you stepped into your new job? Also, the two of you have shared a long friendship and dancing partnership. How does it feel to be reunited in the studio after moving to different ends of the world?

MY: We’re all grown up now – it’s quite a miracle we’re back together! There’s been a difference in mindset; we’ve matured as artists and as young women. It’s great to already know the premises inside out but quite a lot has changed within the Company since we left the country. When you expect change, it doesn’t come as that much of a shock.

GC: What are you most looking forward to in the upcoming production of Sleeping Beauty?

BR & MY: Being on stage at the Esplanade Theatre, and seeing all the various elements of sets, costumes and lighting come together.

Backstage at SDT’s Nutcracker in 2008. Bi Ru: Front row, first left. Min Yi: Back row, second right.  © Ma Yueyun

Backstage at SDT’s Nutcracker in 2008. Bi Ru: Front row, first left. Min Yi: Back row, second right. Photo: © Ma Yueyun

GC: What roles are you dancing in?

BR: I’m one of Aurora’s friends in Act I, a nymph in Act II and one half of a court couple in Act III.

MY: I’m dancing in Act I’s Garland Dance, and as a nymph in Act II.

GC: Have you danced in The Sleeping Beauty before?

BR: Yes – in SDT’s 2004 production by Jean-Paul Comelin. I was one of Tom Thumb’s brothers! I was very young then, and spent most of the experience getting to grips with the ballet’s story.

MY: As part of my graduate year at ENBS, I went on tour performing in My First Sleeping Beauty. It was an abridged version of the ballet aimed at children who’ve never been to the ballet before. We had to learn and alternate between various roles each night, so that was quite a challenge!

Artists of SDT in Act III of The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: © Dennis Ng / SDT

Artists of SDT in Act III of The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: © Dennis Ng / SDT

GC: What has been the highlight of your first SDT season?

BR: Swan Lake in March definitely put me on my toes! I was standing on stage when one of the dancers was taken ill. Our ballet master whispered in my ear, and I had to fill in as a swan in the next act! Also, dancing in Ballet under the Stars was very special, seeing the audience sharing a picnic and enjoying the performance. The stage just a flight of stairs down from SDT’s studios, very convenient indeed!

GC: What are you looking forward to dancing next season?

MY: Everything! I’m looking forward to being in Coppélia which I’ve never done, and revisiting other classics. Also, the more contemporary works fall in less familiar territory and I’m keen to explore a different quality in my dancing.

About the Author:

Germaine Cheng is a freelance dance artist and writer, who graduated from Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance in London. Prior to that, she trained at the Crestar School of Dance and Singapore Ballet Academy, and has performed with the Singapore Dance Theatre and the Washington Ballet. She was mentored by leading UK dance critics at “Resolution! Review” and was a regular contributor to and English National Ballet’s Dance is the Word blog.

Follow on Twitter @GermaineCheng

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