SINGAPORE - Singapore Dance Theatre's annual Ballet Under the Stars season, currently in its 18th edition, affords audiences a fun and relaxed night free from the decorum of the theatre.
Traditionally, the group has opted for family-friendly, crowd-pleasing combinations of classical ballet - all pomp and virtuosity - and lightweight contemporary fare.
This year, artistic director Janek Schergen has programmed two weekends of contrasting performances: the first, a quartet of serious contemporary pieces which seem more suited to the theatre, and the tragic Giselle for the second.
For the first weekend, guests from Australia's Expressions Dance Company were invited to share the beloved Ballet Under the Stars stage.
The six fearless dancers impress in artistic director Natalie Weir's Carmen Sweet, a new take on the iconic story of love, lust and betrayal.
The mercurial Spanish gypsy is portrayed in triplicate by Elise May, Michelle Barnett and Riannon McLean, creating fascinating, illuminating tableaux with the men they encounter.
The imposing chords of Rodion Shchedrin's Carmen Suite punctuate the characters' intricately coordinated repartee, as the dancers hurtle into Weir's demanding duets. Their full-bodied physicality is breathtaking, although certain solo segments seem more like displays of gymnastic ability than organic, character- driven movement.
The centrepiece of the contemporary programme is 4Seasons, a world premiere by Weir - a meeting of the two dance groups and their vastly different styles. Weir's choreography is laced with brooding wistfulness, and the brilliant physicality, while mellowed, is in no way diminished. The ebb and flow of the ensemble frames four duets, which feature a dancer from each company.
These are representative of the changing seasons in a relationship - spring-like ecstasy, summery magnetism, autumnal languor and wintry dissolve.
Singapore Dance Theatre's Chihiro Uchida and Expressions Dance Company's Daryl Brandwood are entwined in a hauntingly beautiful partnership, in which their bodies sing in melancholic harmony.
It is wonderful to see Goh Choo San's Fives in its entirety and marvel at the mathematical rigour with which the choreographer derives his formations. His playful touch is apparent in the subtle rolling of wrists, skewed hips and unexpected changes of pace.
Toru Shimazaki's minimalist Absence Of Story, intended as an ode to one of Brahms' violin sonatas, remains subservient to the music and while well performed, rarely rises above its monotonous elegance.
Schergen's choice to stage Giselle alongside the contemporary programme places tremendous pressure on these performers and their rehearsal schedules. As a result, some minor missteps and a lack of unison among the corps de ballet mar the otherwise evocative performance.
The confines of the stage seem to fade away as Fort Canning Green, with its lush foliage and history as a graveyard, is perfect for the ballet - its first act is set in a village square and its second, by the titular heroine's grave in the depths of the forest.
Rosa Park's Giselle is a plucky, innocent village girl. In her opening circle of skips, her weightlessness hints at the otherworldliness of her subsequent incarnation.
She is besotted with Chen Peng's boyishly sincere Albrecht, who eventually breaks her heart. Her disintegration upon the betrayal is movingly slow; her tiny body crippled by sadness as she re-enacts fragments of their brief romance.
The moonlit forest of the second act is home to the Wilis, spirits of jilted brides. Heidi Zolker's icy Myrtha reigns in this realm with her threatening gaze and piercing leaps. There is no compassion as she gestures emphatically to Albrecht to dance to his death.
Chen's Albrecht makes no attempt to save himself from the exhaustion.
Instead, he is buoyed by being able to dance with Giselle's spirit. Lifting Park with an unprecedented attentiveness as one of her feet repeatedly kisses the stage, he alludes to the blissful future they could have shared.
Park pleads for clemency with the fluttering of her feet, the delicacy with which she rolls down off her toes and the unfolding of her arms in surrender. At daybreak, the nocturnal Wilis return to their graves and Chen is spared, though utterly bereft.
The principal couple's stirring performance is not complete without the support of Chen Wei's impassioned Hilarion. And a special mention must go to the ebullient Iori Araya, a bright light in the village scenes.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.