Time Out Singapore: ‘The Nutcracker’ Review

The Singapore Dance Theatre has brought the iconic Christmas performance back to the main stage. In the hopes of finding herself in the production’s wintery spell Gwen Pew lands in a hit-and-miss affair.

A scene from Act II of 'The Nutcracker'. Image courtesy of Singapore Dance Theatre.

A scene from Act II of ‘The Nutcracker’. Image courtesy of Singapore Dance Theatre.

6 Dec 2013: There are few better ways to welcome the festive month of December than going to see The Nutcracker. Composed by the great Tchaikovsky and first performed in 1892, the ballet has become a Christmas staple in many dance companies across the world. Rather than setting it in Germany, however, Singapore Dance Theatre (SDT) has decided to reprise their 2011 production and bring the story to pre-WWI Shanghai. The plot remains largely unchanged though, and follows little Clara (Tania Angelina) through a dream-like journey, where she meets a colourful bunch of characters in the Land of Sweets under a spell cast by her godfather, Drosselmeyer (SDT’s ballet master, Mohamed Noor Sarman).

Overall, the production is a bit of a hit-and-miss affair. Some scenes and sequences are no doubt fantastic: the Chinese segment of the ‘Divertissement’ segment, featuring Iori Araya and Xu Lei Ting as Chinese Flowers, is interestingly interpreted and complete with a ribbon dance, and we are impressed by Rosa Park’s flawless performance of the famous ‘Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy’. But one does get a sense, especially during big group numbers, that some of the ensemble members are not fully bringing out the emotions or splendour of their roles as much as they should. As a result, the dancing comes across as being somewhat mechanical in certain parts – which is a shame, as the choreography itself is beautifully crafted.

The set, designed by Aaron Yap, looks great in the first scene, which shows a busy street along the Bund, and the snowy finale of the first act is stunning – but it falters at the Land of Sweets. While the simple backdrop resembles the illustrations from a children’s book, it is too bare to depict the supposedly lavish magical kingdom. The upside, however, is that the eye-catching, intricate costumes, also created by Yap, are allowed to shine through.

But the aspect we found most confusing is exactly who the Nutcracker is, and why the show is named after him at all. In most productions, he comes to life under the spell of Drosselmeyer and takes Clara around, but in this production he barely seems to feature at all. There isn’t any indication that the Nutcracker is there – the character’s name is not even mentioned in the programme’s cast list – and the role of handsome tour guide is, instead, taken by Drosselmeyer himself. At the same time, however, there is no earlier sign that Drosselmeyer has any magical abilities, as there is a separate Magician (Jeremy Tan) at the dinner party in Act I.

In all, SDT’s production is by no means a flawless one, but it must be said that despite its shortcomings, it’s still an enjoyable year-end show to bring the family. It’s just that we know what the 25-year-old company is capable of (their Sleeping Beauty last year was phenomenal) and can’t help but wish that they could take The Nutcracker to the same soaring heights too.


Time Out Singapore: ‘The Nutcracker’ Preview

No Christmas season is complete without the beloved ballet, The Nutcracker. This year, Singapore Dance Theatre will be putting on a version that is set in pre-WWI Shanghai. Gwen Pew speaks to artistic director Janek Schergen to find out more.

Janek Schergen. Image courtesy of Singapore Dance Theatre.

Janek Schergen. Image courtesy of Singapore Dance Theatre.

26 Nov 2013: 

Tell us a bit more about this set-in-Shanghai production of The Nutcracker – how much of it will be Shanghai, and how different will it be from the original, western one?

It’s all set in Shanghai, that’s the whole idea of it, except Act II which is the Land of Sweets. But the basic idea is that the parts of reality are set in Shanghai. The reason for this is that our previous Nutcracker sort of turned Asian dancers into German dancers and called them German names and was set in Germany. To me, it was fine, but I thought more could be done with it. You could take it and make it more understandable why there were Asian dancers in a Western context. So what we did was to set it in Shanghai, and there was a mix of people who are Western and Asian and there’s this idea that there’s a western influence but there are still people who keep their traditions – like the Grandma who refuses to wear anything but her traditional dress, and she finds this whole thing going all around her just a little bit silly. We don’t do so much with the Christmas tree; it’s there as a novelty. The real purpose of the party is for the husband to give his wife a beautiful necklace in front of all of his friends. When Drosselmeyer appears, he appears with his nephew Kristian and his schoolmates and eventually Kristian becomes the Cavalier, together with the Sugarplum Fairy – Clara’s older sister.

You’ve previously staged this version in 2011 – why did you decide to do it again just two years after?

Because most companies do it every year. In almost every company around the world, Nutcracker is being done every year. We don’t have the tradition, but in most other places – it has nothing to do with climate or location, like the same thing with music like The Messiah, no one thinks ‘we can’t do it here, that’s not our tradition’, everyone loves The Nutcracker. It’s a Christmas time ballet, very much like A Christmas Carol or The Messiah. There are a few things that are definitely sort of Christmas-centric ideas or feelings. Also, The Nutcracker is one of the few ballets that you can take a child to. The child can enjoy it just as much as the adult can. The adult can enjoy it on a certain level, and the child can enjoy it on a different level. The duration of the ballet isn’t too long either and it’s got some of the most beautiful music ever composed.

What, if anything, are you doing differently this time round?

I’m doing a couple of things differently because I made a cut in the music two years ago that I never liked and I’m going to fix that this time. Any time you go back to a ballet for the second time, there’s always fixes. It doesn’t have to stay the same just because you did it that way before, so the changes are mostly visible to us inside but not necessarily visible to people outside. There are certain things that I’d still like to fix if I could, but I’m limited by time and budget.

Is the rehearsal process any easier this time? Why, or why not?

Worse. When you’re doing it for the very first time, you have no standard to measure up against, you’re making it up as you go along. So there’s nothing to adhere to. With a classical ballet, there are certain things definitely, but once you’re recreating it, you can upgrade it. It was very successful when we did it in 2011 so I have to keep it to that production and then upgrade it, so if there’s a change made, it has to make it better. If there’s something there that’s the same, it has to be of an even better quality this time. Every single time you do something, you want to do it to a higher level. Plus, since I just did a children’s audition and taught the scholars their places there are over 40 children in this ballet. That’s just one cast and there’s still a second cast. So also working with children is a big responsibility in the fact that you are giving some of them their very first theatrical experience at being on stage and that can either be a wonderful experience or a horrible experience. And for almost anybody in The Nutcracker, it should be a great experience. It’s really important that the experience will build the love of dance in these children and it’s a huge responsibility. I take it very seriously.

Which is your favourite scene from the show? Why?

The snow scene. Time stops when snow happens, to me. Time stops when they come out.

For people who are perhaps a bit intimidated by the ballet as something that is too high-brow for them, what advice would you give them? Why should they come to see The Nutcracker?

Nutcracker is the least high-brow of all of these ballets. Nutcracker and Coppelia actually, it doesn’t take much to figure out what is going on. Nutcracker marks time. Almost everybody who saw the show can remember the moment when they first saw it. If you ask somebody, they usually can tell you when they saw it. There’s almost always a time stamp. If you’re a ballet person, and you go to so many performances, you usually can’t remember when you saw a particular work. But for Nutcracker it’s different. I think it’s because it’s one of those things that is a shared experience. In most places in the world, Nutcracker is done every year. The New York City Ballet for instance has done it since 1954 and they do about 50 performances every single year. But what Nutcracker is used for that company is the introduction of first principals. The first time somebody does a principal role is The Nutcracker, because of its structure. You hardly put anybody on for the first time in Swan Lake, because it’s just too much. But for The Nutcracker, it’s a way of introducing someone to a principal role in a way that they can succeed, and they can do it well.

Time Out Singapore: Bolshoi Ballet’s ‘Swan Lake’ Preview

Literally meaning ‘Big Ballet’ in Russian, the Moscow-based Bolshoi Ballet is one of the world’s oldest dance companies – although its reputation has been tarnished by a string of recent scandals. Gwen Pew reports.

Bolshoi Ballet's production of 'Swan Lake'. Image courtesy of Bolshoi Ballet.

Bolshoi Ballet’s production of ‘Swan Lake’. Image courtesy of Bolshoi Ballet.

13 Nov 2013: Literally meaning ‘Big Ballet’ in Russian, the Moscow-based Bolshoi Ballet is one of the world’s oldest dance companies. First established in 1776, they gained international fame in the early 20th century with their highly successful, masterful performances, which, true to their name, were some of the biggest spectacles in the world of dance.

Despite its prestige (or perhaps, because of it), the company has been plagued in recent years by a series of scandals and rumours of internal rivalry between dancers and the management team. The in-fighting reached breaking point in January this year when one of the principle dancers, Pavel Dmitrichenko, became upset that his girlfriend Anzhelina Vorontsova was denied a leading dance role, and hired a man to throw acid in the face of artistic director Sergei Filin.

Filin has since undergone surgery to save his eyesight, and while he is still recovering and has yet to return to the company full-time, the Bolshoi seems keen to move on and turn over a new leaf with its new season under the direction of ballet manager Galina Stepanenko, maintaining the classic style with which the company made its name.

The current touring production of Swan Lake received unanimous acclaim in London, and the show will be coming to Singapore this month. This will be the only appearance Bolshoi makes in Asia, and also marks the company’s debut here on our Little Red Dot.

Catch their performance of Tchaikovsky’s stunning love tragedy and judge for yourself whether the company can regain its former reputation as one of the best ballet troupes around.

Time Out Singapore: Nazer Salgado

With the Singapore Dance Theatre’s 25th Anniversary coming up, it has brought a whole bunch of talented new faces on board. Gwen Pew talks to Nazer Salgado, 26, who joins the company from Ballet Manila.

Nazer Salgado. Photo courtesy of Singapore Dance Theatre.

Nazer Salgado. Photo courtesy of Singapore Dance Theatre.

17 May 2013:

You didn’t start ballet training until the age of 16. Why did you decide to go into the ballet scene at that point?
I didn’t know a single thing about ballet, just the typical stereotypes – ballet being girlish and a hobby for rich people. I decided to give it a chance when Ballet Manila was in need of male dancers and was offering scholarships to those with potential. My neighbour was already a scholar and I decided to give it a try out of curiosity. I didn’t expect to fall in love with this art.

Were you into dance before that?
Not at all. Before ballet, I was into basketball, just like any other boy in my neighbourhood.

Was it difficult to break into ballet and play catch up?
Of course! It was extremely hard. Stretching was torture for me. It hurt. We were taught to bend and break our bodies out of the norm. I remember thinking how hard it would be to survive my first year of training.

Do you ever feel that there’s a lot of pressure on men who decide to become ballet dancer?
Yes. Until today, ballet is stereotyped as a feminine art form. It still surprises most people that real men are capable of dancing in tights and make up. It’s a challenge to explain what ballet is. Like in the Philippines where it isn’t as popular, ballet is generally confused with liturgical dancing and most people don’t understand that it is actually harder than any sport. Plus ballet dancers have to make it look effortless. People have to see ballet in action to understand what it takes to be a ballet dancer.

What has been your most memorable experience so far?
My first ballet class. I remember being very excited. I had no idea it was going to be very difficult! By the end of that simple basic class, my thighs and hip joints were so sore from the stretching and the turnouts. I couldn’t walk normally after that first day. I was exhausted, mentally and physically. That was when I realised the challenge involved in ballet.

What’s your dream role?
Albrecht of Giselle remains my ultimate dream role. There’s a lot of drama and demands to this dance, not only from the ballerina, but from the danseur as well. Love is expressed so intricately through emotions, gestures and dancing. For me, Giselle is the most heart-breaking love story ever told and the most beautiful ballet of all time.

How many hours do you spend practicing each day?
Now that I’m part of Singapore Dance Theatre, I’ve been spending five to six hours in the studio a day, five times a week.

What would you have been if you hadn’t discovered ballet?

I think I would have my own family by now, probably with a simple job to live by. Basketball would still be my hobby.

Tell us something that we can’t find about you on the Internet?
You’d find that I’m generally a quiet person but I can be talkative too. I love to be around my friends, and family means the world to me.

Time Out Singapore: Heidi Zolker

Heidi Zolker. Photo courtesy of Singapore Dance Theatre.

Heidi Zolker. Photo courtesy of Singapore Dance Theatre.

10 Dec 2012: As the Christmas spirits start to take hold of our Little Red Dot, Singapore Dance Theatre (SDT) ushers in the season with another production of the beloved classic fairy tale, Sleeping Beauty, which the SDT showcased back in 2010.

Set to a famous score by Peter Tchaikovsky and featuring over 150 roles – which will be played by a 70-strong cast in this production – the ballet has been performed by dance companies across the world.

While everyone tends to focus on the good fairies, the beautiful princess or the handsome prince who wakes her from her hundred-year slumber, we talk instead to Heidi Zolker, who will be playing Carabosse – a wicked, angry fairy hell-bent on revenge after not being invited to the party celebrating the birth of Princess Aurora.

Tell us a bit about yourself.
I am originally from Melbourne Australia, where I started ballet at the age of 9, and moved to Singapore two years ago to dance with Singapore Dance Theatre. Previously I had been dancing professionally for many years in California. I have performed in countless different productions, including full classical ballets and contemporary triple bills. You need to be quite versatile!

Have you ever played a ‘baddie’ in a ballet before? If so, how does that experience compare with playing Carabosse? If not, what are some of the challenges you faced in playing the bad guy (girl) for the first time?

Actually no, I have never played an ‘evil’ character before – it is quite exciting! For me it is fun to explore a role with such a strong character, and play the dark energy in the scene. Full length ballets like Sleeping Beauty use mime and movement to tell the story, so you need to rehearse interactions with the other characters, so it looks genuine and is clear to understand.

How do you portray ‘evilness’ through ballet?
Strong body language and facial expression is very understandable to an audience, and performing ‘in character’ is an extension of that. I have been making a lot of scary faces lately! You can show what you feel by the way you move or dance, and this is why rehearsals involve a lot more than just choreography and steps. Dancers should always have an emotion or a feeling to share with their audience.

What are some of the most difficult scenes to get right in Sleeping Beauty?
The entire production is a quite a challenge to put on stage. BecauseSleeping Beauty is such an extensive ballet, there are lots of props, set changes, benches, forests, quick changes, and lighting effects which all have to be co-ordinated with the dancers’ performance. Even in the studio everyone is very busy, making sure everything and everyone is in the right place at the right time. Following that, there are only a couple of days to rehearse in the theatre before opening night!

What should the audience expect from the show?
A full-length ballet is like a living piece of art. It is quite a unique situation, that we can bring a traditional ballet back to life, cast different dancers as the characters, and see it performed live on stage. Sleeping Beauty has lots of familiar and beautiful music, lots of costumes and scene changes, and great characters for both good and evil.

The Muse: Enchanted by Design with Tracy Grant Lord (Interview)

'Sleeping Beauty'. Image courtesy of the Singapore Dance Theatre.

‘Sleeping Beauty’. Image courtesy of the Singapore Dance Theatre.

This festive season, Singapore Dance Theatre will enchant audiences with Sleeping Beauty, one of the classical repertoire’s most famous ballets.  Set in an enchanted world of castles, curses, forests and fairies, Sleeping Beauty is an age-old tale of a beautiful princess, enchantment of sleep and a handsome prince.

First performed in 1890 at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, The Sleeping Beauty was Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s first successful ballet.

Staged by artistic director Janek Schergen featuring choreography by Marius Petipa and sumptuous costume design by Tracy Grant Lord, Singapore Dance Theatre’s latest rendition will run from 13-16 December 2012 at the Esplanade Theatre as a grand finale to the 2012 season.

The Muse recently caught up with acclaimed New Zealand costume designer Tracy Grant Lord for an exclusive chat about her inspiration in bringing  the magical kingdom to life.

How many costumes did you have to design for Sleeping Beauty in total?

Approximately 130 costumes.

Where did you get the ideas for the costume from? Were you inspired by previous performances of the ballet at all?

I use many reference resources as I design, historical references are usually my beginning point with research around the original story and its illustrations alongside the periods of history that the story describes. I have many reference books that show me details of construction for style of costume through time and specifically for ballet. I   listen to the music constantly – I become absorbed in the story through the score and in doing so grow to understand the essence of the story as described by the composer. This informs me about place and character and in turn their movement which all goes to inform the final design.

How long does it usually take for you to create an outfit?

I am merely the beginning point of a lengthy process of construction and manufacture that involves many many people. This is a process which takes several months and starts with the budgeting period and then sourcing of all the materials, then the pattern-making and construction followed by fittings and manufacture, with the final stages of the process being the detailing and assembling of all the components together including hair-pieces and millinery and jewellery and wigs and shoes. The skills required to achieve this are many and varied and I certainly would never be able to achieve it alone.

Which one is your favourite? Why?

It is very hard to choose favourites – they are all equally wonderful when they come to life on stage worn by the dancers. For me the excitement is seeing the whole production together working as a unified design, in harmony.

Which one was the hardest to make? Why?

Sometimes the simplest costumes can be the most difficult in order not to distract from the essence of the choreography and at other times there are costumes that require a lot of thought and experiment around the way a particular fabric or shape behaves with a certain movement or how a group of costumes move together. Often when I am asked to design wings on a costume we will have a few prototypes to test shapes and behaviour of the design because they need to ‘speak’ or ‘dance’ in unity with the performer and of course the music. It is not necessarily a hard thing to do but it takes time.

What do you love most about designing costumes?

I think it is the chance to be involved in the process of creating a new work from the very beginning and I love that. I also love the challenge of it being a new beginning every time. This keeps me very engaged in my work.

What projects have you got lined up for the year ahead?

I am currently working on a new production of CINDERELLA for Queensland Ballet and a new play called TRUE MINDS for Melbourne Theatre Company.

* This article was written in collaboration with Yvonne Wang.