This was staged in what I will call an intimate setting, with about six rows of seats in a half-amphitheatre-like style before a small stage, and there was a small live orchestra with a conductor. The setting was really right for the sort of story this was, strong on drama and with a Narrator who took it upon himself to participate in the scenes in a very familiar fashion.
It was a pretty unique and fun concept—we’ve known of live orchestras with live ballet, but not onstage in this manner (as described below), and with a Narrator as well. I haven’t managed to check out how other productions of this piece have been conducted.
Here is an interview with the choreographer/Narrator, Timothy Coleman, on the site he shares with Heidi Zolker (ballet mistress of the production), on the making of this piece:
Tired Soldier (Stefaan Morrow, with very clean, balanced lines) is on way back to hometown, when the Devil (Nazer Salgado–played convincingly with immense good humour and strength–one giant leap out from the shadows comes to mind) crosses his path and, upon hearing Soldier’s violin-playing, strikes a bargain: a book that foretells the future and brings riches, in exchange for the fiddle. The exchange is made, Devil discovers that fiddle-owning does not translate to fiddle-playing (the Devil is not all-powerful, perhaps because music is not something of his realm) and gets quite angry, but asks Soldier to teach him how to play the violin in exchange (again!) for his teaching Soldier how to read the book. Soldier agrees. Three days only, sayeth the Devil.
But on returning to his hometown, he discovers that three years have passed, his girlfriend has married, everyone thinks he is a ghost. Bereft, he confronts the Devil, and it is revealed that the Devil has full possession over him. The Devil reminds him of the powers of the book he has, and he uses them for great gains, but learns that material wealth is nothing, and he gives away everything, but remains miserable.
Subsequently, he hears that the Princess (Beatrice Castaneda) is unwell and her hand in marriage is promised to anyone who can cure her. With some encouragement (read: egging on) by the Narrator, he challenges the Devil, wins back his violin and his freedom (or so he thinks), and cures her with his playing. She’s quite shy initially (very fine and delicate steps from Beatrice Castaneda, as she slips out of Soldier’s reach), but at last they do marry. However, when he tries to return to his hometown, he finds there is a line he cannot cross–that he cannot both have his bride and see his aged mother. The Devil will have none of that. But he plucks up his courage–or foolhardiness–and crosses the line, and the Devil has him.
For a piece with such a potentially heavy mood, humour is really important. It’s unpleasant to feel like you are lumbering around in sackcloth and ashes for an hour. The tone of the actual written word of the Narrator worked, of course, as well as the entertaining narration from Timothy Coleman (also the choreographer). But there were also many hilarious moments. Instead of having Soldier wield a violin, violinist Loh Jun Hong was seamlessly inserted into the scene as The Violin. As Soldier/ Devil took possession of him, they took hold of his music stand as well, and he obediently followed. When Devil tried to play the violin, he did so by running a finger over his score for him to read, and the wailing melody that issued had Devil clutching his ears, rising to his toes and shuddering in a physical embodiment of a shrieking wail. This happened a few times, contrasted with the playing of the violin by a gleeful Soldier, and the combination of the use of the violinist as a prop and the Devil’s horrified reaction tickled the audience.
The use of members of the orchestra as calefare was amusing as well (villagers turning away from the sight of the Rip Van Winkle Soldier with the he’s mad look on their faces; happily trading with the Soldier when he turned to money for comfort; the conductor doubling up as the King).
In general, the dances are not of the lavish sprawling sort, but more sparse, clean, and physical, and there are moments for flair and drama.
I rather liked the dances for the Devil, and wished a little that I could have seen more dances showcasing his moves. There was quite a bit for characterisation (e.g. the flapping of bat’s wings also reflecting the Devil’s rising powers over the Soldier), and foreshadowing (emphasis on the lapels of his white coat, which I didn’t understand until later, when the coat, worn by the Soldier, became an important symbol of the Soldier being under the Devil’s thrall). The Devil and the Soldier had some wonderful dances together. Their dances together were pretty much my favourite parts, whether it be when they (and the Narrator) were struggling over the card challenge, or when the Soldier was in the Devil’s possession and moved to every command by the Devil’s whistle.
The props consisted mainly of grey boxes that were stacked variously, as steps (a hill) for Soldier, as a part of the village square, as a stage for Soldier to dance upon as he sought wealth, a bed for the Princess. Speaking of the stage on which the Soldier performed: his actions at that stage were, I think, signifying e.g. stacking up of riches earned, and keeping more moneys. At some point, he seemed to hear the Narrator saying that such material things were nothing and he climbed off the stage, but if I don’t recall wrongly, he continued with his actions of accumulating wealth, which surprised me a little until it seemed the intent was for them to become repetitive and listless, until they lost all meaning and turned to dust in Soldier’s mouth.
Some other details stood out, apart from those mentioned above: how Soldier twice manages to capture and grasp the shy Princess as she tries to evade him, at just the right point in the music; how, during the Soldier’s joyous return after what he believes to be three days, he lifts himself clear of the ground on one hand to turn himself in the air, b-boy style, quite a few times, as he progresses in a circle round the stage–signifying the joyous journey home (much like how twitching a whip slightly as one moves signifies travelling by horse in Chinese Opera, I think); the Narrator talking directly to the Soldier and having drinks with him, skimming the Devil’s book with him, etc–there’s breaking the fourth wall, and then there’s walking right through walls 🙂 (I must admit I found it quite funny when the Narrator said that he would try curing the Princess but for the fact that he was about to be wed, since the local newspapers had previously mentioned that the Narrator is engaged to Heidi Zolker, the ballet mistress for the production, as the art/music director mentioned at the end.)
The live orchestra was amazing, and their vivid playing complemented the dancing perfectly. I think this performance worked best at the parts when the choreography and music/silence matched so well that they seemed stitched together, like natural halves of the other; and all I could see was pure motion and the glitter of the trombone.
In all, it was a good way to spend a day. Below I put the names of the necessary players. I understand all this was rehearsed outside of usual working hours, so everyone put in extra effort for a wonderful hour (or three, as there were three performances).
Stefaan Morrow as The Soldier
Nazer Salgado as The Devil
Beatrice Castañeda as The Princess
Timothy Coleman as The Narrator
And Heidi Zolker as the Ballet Mistress for the production
Adrian Tan, Music and Stage Direction
Loh Jun Hong, violin
Sean Lim, clarinet
Aw Yong Tian, bassoon
Lau Wen Rong, cornet & trumpet
Don Kow, trombone
Iskandar Rashid, percussion
Sandy Teo, string bass