SINGAPORE - The next time you watch a Singapore Dance Theatre performance, keep an eye out for a few more local faces in the ranks.
The home-grown flagship dance company employed only one Singaporean dancer five years ago and three in 2011. Today, that number has grown to five dancers out of 37 full-time members.
Among the locals is ballet master Mohammed Nor Sarman, who was promoted to the post in 2009, and Elaine Heng, who joined in 2011.
Ms Heng, 25, says: "As a Singaporean, you feel quite proud when you're in your own national company.
There are not that many of us, so to be among those few is something to be quite proud of."
The troupe's artistic director Janek Schergen says hiring more local dancers was a deliberate move. "Of course, everybody wants to have Singaporean dancers in the company. It's the Singapore Dance Theatre. It's a no-brainer."
However, Schergen, 61, says the infrastructure for ballet in Singapore was, and still is, insufficient to produce professional dancers. "It was always a stated desire but there isn't a training institution in Singapore to produce professional level dancers. It just doesn't exist," he says.
The audition process to join the company is strict and about 20 to 30 dancers apply for a single post. While all five Singaporean dancers in the company had each trained overseas for three to four years, at places such as the New Zealand School of Dance and the Central School of Ballet in London, one reason for the increase in the number of local dancers is the rise in training opportunities here.
Kwok Min Yi, who was promoted to company artist earlier this month, says: "Previously, most people took the academic path. But slowly, more people are being introduced to an alternative path with institutions such as School of the Arts, the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, Lasalle College of the Arts and the Scholars Programme."
The 21-year-old, who trained at the English National Ballet School in London, adds: "Now, because of that, we have more young talents who are involved in the scene, and who want to go overseas to train and come back."
Younger dancers now can also be more confident of their career path, now that a precedent has been set for them. Two other dancers who have taken the leap to study overseas are Alison Carroll, 26, who trained at the New Zealand School of Dance, and Lisha Chin, 23, who studied at the Hammond School, the Royal Ballet School, and the Central School of Ballet, both in England.
As for Heng, she started studying at the Central School of Ballet in London when she was 18, seven years ago.
She says: "When I left, there were only a handful who had gone to pursue dance before me and my parents weren't very confident of the idea. But I think that now, if people want to go at 16, it's a lot more accepted and you know what the route is going to be like."
Besides, many of the local dancers have strong ties to Singapore Dance Theatre and choose to make it their first port of call after graduation.
Chua Bi Ru, 22, trained for three years at the New Zealand School of Dance before joining the company in 2012.
She says: "I really wanted to come back here. I grew up watching this company perform and I did a few productions with them when I was younger, from a child to actually dancing en pointe with them.
So I guess since I grew up doing all the extra roles, being in the company as a member is what I have always wanted."
The trend for more Singaporean dancers is likely to continue.
Schergen says: I think we're now at the edge of the turn, with more and more dancers who train and go overseas and come back to join the company. I think that that's definitely the wave of the future."
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