“Bittersweet”, by Natalie Weir

From the Gladiator OST by Hans Zimmer came the music for this piece, at this link.

If you click on the link above and you select Tracks 5 (Sorrow), 7 (Patricide) and 10 (Strength and Honour) and close off with possibly a snippet from Track 5 again, you will pretty much get an idea of the music for this piece. The youtube link shows you where they begin. Listen to the music. Haunting, like a long raw cry drawn out from the throat.

“Bittersweet” is a piece that was performed this year’s Ballet Under the Stars (BUTS) by Singapore Dance Theatre. Choreographed by Natalie Weir, it was danced by two couples on separate nights.

One dance, two stories.

This is all based on random interpretation and thoughts – different ideas roll off different things. And I’ll put a description of two stories first, followed by audience reactions (quite unexpected — varied and interesting) and some personal views.

It’s oddly fun imagining a story out of a series of movements. I think that’s how a dance — especially contemporary / neo-classical ballet — can get so engaging — if it engages the audience, and we build things into it. There’ll be parts when I’m describing the same moves, but slightly differently, because there’s a different feeling involved.

Bittersweet – As performed by Timothy Coleman and Rosa Park

The stage is dark. A spotlight fades in, onto a man standing stage right in the corner, clad in a white shirt and loose black pants with his back to the audience, head lowered and arms outstretched so he forms a cross. A woman in a red tunic with a ragged red skirt hangs from his back by her arms. Slowly, she starts to move in a slightly creepy, fluttering way, and she rubs one shuddering leg against the other, … a quivering horror, itching to crawl off his person and obtain her own form. The music is strangely terrifying, otherworldly, primitive.

Finally, she unfurls off him and has a little quavering solo as she moves to a corner but eventually her legs, bent knees out, seem to give way; but she picks herself up again and makes little steps forward, then limps, broken-footed, towards the man, whose arms are now lowered and who has since turned around; even his face has turned away from her corner, and he stares ahead, unseeing. His shirt is unbuttoned. But as she draws closer to him, he sees her at last.

Reunited, they bend to touch foreheads and embrace, and arch their backs, away from each other, though their hands are still intertwined. A long single note from a siren sounds, and the music shifts.

There’s a curious tension in their relationship. They want to be together, yet seem to desire to be apart. At one point he he holds her upside down by her legs while she clings to one of his legs, and as he walks, he throws up his leg as if he is trying to throw her off. He lifts her up and drapes her across his shoulders and somehow she ends up hanging from his neck by her ankles, one hand clutched to an ankle to form a trapezoid anchor round his neck, while his hands are free, and outstretched as if he is on an invisible cross again; but she is now a weight around his neck, instead of a body on his back. You can feel the air freeze when this happens.

Surely there is love. Is there? He spins her and lifts her, one arm wrapped around her torso while she spreads her arms, a sparrow in mid-flight; and in one heart-stopping moment, with only one hand, he raises her straight up above him, and she gazes down at him. When he lies on the ground and she on him, she arcs her body against his torso, and he lifts her bodily with one foot, his hands holding up her outspread arms; and the air is raw with their desire. They need to be together, but something in them seems to tear them apart, as if they know they’re not meant to be. When they embrace, it is a toxic embrace; when there is desire and intimacy, it could be interpreted as twisted… . There is a great open passion in him for her, but hers is a cool, controlled desire.

At last they are torn apart — as she stands forlorn in a corner, he makes his way down a path illuminated by a beam of light which seems to pull him away. He writhes away from her, yet tries to draw close to her, cupping her face in his yearning hands while his body is dragged back. Does he want to escape? It’s so tempting and enjoyable to imagine that perhaps he is partly desirous of escaping from her. On her part, at first, she leans forward in longing, one foot pressed back, as if hoping for him to return. Yet slowly, as he dances on, throwing himself yearningly into the air and (perhaps also) bargaining with the unseen force that pulls him away, she seems to sense that he cannot help but want to return, and she need not fear that he will escape for good; and the shadows onstage throw a shadow of a smile on her face, and she pulls herself together, expecting him to return.

And he does return, embracing her and pressing a longing ear gently to her chest and spinning her. Together they continue their twisted dance, he pulling her into the light while she clings to his wrists, he turning her in a bent-legged pirouette — and then — as the music swells, he tugs her wrist, and she flies backwards into his arms, and he cradles her in a tilted embrace, so that one of her hands is pressed gently against the ground.

Slowly, the light dies out, leaving them in the only spot of light to the far right of the audience, and they are entwined: he lifts her behind him, effortlessly crossing her behind his back from his right to left, so she lies on his left shoulder and she clasps her legs together, leaning on him. He lowers her back the way she came, and she lands en pointe, one delicate leg extended in front of her, while he holds her by her arms and spins her slowly so she is behind him, her arms entwined with his outstretched arms; and by some dreadful magic wrought by this careful turning, they are back to back again, her arms wrapped over his. And as he raises his outstretched arms, she rises up on his back, and he turns his back to the audience, and once more, he is forever wrapped in her deadly backwards embrace, unable to escape.

Bittersweet – As performed by Chen Peng and Uchida Chihiro

A man on stage with a girl on his back. Quivering, she slides off his back and slowly, he turns to face us. At first, he notices when she flits away on her toes, but he forgets, and looks away again. From her, there’s a sense of a sprite awakening, finding her feet, placing one waking foot before the other en pointe, sinking to the ground and finding her way up again, making her way to her man.

When she reaches him, she touches his face and turns his face so that he can look upon her. And he sees her, and recognises her, and they bend to tenderly embrace. They dance together as if they know that they have a very short time with each other and are making the fullest of it; he cradles her, and tosses her round lightly and catches her so she is a curved swallow with sharp scissors for legs; he carries her in one arm and points to something in the distance, as if to they are heading to some distant destination together; she pirouettes rapidly in the corner of the stage as he turns her; she clings to his leg as he walks, but he walks not as if he is throwing her off his leg, but as if he is helping to bear her weight, and he is walking forward with her despite the weight that they are both bearing. In any move where they advance, they do so together, conjoined in spirit, with the shadow of loss and time hanging over them.

Theirs is a tender desire, restrained passion locked in every stretched limb and out-held hand. You see this in how he carries her fragile frame, crouched, in his arms, and sets her gently down so she may sit, still curled up over her outstretched legs; and how, when he lies on his back and gazes up at her, she, supported only by her forearms pressed to the ground, does a delicate, wondrously flexible split in the air above him, and then rests upon him as he lifts her up with his torso.

But they are eventually separated, and he is dragged backwards down a long beam of light, his arms still reaching for her. In all his anguish at being taken from her (demonstrated most by a great leap of agony with curved arms in the air), he faces her and her only — and all his longing is directed at her, so that when he presses his cheek tenderly to the ground and lifts his joined legs in the air straight at an angle to the ground, this is strangely moving. She leans forward, longing to join him, yet held back by some unknown force that keeps them apart.

At last he manages to return to her, and they fall together in relief, and he turns her (no ear to sternum in this instance, see: restrained passion), then slowly brings her into the light as he walks backwards, his hands cradling her face while she clasps his wrists, her eyes never leaving his face. With just those points of contact, he pulls her with him into the light. When they are apart, he pulls her wrist — he wants her to stay, with him — and she is propelled into his waiting arms, where he lowers her so that her hand rests soulfully, briefly, on the ground. As the light fades away, he lifts her and she does a split over his back, to his left, curling up over his left shoulder, and then does a split again in the reverse direction, and she is set back en pointe.

They have been united, after all their agony; at last, at last. But then as he holds her hands — her one foot en pointe and the other leg outstretched before her, sharp as an arrow — he turns her, very delicately, so that she is behind him, and she is lifted onto his back, her arms clinging to his outstretched arms, her feet quivering and stretching, aching to dance again with him.

And so there they are, united for eternity, but they will never see each other’s faces or hold the other in their arms again.

*

I first saw this performed by Rosa Park and Timothy Coleman in the studio before the actual BUTS performances, without the lighting effects, and it was raw and haunting and just seized me by the throat. A thousand emotions rushing through the skin. When I watch things in-studio, I usually get a big visual picture first, a feeling of what something means, or may be intended to mean; I don’t break things down into the movements to store away in my head. All I remembered was that I absolutely had to watch it at the actual performance, and I had to get people I knew to watch it and experience it for themselves, because it was like nothing I’d ever seen before.

It’s swimming in emotions, and it’s athletic, acrobatic, strong, all at once.

I’ll tell you something I didn’t expect. The audience was fine with the first version, but they just cheered madly for the second. There were gasps during the second version (Chihiro and Chen Peng), and every single time I saw it, it basically brought the house down. I wasn’t sure why there was a difference. Could only think of two reasons:

(A)
The first version was performed as the second item on contemporary ballet night. This meant that audiences had already seen Shostakovich (including the pas de deux that saw Chen Peng sliding Li Jie in double-quick timing over his back and then over his left thigh to sit on the curve of his right calf, and the leaps of the dancers with their hands held perpendicular to the ground). They’d seen a mind-blowing piece that was not quite like classical ballet. So perhaps a second mind-blowing piece was appreciated but the audience simply reacted quite mildly towards it.

The second version was after the extremely classical Allegro Brilliante with its soft blue and pink skirts and massively intricately patterned-turns and moments of high, jolly energy. So Bittersweet, with its lowing mournful music and patterns of grief, clawed at the heart and soul of the viewers.

(B)
This was a ballet that made me think about casting and size as well. It calls for a girl who is relatively small in comparison with the guy; and a guy who is relatively tall in comparison with the girl. The difference in height between the first pair was a little greater than the second pair (a wild estimate is probably about 30 centimetres as opposed to 20-25 — this is the kind of thing that children’s sleuthing books claimed to be important and hence was dutifully practised, though of dubious worth); and as a matter of the principle of moments and physics, this also meant that the first pair’s movements created an illusion of being easier to accomplish e.g. lifting with one hand, or pulling the girl’s wrist so she flies into one’s arms and rests her hand on the ground.

All these movements were, of course, accomplished by both pairs, but you could sense the human effort in the second pair — and this brought out a sort of intensity of a different sort, despite the restrained passion. Not the ethereal sharp lines of the first version, but a punch-out feeling that was possibly the cause of the gasps in the audience at all the more difficult moments e.g. lifting the girl up in the air with one or two hands only. Here, one must say that according to the internet, a good partner doesn’t bring ego into the equation and he adjusts to the ballerina’s balance and tilt; and you could see this because when the principle of moments did not favour lifting the girl with one hand while walking and turning, no less, both hands were used to ensure absolute safety without compromising the essence of the moment.

Perhaps that human effort somehow fascinated the audience.

For a long time, I considered the first version to be more bitter, and the second more sweet.

One of my friends, echoing a newspaper review, and perhaps in agreement with that view of bitter versus sweet, said that the audience reaction was possibly a result of matching moods. That in the second version, the pair gave the impression of having the same type and degree of passion for each other, so their story might have struck a chord with the audience.

Maybe it’s a cultural thing — the second version reminded me of those stories of men and sprites one sees on TV and reads about — Legend of the White Snake (the book version – 白蛇传), something along those lines. I’d say the first was incredible and appealed visually and to some pre-human instinct, while the latter pulled at the heartstrings.

Obviously, the above stories are just made up because there were no subtitles. I did contemplate – what if the girl was just the embodiment of bittersweetness and the man was just there to do the heavy lifting? This interpretation actually worked for a bit; and yes, this piece left me with the impression of lots of heavy lifting.

Sometimes I need my symbolism to smack me like a battle-axe, and when the man had his solo in the beam of light, I was always left with time to interpret what it really meant, because I was puzzled. Why run towards the light when you want to be with the girl? Of course one could always just get a general sense of the anguish of the moment, but I like trying to think about these things a little, for fun. A friend commented that this solo was not assisted by the man’s open shirt, which she felt muddied the movements as it flapped about. I wasn’t distracted by the open shirt and actually thought Timothy Coleman’s wild passionate anguish was clearly brought out by the lines of his body as he leapt and writhed. Timothy Coleman has this dramatic flair and character in all his dances.

One random comment: charisma is a wonderful thing to have. No matter how petite the dancer might appear to be beside her man in this piece, it is wonderful if she stands out, as the ballerinas naturally did (also by virtue of their poise, effortless grace, and immense individuality).

Another thing that struck me was the angle from which the audience saw things. For the tugging of the girl’s wrist portion, it’s a very powerful move because it coincides with a soaring crescendo in the music, and the first pair did it so the flight path of the girl was along the diagonal of the stage, and that angle was structurally beautiful (especially in the studio) whereas the second pair did it so that the girl flew parallel to the stage and the entire move was immediately captured in the audience’s eye.

I’ve been thinking also about the necessity of bringing the story forward to the front of the stage. For Don Quixote, there’s already much energy and the tempo is high; and for Rosa Park and Chen Peng, they seemed to dance marginally nearer to the front of the stage at points. There’s a point where Basilio has to tell the gypsy king that they are being chased, and Chen Peng’s Basilio went right up to the front of the stage to pantomime this, and when I first saw it, I thought – why does he do that; he’s talking to the gypsy king, isn’t he? — and then I realised he wasn’t – he was talking to the audience.

You can see something similar in Bittersweet, when Timothy Coleman dances — his body lines are clean and visible (to me only, my friend said otherwise, on account of the shirt) because he’s leaping while facing us, in a manner that enables us to capture his image in our minds.

Chen Peng seemed to take the other approach, wherein the dance was directed at the girl. I wouldn’t know if all these differences are deliberate or accidental but they had very different effects which actually worked for the different versions of the dance! (As you can see above in the made-up stories.) This reminds me of another thing, where you see eye contact between dancers and you realise how nice it is if, say, in a fish dive, the girl makes a little flurry with her arms and looks up at her guy – it has that little zing, a touch of charm, you are being let into their story.

Of course that’s just audience perspective, and sometimes I just do this random parsing for fun because I know next to nothing about actual dancing. Frankly, actual dancing is not my strong suit – I can get into it and then I forget it all immediately. Possibly my favourite part of anything that I remember is the eight-point for cha-cha and the opening the door step-out (the New York? or the butterfly?) for foxtrot where one releases one hand of the partner and both sort of open their arms outwards as if welcoming guests to a royal ball. This was learnt at school; didn’t have actual private classes though I understand those exist.

*
Whew! I am glad to be done. I wish Bittersweet were showing again soon. It’s something that so effortlessly draws itself around you like a cloak and swallows you into its world. It’s amazing, it’s actually one of my absolute favourite pieces ever so far. Just two people on a stage and a load of good music and frighteningly stunning choreography. I revisit it in my mind sometimes, and hope irrationally that notwithstanding the fixed schedule of SDT for this year, it will somehow pop up.

As it is, Timothy Coleman has left SDT, so we shall not pass this way again and I am glad I had the chance to watch it.

After watching Timothy Coleman and Chihiro in their cheerful quirky little pas de deux in Winds of Zephyrus at BUTS, and because Rosa Park and Chen Peng dance together quite a bit in both classical and contemporary pieces, I really wondered what the stories would be like if those had been the versions. But as it is, the casting above was unique and, I think, nicely chosen.

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