The photo below tells you what Age of Innocence is supposed to be about.
As with all of Edwaard Liang’s works, Age of Innocence is fairly long and detailed, and built of music and concepts, with a solid structure.
So, very long and very thematic. Suitable as the middle course in a 3-set performance, and certainly a good reason why this was a Masterpiece in Motion night.
What’s superbly clever is that the skirt (look at those petal-like pleats!) can be taken off for a more athletic performance. You don’t want to be flipping folk over the shoulder and onto the back when they are wearing a looong skirt.
Picture a darkened stage and long black curtains at the back, with only two narrow columns through which the dancers pour out, to form long lines: men to left and women to the right and here I am, stuck in the middle with you….
It’s superbly formal and proper, with very heavy, 隆重 (‘long zhong’ or ‘grand’, used for ceremonies, etc) music. A proper courtship dance: ladies and men may cross diagonally to their partners in the other row, and at a touch, ladies may turn — but everyone returns to their proper places when they are done.
Women, drifting like warrior dolls in large circles, always facing us as they float in and out and between the 2 rows. They look a little intimidating – enigmatic, distant, untouchable, even menacing.
There are lots of moves to fill the gorgeous music: Men and women take turns leaning out of the rows to claw at the air, alternating (one woman, then one man, and so on, down the line). Such pockets of individual energy, and then a return to absolute decorum.
And when the men and women line up in one single row, the men lunge and push the women out slowly so that the women drift in and out in an unfolding pattern.
May Yen Cheah and Etienne Ferrere stand at the front of each row at the opening, by the way. It’s great to see May Yen Cheah, who is always so, so magnetic in contemporary and neo-classical ballets, and Etienne Ferrere, who is expressive, charismatic, spirited. (I do not know if I should be typing May Yen Cheah like the website does, or Cheah May Yen like I’ve seen in some brochures, so ‘elp me.)
Taking two seconds out now, to say that I think May Yen Cheah is exceptional and superb also because, when she performs in contemporary and neo-classical dances (i.e. those without an evident story line sometimes), she creates a story all by herself. She paints such an incredible picture with her dancing that (as if she were a muse) one can imagine, or create, meaning out of the movements. I was fortunate enough to catch a snippet of her in (incredible outlandish inexorable inconceivable help what is it called) Incomparable Beauty (thank you, google), and in the opening with Huo Liang and Jason Carter, held aloft, then lowered to be betwixt them, struggling to escape yet drawn to them, clasped in one man’s arms while her legs stagger, stretch and drag across the floor like those of a wounded gazelle’s — you can imagine a storyline, say, of a lady and 2 gentlemen, and a strung-out love (yes, I know it sounds clichéd, but it’s incredibly stirring). There’s that joy also, when she dances in classical pieces, but I think that ability to bring out varied interpretations in non-classical dances is truly special and helps audiences enjoy these performances that bit more.
Here, up to 1:02, you can see bits of the opening part.
Back after two seconds: the next part involves a pas de deux between Kenya and Chihiro. Apparently, Age of Innocence has two couples, one considerably happier than the other. I’ll wager that Kenya and Chihiro are the happy folk, because they seem to work in tandem. The hardworking couple that tills the field together. She emerges first and does these long stretchy poses, and then so does he. This is a piece with athletic sinewy moves: she hooks her arm into the crook of his and then while he squats, she rolls over to lie on his back. Don’t do this at home, folks. And while she is lying on his back, knees curled up to her chest, he clasps her to his back with just his right arm, as he ferries her some way across the stage.
Then there is the famous sky-diver pose, where she is curled like a scorpion or the letter U lying on its side, her legs curved over her back, while he holds her round the waist. You can see it the gallery of Masterpiece in Motion 2016 pictures on the SDT website. This is the 同甘共苦 couple, intertwined together. (同甘共苦 translates to suffering together through ups and downs, but mainly downs, I gather.) He holds her by the waist while she throws her legs out, vertical to the ground; she runs to him, is caught just at the right point and tucks her legs under.
In the end, though, they go their separate ways, and it ends as it begins – each person stretches and moves slowly, almost as if they’re doing slow Chinese martial arts movements.
The next stage is the “4 macho men competition”, I think. Etienne Ferrere and Huo Liang, Shan Del Vecchio versus Yorozu Kensuke — Shan’s arms flicking so fast through the air that his hands are a blur; Kensuke with strong clean lines. A fast-paced, energetic section with such leaps; and kicks with arms and legs practically parallel to the ground. When the men are on the ground, how do they get up? not in a leap, but rising up, legs diamond-shaped, their weight resting on the fronts of their feet (the metatarsals?), which are buckled on the ground. Ouch!
There’s even a paired dance between two of the men.
There is a part where 4 girls in long skirts dance, and Maughan in a short skirt (what’s left after the long skirt has been removed) takes centrestage. They dance in their corners and then leave. It’s a Maughan solo, fearsomely strong as always. A second stringed instrument plays overhead and Li Jie enters: no longer merely fluid in form, but each move strong and imbued with elegant purpose. There’s a fabulous tension onstage as they dance. They are joined by May Yen Cheah.
Rosa and Nazer have the second pas de deux. This is one fraught with great angst. Sure, there’s a great deal of partner-work, but these are unhappy folk. I can’t guarantee you I have the chronology of events here correct, because one of my favourite parts appears to intersect with this.
Here’s an idea – go to the Singapore Dance Theatre facebook page and look for their Videos. Specifically, One @ The Ballet – SDT’s 25th Anniversary 11 May. Right after Serenade, you’ll see Age of Innocence in the studio, and Chen Peng dancing with Rosa. Watch how he stands with an arm about her waist, one foot lunging forward so he has a stable base. Then Rosa does an arabesque, leaning forward so that her leg is as high up as possible, while he puts his opposite arm overhead and behind his back so that he can grab that raised leg and then pull her over and onto his back while the hand supporting her waist no doubt pivots her up, and she no doubt gives herself a lift-off from the ground – and, like clockwork, Rosa Park is seated on the man’s bent back. Like so, below (blurry, apologies). Heavens, how does anyone do that? They make it look like magic, Rosa Park and Chen Peng / Nazer. I’ve watched that video over and over again in fascination.
See then, how she leans over backwards, so confident that he will catch her round the waist (which he does) and swing her round. Rosa Parke remains poised throughout. Such elegance.
Do you know – there’s a part where she has to balance en pointe while standing with back straight, but with a front leg bent at the knee (almost a lunging position – I can’t quite remember now). She does this with nary a quiver. It takes all of one’s abs and muscles to maintain that position. Yes, the foot that is in front is en pointe too. Eeeks.
Now, one by one, through the entrances in the black panels, 4 girls enter, skirts billowing, borne aloft by 4 men and then lowered. I remember Nanase and Kenya, Jason and Li Jie, Bi Ru and.. Shan Del Vecchio? It’s gorgeous and haunting, their dance – women held high up on the men’s shoulders, arms outstretched like near-horizontal crosses. Here, see 3:50 to 4:03 of Tulsa Ballet’s performance (and the rest of it, too):
Rosa and Nazer are at the sides, dancing, walking forwards. When the 4 pairs exit, they resume their dance – and then she stands, back to us, and dances in a corner. There’s a part where she and Nazer meet again, and as she walks away, the music stops.
It looks as if the show’s ending here, but it doesn’t.
He walks away too, but she suddenly turns around and runs to him, and throws herself at him, and he catches and holds her, impaled, high above his head. It’s a sudden burst of emotion and the music crests again, and he swings Rosa down and holds her so she can do the invisible walk through the air (where the man carries her though her feet appear to cross the grounds too).
There’s a great deal of control and strength in this pas de deux, and they have to make it look — not light and lovin’, but strained without making it look strenuous. Theirs is a tense, drawn-out relationship. Maybe they are strung together by the ropes of convention! I have no idea. But it looks excellent, even if it’s a very, very long relationship and doesn’t look a bit happy. Maybe I’m wrong and they’re really the happy couple that hangs together, whereas the Kenya-Chihiro couple separate in the end, and so on.
But do you find it happy if Nazer turns Rosa Park so that her back is to us, and they together smooth out one leg as she raises it, and then she falls into him and he supports her? Or if it ends with her draped over his arm, broken-backed, while he holds the other arm up and faces the light falling upon them?
The intricacy of the choreography for this pair swept the audience away, and there was massive raucous love for this on both the nights that I watched this. It’s heavy stuff, and yes, it’s bitter and ornate. But when it’s done, you just know you have just watched something incredibly difficult and immensely brilliant.
The last part is seen in the Tulsa video above, from 5:39. Crisp and alive, bright and swift. It brings to mind the group dance in Opus 25, and it’s another of my favourite parts of the dance.
This returns in BUTS this year, during the first weekend. It’s worth the watch, is all I can say. It’s like a very fine main course, and its inclusion made Masterpiece really a masterpiece.
I suppose… next up is Nil Christe’s Symphony in Three Movements.