By Malcolm Tay

Subtlety was sorely missing from the program presented in August by Dance Ensemble Singapore, which was founded in 1988 to feature Chinese dance but has since branched out into contemporary work. Lately, the company has also been pursuing a style that artistic director Yan Choong Lian calls “Nanyang” — a sinocentric term in Mandarin for Southeast Asia — by premiering pieces rooted in Singapore’s history and culture, albeit filtered through a Chinese-centred lens. The triple bill at the Drama Centre Theatre paid homage to two local Chinese-language writers.

The recent nonfiction of Rong Zi, who has been writing for half a century, served as a springboard for a pair of dance-dramas. In 2018, she had compiled and contributed to a prose collection on qiaopi, remittances sent home by southern Chinese immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries, which became partial inspiration for resident choreographer Goh Yan Dan’s Correspondence from Chinese Immigrants. It revolves around a man who runs a Chaozhou opera troupe in China, until poverty forces him to search for employment abroad without his family. While his wife holds the fort, he marries the daughter of his boss in Singapore and sets up an opera troupe there, through whose performances he expresses his guilt toward his original spouse.

Correspondence from Chinese Immigrants came across as a baffling blend of documentary and melodrama. Information on the historical importance of qiaopi was delivered via earnest voiceovers and animated background projections that flitted by too quickly to be absorbed. This was the case as well for the guest appearance of Chaozhou opera actress Chua Ai Peck, whose brief songs were meant to convey the protagonists’ emotional turmoil but felt like intrusions in the plot. And the dancers’ overacting could barely be taken with a straight face, ranging as it did from playing adults rushing around looking distressed to seniors tottering on canes looking distressed.

Personal anguish was on display, too, in Mother, the second item inspired by Rong Zi’s writings, this one by creative director Cai Shiji. It was based on the author’s autobiographical essay of the same name. Born in the southern Chinese region of Chaoshan, she left China at the age of eight with her adoptive parents, relocating to Malaysia before settling in Singapore in the 1950s. In Cai’s Mother, Rong Zi — portrayed by television actress Priscelia Chan in her first stage outing — reunites uneasily with her birth mother, played by veteran performer Elena Chia, with three dancers enacting her child, teenage and grownup selves as the narrative shifts backward and forward in time.

Mother, like Correspondence, had the makings of a téléroman. There was a scene of early physical abuse. Chan’s Rong Zi cowered while covering her ears when her memories hurtled together in a jumble; she shouted at a flashback, helpless to stop her young alter ego from following her adoptive mother. Most jarring of all was an extended dance passage in which a woman in white was surrounded by and then tied to figures in flesh-toned lycra by a cat’s cradle of red rope symbolizing the umbilical cord: maternity as bondage. Such images hit the audience on the head, as did the eventual arrival of scissors to cut the rope.

Dance Ensemble Singapore’s third piece was triggered by former newspaper editor Pan Cheng Lui’s cryptic poem about a girl who daily greets a fish in the well fronting her home, until one day she moves away and the well is sealed. This poem prompted Taiwanese-American choreographer Kun-Yang Lin to craft Fish and Girl, which for once in the evening revealed the performers’ technical facility. The abstract patterns and fitful solos had no overt connection to the text, though some of Pan’s lines were recited occasionally into a microphone to dubious effect. At several points, a woman stepped onto a platform upstage, holding up the edges of her wide gold-and-silver overskirt like outstretched wings. Did she represent the fish, the girl or something else altogether? Lin’s creation seemed as mysterious as his source material.

Elsewhere, at the Esplanade Theatre, Singapore Dance Theatre mounted a revival of Choo-San Goh’s Fives (1978) — for many years a signature work of Washington Ballet — and two Balanchine gems, with Chua Bi Ru, Elaine Heng and Kwok Min Yi completing successful debuts in Serenade (1934) and Theme and Variations (1947).

At the Esplanade Theatre Studio, local group Chowk Productions staged what the conflicting pre-show publicity had described as a diptych or triptych, but was, in fact, a merging of two solos and a duet into an hour-long offering.

In her solo, Man. Untold., Sandhya Suresh examined the notion of femininity as she tried to unveil the person behind her sensuous poses and come-hither gaze. Karishma Nair’s The Last Walk for Water channelled the final moments of Letikiros Hailu, a 13-year-old Ethiopian girl who hanged herself after breaking a clay pot filled with water that she had walked more than 10 hours to get for her family. By the end, Suresh and Nair mirrored each other’s movements and stood back to back, as if two sides of the same coin.


Singapore Dance Theatre’s Kwok Min Yi in Choo-San Goh’s Fives
Photo: Bernie Ng