Esplanade da:ns festival

Esplanade's da:ns festivals features female choreographers

From ballet to flamenco to macho dancing, three female choreographers will fuse dance styles and bend gender norms

Young female choreographers, usually less celebrated than their male counterparts, will feature prominently in this year's Esplanade da:ns festival.

Hailing from South Africa, Spain and the Philippines, three female choreographers will push boundaries by subverting traditional dance styles and gender norms.

South African ballet dancer Dada Masilo, 32, created her own brand of South African dance melded with ballet after finding that she did not fit other people's ideas of what a classical ballet dancer should look like.

Her version of Swan Lakefeatures dancers going barefoot and a homosexual romance.

In Bosque Ardora (Forest Worship) by iconoclastic Spanish flamenco dancer Rocio Molina, 33, the traditional multi-ruffled flamenco dress is ditched for a sexy oversized white shirt and stiletto heels, and props such as live trees are used onstage.

And Filipino choreographer Eisa Jocson, 31, challenges ideas of sexuality and gender with her performance, Macho Dancer.

Macho dancing is usually performed by heterosexual young men in clubs in the Philippines, but in her performance, Jocson is the one who executes the grounded, heavy moves.

The Esplanade's head of dance and theatre Faith Tan says it was not a deliberate programming decision to have such strong female representation in the festival this year.

"(However), as there is larger visibility of male choreographers globally, I look to present a balance of both male and female choreographers each year," she says.

She adds: "(What they) have in common is how they use dance to challenge conventions in society, pushing boundaries of dance forms and expectations of bodies in dance."

The male choreographers in this year's festival include Benjamin Millepied, who is known for being the choreographer for the movie Black Swan (2010) and for marrying its star Natalie Portman.

His dance company, L.A. Dance Project, will present a diverse array of dance items, including a tribute to dance icon Martha Graham.

Dance fans can look forward to seven ticketed productions, 75 workshops and masterclasses and more than 70 free events and performances.

The festival, now in its 12th edition, runs from Oct 20 to 29.


Swan Lake in bare feet

Imagine taking a ballet classic such as Swan Lake and reinventing it completely.

  • BOOK IT /DADA MASILO'S SWAN LAKE

  • WHERE: Esplanade Theatre, 1 Esplanade Drive

    WHEN: Oct 20 and 21, 8pm

    ADMISSION: $20 to $100 from Sistic (go to www.sistic.com.sg or call 6348-5555)

    INFO: esplanade.com/dansfestival

The 19th-century ballet by Russian composer Tchaikovsky, about swan princess Odette and her love Prince Siegfried, is a staple in the ballet world.

When South African choreographer Dada Masilo decided to fuse the ballet with South African dance, she was nervous.

There was whooping and hollering amid the pirouettes and arabesques, and bare feet stomped on the floor.

"I thought it was going to fall flat on its face and the purists were going to hate it," says Masilo of the debut of the full-length work in 2010.

"The work was not made out of disrespect for the ballet, but from finding a new way of tackling the narrative and finding new movement vocabulary."

Her fears were unfounded and audiences loved her new blended style of ballet.

Masilo, 32, plays Odette in the production, which is on at the Esplanade Theatre on Oct 20 and 21.

The work also features a gay Prince Siegfried, who has a clandestine relationship with a man.

This, says Masilo, was introduced to reflect the current issues pertinent to South African society.

She says: "It is pointless to pretend that homophobia doesn't exist because it does. I don't understand discrimination against people because they make different choices. People should be allowed to live their lives the way they see fit."

Masilo has had a long history with Swan Lake. After seeing it for the first time at age 11, she fell in love with ballet and promised herself she would perform in the work someday.

But Masilo, with her muscular body unlike that of a typical ballerina's slim build, did not fit the traditional image of a ballerina - so she decided to take things into her own hands.

"My path didn't lead me to becoming a ballet dancer, so I had to make my own contemporary version," she says.

Another contemporary issue explored in the work is the stigma that society has towards acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or Aids.

Masilo's aunt had Aids, but died of a broken heart, she says, because "she was shunned by the family".

"The work is set in the now. It is not a fairy tale, but a work which tackles real issues that are happening in this day and age," says Masilo.

"I don't want to make work that is just pretty. I also would like for people to feel, think, ask questions and hopefully learn something they didn't know before."


Blurring of gender lines

In her early 20s, Eisa Jocson visited a macho club for the first time while attending a bachelorette party.

  • BOOK IT / MACHO DANCER AND CORPONOMY

  • WHERE: Esplanade Theatre Studio, 1 Esplanade Drive

    WHEN: Oct 27 and 28, 8pm

    ADMISSION: $30 from Sistic

    INFO: esplanade.com/dansfestival

Scattered all over the Philippines, these clubs are known for their macho dancers - young men, usually dressed in shorts and cowboy boots, who dance seductively for money.

Jocson, 31, could not have predicted that she would take on this form as her own and perform it for contemporary dance audiences.

Since 2013, her work Macho Dancer has been staged in cities such as Berlin, Sydney and Yokohama.

In the gender-bending show, Jocson emulates the sensual dance moves of the men, which are very grounded and meant to accentuate their bodies and muscles.

"I didn't think I would take it on as part of my artistic practice. I just thought it was something that happens in the Philippines," she says.

Macho Dancer takes place at Esplanade Theatre Studio on Oct 27 and 28. There will also be a performance lecture titled Corponomy, where she will talk about her works.

She was initially attracted to studying macho dancers after finding herself boxed in by people's expectations of her as a pole dancer.

Since completing college in the late 2000s, Jocson has been a pole dancer, even teaching classes at one point of time to supplement her income. "I wanted to rebel against my own practice with something that went beyond my gender, with a movement vocabulary that is completely not in my gender formation."

She went to several macho clubs and convinced some dancers to teach her the moves associated with macho dancing, such as the "thick and slow" movements, as if one is "moving in honey".

Her past performances have had their share of supporters and detractors, with most people coming out "with some intense reaction".

And judging by the audience's reactions, she has succeeded in blurring traditional gender differences. She says: "I've received proposals after my shows from men and women, gay and straight. The performance language is made to seduce people."


Unusual sensual side to flamenco

Upside-down live trees; a dancer dressed in an oversized boyfriend shirt and stiletto heels; a performer with a manbun.

Spanish choreographer Rocio Molina (middle) in Bosque Ardora.
Spanish choreographer Rocio Molina (middle) in Bosque Ardora. PHOTO: ALAIN SCHERER

No, this is not an avant-garde theatre performance, but a flamenco production created by Spanish choreographer Rocio Molina.

  • BOOK IT /BOSQUE ARDORA

  • WHERE: Esplanade Theatre, 1 Esplanade Drive

    WHEN: Oct 27 and 28, 8pm

    ADMISSION: $20 to $100 from Sistic

    INFO: esplanade.com/dansfestival

Titled Bosque Ardora or Forest Worship, the sensuous work features Molina playing multiple roles from Greek goddess of the hunt, Artemis, to a literal vixen.

"Bosque Ardora, for me, is a chase in which it is not known who is the prey and hunter. It is a kind of game, a struggle for something territorial," says Molina, 33, who performs with two male dancers and a group of musicians.

There will also be 16 leafy trees onstage. Molina insists on having the real deal because she does not like pretence. Some trees will be suspended upside-down.

In her creations, she often combines flamenco with different art forms such as painting, literature and cinema. She attributes this to her love of Japanese noh and kabuki theatre as well as director Hayao Miyazaki's animated films.

With no generously ruffled black and red dresses in sight and a modern staging reminiscent of the dream-like landscapes of Pina Bausch, it is no wonder that Molina draws ire from flamenco purists.

"For me, the concept of the word purist is different from the purists themselves. For me, whatever is pure is the absolute truth. Then everything that is true will always be very 'flamenco'," she says.

Molina, who started choreographing from age seven, has her fair share of admirers.

She famously caused Soviet- American ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov to drop to his knees in homage to her talent after watching her perform in New York in 2014. "It was like a gift, I did not expect it. He is a great dance god," she says.

She looks forward to sharing her vision in Bosque Ardora with Singapore audiences.

"I feel (it) is closely linked to Asian cultures, the relationship with nature, the delicacy of the movements that are shown, for example. I am very proud to be able to show this vision and excited by how the (audience) will take it."


Other highlights

DANCE CLINIC

What: Singapore-born, Berlin-based performance-maker Choy Ka Fai will play a "doctor" in this tongue-in-cheek clinic. He will dispense dance advice to Austrian-Dutch theatre-maker Florentina Holzinger and West Papuan performer-choreographer Darlane Litaay, with the help of artificial intelligence dance system Ember Jello. The show is rated R18. It is co-commissioned by German dance institute tanzhaus nrw and the Esplanade.

Where: Esplanade Theatre Studio, 1 Esplanade Drive When: Oct 20 and 21, 8pm Admission: $30 from Sistic (go to www.sistic.com.sg or call 6348-5555)

DANCES OF BORNEO BY ASK DANCE COMPANY

What: This performance by Ask Dance Company presents the diverse dance forms from the East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak. These include Ngajat Iban, a 16th-century warrior dance which is now performed to celebrate the harvest festival of Gawai Dayak; and alu-alu, one of the earliest dance forms of Sarawak's Melanau tribe.

Where: Esplanade Concourse, 1 Esplanade Drive When: Oct 20 to 22, 6.15pm (Saturday only), 7.15 and 8.15pm (all days) Admission: Free

INTRODUCTION TO THAI KHON BY PICHET KLUNCHUN DANCE COMPANY

What: Renowned choreographer Pichet Klunchun leads this 75-minute workshop on the Thai khon, a classical dance- drama form from Thailand, which is known for its masked dancers, elaborate headdresses and stylised movements. Recommended for those aged 13 and above.

Where: Esplanade Rehearsal Studio, 1 Esplanade Drive When: Oct 22, 10 to 11.15am Admission: $10 from Sistic

BENJAMIN MILLEPIED'S L.A. DANCE PROJECT

What: Former Paris Opera Ballet director Benjamin Millepied is known for choreographing the dark ballerina hit, Black Swan (2010), and for marrying its star Natalie Portman. His five-year-old dance company L.A. Dance Project presents a night of diverse dance which includes a tribute to dance icon Martha Graham and two works choreographed by Millepied, set to a soundtrack by award-winning American composer Philip Glass.

Where: Esplanade Theatre, 1 Esplanade Drive When: Oct 24 and 25, 8pm Admission: $20 to $100 from Sistic

•Go to esplanade.com/dans for details.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 05, 2017, with the headline 'Making her pointe'. Print Edition | Subscribe