Dance goes dark and Gothic at Esplanade’s da:ns festival

Themes of death and immortality turn traditional dance forms on their heads in the da:ns series

Two different classical traditions will be reworked in the da:ns series of productions organised by the Esplanade.

The first is a commissioned work by Thai choreographer Pichet Klunchun, Dancing With Death, based on Phi Ta Khon, a Thai folk festival where locals, dressed in colourful costumes and masks, celebrate death and fertility. His contemporary works are grounded in his classical Khon training, a Thai masked dance drama.

The second is English choreographer Matthew Bourne's gothic take on Tchaikovsky's classical ballet, Sleeping Beauty. His contemporary version of the classic fairy tale, which comes with elaborate sets and costumes, is jazzed up with a vampire love interest for Princess Aurora.

Bourne is famous for his modern takes on classical ballet that appeal to even non-dance audiences and is most well-known for his hit production of Swan Lake, featuring a chorus of buff-bodied male swans. That show was performed here in 2014 as part of the da:ns festival.

Esplanade's da:ns series happens outside of the annual da:ns festival, which takes place in October. It allows audiences to catch "strong dance productions" that happen at other times of the year, says Esplanade's producer Faith Tan.

She adds that the two choreographers in the series this year "are important artists at the forefront of innovating dance from its classical roots in very different ways".

The da:ns series started in 2011 and typically comprises one or two productions a year. The 10-day da:ns festival turns 10 this year. Its line-up will be announced in July.

Experience death up close

A ghost festival in northern Thailand inspired Thai dancer- choreographer Pichet Klunchun's show next month about the interplay between life and death.

The audience will be seated up close to the dancers on the stage of the Esplanade Theatre.

Sharing the space with the performers will allow the audience into the limbo space "where the dead and the living share space and time together", says Klunchun, 45, in an e-mail interview with The Straits Times.

He was inspired to create the work after experiencing the Thai folk festival Phi Ta Khon two years ago, where locals dressed in vibrant costumes and masks dance and celebrate death and fertility.

The festival is held between March and July in Dan Sai village in Loei province in Isan, Thailand, and is alternatively known as the Ghost Festival.

The hour-long piece has six dancers, including Klunchun, who will wear vibrant costumes designed by Thai fashion designer Piyaporn Bhongse Tong.

Japanese collaborators Asako Miura and Hiroshi Iguchi provide light and sound design, which includes recordings from the Phi Ta Khon festival.

Created by the Pichet Klunchun Dance Company, the show is co- produced by arts entities in Japan and Australia. It was staged in Yokohama, Japan, in February.

Klunchun was struck by the visual spectacle of the festival and the sense of freedom that imbued the participants.

Dancing With Death marries his traditional Thai classical dance training with the more improvisational and raw spirit of the lively festival to create a physical vocabulary that is new to him.

He has been trained in Khon, a stylised Thai dance drama in which performers wear masks, since he was 16.

In creating this work, Klunchun, who is married with a three- year-old child, hopes to make folk art accepted as an art form and not just a "tourism product".

Traditionally, he says, folk art is viewed in Thailand as "non- educated", "non-interesting" or something done "for fun".

"In Thailand, the classical art form is the only form that is accepted as 'art'. Other art forms are not well- accepted and are commonly understood as 'activities'," he adds.

"It is amazing for me to see local people create their own dance form without any art or dance training. It is the people's art form."

He has performed in Singapore multiple times, including at the Singapore Arts Festival in 2010 in Nijinsky Siam, a recreation of an earlier work by legendary Russian dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, and Black And White, an Esplanade commission for da:ns festival in 2011.

A collaborative project with French conceptual dancer-choreographer Jerome Bel in 2004 launched his international contemporary dance career.

Titled Pichet Klunchun And Myself, the show involved a dance conversation between the two choreographers about their respective practices.

He received the John D. Rockefeller 3rd Award in 2013. The prize recognises an Asian or American individual who has made a significant contribution to the understanding, practice or study of an Asian visual or performance art.

His next work will be a solo piece that will ambitiously combine different art forms such as film, painting and music, and will be a seven-day continuous retelling of the Ramayana epic.

It will be staged next year, though he is still searching for presenters. There are plans to stage it in Macau in 2018.

He hopes that Dancing With Death can be staged in Thailand and is raising funds for this through Thai crowd-funding platform Meefund. This is his first attempt at crowd-funding a production.

He aims to raise four million baht (S$155,000) to present two shows in Bangkok as well as one in Dan Sai village, where Phi Ta Khon originates.

Klunchun says that being invited to perform overseas is "very convenient" as he has to focus only on rehearsing, performing and presenting the best work for audiences.

"Staging within my country, I have to do everything," he says. "It is energy-draining, but it pushes me to continue working as well."

Despite his extensive research into the topics of life and death and their intersections, including learning about spirituality from a Buddhist monk, Klunchun says there is still a limit to his knowledge.

"The interesting point of death for me is that it is the only thing that we all cannot share. The deceased are not able to come back to share how being dead is," he says.

"This is why I am very interested in the topic of death because both the choreographer and the audience have equal experience about it."

Vampire prince for Sleeping Beauty

He has put men in the corps for the smash hit ballet Swan Lake and an all-dancing, all-snipping Edward Scissorhands on stage.

I love the score, but I didn't like the story to begin with. Sleeping Beauty meets the prince after she wakes up, but they've never met before and they get married. There's no story really. I tried to make it more exciting.

MATTHEW BOURNE on why he added vampiric elements to his version of Sleeping Beauty, which features Ashley Shaw and Dominic North

Now, English choreographer Matthew Bourne is tackling Sleeping Beauty.

Princess Aurora, cursed to sleep for 100 years, will be awakened by an immortal vampire prince. Bourne's gothic retelling of the classic fairy tale contrasts the genteel Victorian world of Aurora with the darker underworld inhabited by kohl-rimmed-eyed fairies with names such as Tantrum and Feral.

Born with a rebellious streak, Aurora finds herself drawn to the dark side, especially to the sexy, sinister fairy Caradoc. 

Adapted from the 1890 Tchaikovsky ballet, which featured choreography by French ballet master Marius Petipa, Bourne's Sleeping Beauty will be presented as part of da:ns series by the Esplanade from Aug 4 to 7.


  • WHERE: Esplanade Theatre, 1 Esplanade Drive

    WHEN: Aug 4 to 7, 8pm (Thursday to Saturday), 3pm (Saturday and Sunday)

    ADMISSION: $40 to $125 from Sistic (go to or call 6348-5555)


This is his second production to be staged in Singapore after his breakout hit, Swan Lake, which was presented as part of Esplanade's da:ns festival in 2014.

Audiences attending the opening show at the Esplanade Theatre on Aug 4 might encounter the bespectacled choreographer sitting among them, taking note of how they react to the show.

Bourne will attend the first night's show and it will be his first time in the country.

Speaking to The Straits Times from his home in Brighton, with his Russian toy terrier Ferdinand by his side, Bourne, 56, says that the decision to add the vampiric element to Sleeping Beauty was to make the plot less sonorous.

"I love the score, but I didn't like the story to begin with. Sleeping Beauty meets the prince after she wakes up, but they've never met before and they get married. There's no story really. I tried to make it more exciting," he says.

He says he did not watch the hit vampire movies based on Stephenie Meyer's Twilight novels revolving around a human-vampire romance.

But he watched the television vampire series True Blood (2008- 2014) and the 1994 movie Interview With The Vampire, starring Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt and based on the Anne Rice novel.

He says: "It's a happy accident really. Maybe I got the influence from there."

First staged in 2012, Bourne's version makes Leo, the gardener, and Princess Aurora childhood sweethearts before she falls into a deep sleep. His immortality as a vampire allows him to be alive and ageless when she wakes up 100 years later.

Together with Swan Lake and his 1992 production of Nutcracker!, Sleeping Beauty completes his trilogy based on Tchaikovsky's ballets.

Bourne, who was knighted this year for his services to dance, has multiple awards to his name, including three Tony Awards for Swan Lake. He was a dancer for 14 years and helmed his first company, Adventures in Motion Pictures, from 1987 to 2002, before setting up his current company, New Adventures.

He has created multiple productions based on fairy tales in his 30- year-long career, such as Cinderella in 1997. It was his follow-up after Swan Lake, the longest running ballet in the West End and on Broadway.

He says he was shocked by the runaway success of Swan Lake and that it was "very difficult to follow up".

But with more successful productions under his belt, including shows such as Lord Of The Flies and Edward Scissorhands that were not based on fairy tales, he has learnt to be more relaxed and confident that "things will be okay in the end".

His next production after Sleeping Beauty will see him doing his magic on The Red Shoes, loosely based on a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale. The new show, which opens in November, is an adaptation of the 1948 classic movie of the same name, about the life of a young ballerina torn between love and dance.

Despite his career success, Bourne, who is in a long-term relationship with Portuguese dancer-choreographer Arthur Pita, says he still harbours doubts when debuting a new work.

"I'm nervous. You want to do a good job. I think if you lose those feelings of insecurity about your work, then you need to question yourself. You need to feel vulnerable."

He says the appeal of the fairy tale is that with its simple storyline, he can be creative with how he makes the work.

With movies such as Maleficent (2014) and Snow White And The Huntsman: Winter's War (2016) often playing up villains and featuring even violent scenes, the darker, supernatural fairy tale may be a trope in pop culture now, but Bourne says the original fairy tales were often similarly, if not more, horrifying.

He says: "They were quite dark, much darker than we remember. Disney has made it less so because it was family entertainment and had happy endings."

For example, he says that in the original fairy tale, the prince leaves Sleeping Beauty after marrying her and siring two children, whom her "mother-in-law from hell" wants to eat.

In fact Bourne's production includes elements of humour - baby Aurora is portrayed using a puppet that can climb the curtains, for example - which he uses to connect to audiences who may not be dance fans.

"Anything I do is much less dark than anything out there," he says.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 19, 2016, with the headline 'Dancing with ghosts, vampires'. Print Edition | Subscribe