Renowned S'pore Dance Theatre has come a long way

SINGAPORE - It is one of the Asia-Pacific's leading dance companies, and has performed in places as far as France and the US.
It also graced the official opening of the Esplanade in 2002.

The Singapore Dance Theatre (SDT), Singapore's first professional dance company, has a pretty august past.

But delve deeper into the origins of the group that was founded in August 1987 and one would find humble roots.

Its first studio space was in a rickety old building along Lloyd Road and its members rehearsed above a restaurant.

Mr Mohamed Noor Sarman, the group's current ballet master, recalls: "We were afraid to leap and land too hard for fear that the floorboards would give way.

"It was frightening. The floor was rotting and rough. When we did our jumps, the floor would jump with us."

When it rained, water would also leak through the ceiling.

The 48-year-old adds: "We had to rush around with buckets to collect the rainwater. There would be pails in little corners and we had to be careful not to kick them."

Forget amenities like a rest area. Dancers had to rest along a corridor near the studio.

Says Mr Mohamed Noor: "We didn't mind the inconvenience." "We were happy just to perform in a professional company. Our spirit was strong and we were so focused on preparing for our performances."

The SDT was co-founded by two dance doyens, Madam Goh Soo Khim and the late Mr Anthony Then.

In 1984, the two became co-artistic directors of the newly-formed ballet group of the National Dance Company, which comprised part-time dancers.

Three years later, they founded the SDT, with a $400,000 annual budget. Mr Ong Teng Cheong, then the Second Deputy Prime Minister, was its patron.

Madam Goh was quoted in a previous interview as saying: "We hoped to touch the artistic soul of Singaporeans and share the beauty of life through dance.

"When (the group) first started, I remember we used to refer to (the dancers') salary as being equivalent to that of a construction worker.

"At that time, we just could not afford to pay them more."

One of the SDT's seven founding dancers is Mr Jamaludin Jalil, now a senior lecturer at the department of dance at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.

The 50-year-old recalls that finances in those early days were very tight.

He says: "In the first few months, I was paid only $700 a month. It was so little that I would always run out of money halfway into the month... To save money, I would walk from the dance studio to my flat in Toa Payoh after rehearsals every day."

As there was only one wardrobe mistress, Madam Patricia Oei, the dancers had to sew sequins onto their own costumes sometimes.

He says: "It couldn't be helped as there was just too little manpower. We did whatever we could to survive."

In those days, the whole idea of dancing for a living also did not sit well with his parents.

Adds Mr Jamaludin, a law graduate: "To this day, my mother still asks me when I am going to stop all this. I could earn much more as a lawyer and lead a more comfortable life.

"But for dancers, what we do is truly out of passion."

The SDT's debut performance was a piece called Beginnings, performed at the Festival of the Arts in June 1988.

Mr Jamaludin recalls: "We were all very nervous because it was the first time that we performed as professional dancers.

"How would the audience react? Would they think we were not good enough?"

Thankfully, the performance was warmly received.

The 904-seat Victoria Theatre was packed and audiences, including dance enthusiasts, students and overseas visitors, were won over by the commitment and potential of the SDT.

Over the next five years, the dance company grew quickly, and its repertoire began to include longer pieces like Vicente Nebrada's Gemini and Anthony Then's The Nutcracker.

Along the way, there were memorable speed bumps too. For instance, several dancers had stomach flu while touring in Indonesia in July 1990.

Mr Jamaludin, who was one of them, recalls dashing to the restroom between scenes: "During the performance, I was in so much pain, yet I had to lift the other dancers and look graceful doing it.

"Thankfully, I danced in a few moody pieces and could channel all my pain into the performance."

But the biggest blows to the company came in 1990 and 1995 - the years when Madam Oei and Mr Then died respectively.

Ms Oei died of a heart attack on the eve of a photo call, leaving the dancers devastated.

What is more, the next day, they had to pose for photographs which were to be used in press materials, brochures and programmes.

Says Mr Mohamed Noor: "We were shaken, but we had to regain our calm as the show had to go on."

These days, he teaches the daily company ballet class and conducts the rehearsals for productions.

"The SDT has come a long way," he maintains.

The company, which has 37 dancers, moved to sleek air-conditioned premises at Bugis+ mall earlier this year.

Says Mr Mohamed Noor: "It took some getting used to, having shoppers and office workers peer into our rehearsals. But the floors are a lot firmer here!"

The company held its 25th anniversary gala performance on May 31 and June 1 and will be staging Ballet Under the Stars this month.

Says Mr Mohamed Noor: "Watching the dancers perform during the gala performance was truly touching. It shows how far we have come as a company.

Dance has made me who I am and I'm proud to have been there from the beginning."

Get The New Paper for more stories.