Singapore Dance Theatre's Janek Schergen talks us through 30 years of being on pointe

Singapore Dance Theatre's Janek Schergen talks us through 30 years of being on pointe

The power of dance

Text: Tracy Phillips

Image: Robin Chee,
Chee Ping Ewe,
Tan Ngiap Heng,
Marrisse Caine,
Nicole Then

How do you run Singapore’s first and most established professional dance company? Ahead of the Singapore Dance Theatre's 30th Anniversary Gala show performances, we speak to artistic director Janek Schergen

30 is always a significant age. A time of reckoning. When you've had enough time to develop and know yourself better, learned from past experiences and envisioned the road ahead. You see this growth in individuals as much as in organisations and brands — such is the case for Singapore's ambassador for dance, the Singapore Dance Theatre (SDT), who celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.

It started in 1988 with just seven dancers. The company has since grown from its humble beginnings to become a full-time 32-strong ensemble with a cast of apprentices and trainees who train 40 hours a week and work at 45 performances annually both at home and abroad. At the heart of it is artistic director Janek Schergen, who sees through its creative vision, celebrating his 10th year with the company.

What is it about dance that makes it unlike any other art form? How does a dance company contribute to the nation's cultural landscape and what does it take to be able to perform over 45 performances a year? We get Schergen to look back on the Swede's tenure at Singapore Dance Theatre, talk about the future of the company and what this means for Singapore and the public.

Artistic Director of Singapore Dance Theatre, Janek Schergen

What is it about dance that makes it unlike any other art form to watch?
Dance creates an indelible memory of visual, music and movement in perfect harmony. Dance is an experience that is best appreciated in a live performance and the aspect of individual dancers and extraordinary choreographers can create magic.

How do you think a dance company like Singapore Dance Theatre contributes to the nation's cultural landscape?
Every major capital in the world has an established professional dance company that represents what is both unique, as well as established, through dance as an art form. Singapore Dance Theatre is establishing dance as a barometer to say what we have to offer as an arts community. The outgrowth of SDT in Singapore, from three decades, is considerable, beyond our own existence, with dance companies, schools teachers and choreographers that all link back to SDT in some way.

How is SDT an ambassador for Singapore?
Every time we perform somewhere, we are giving a look into the quality of life and the standard of culture in Singapore.

Singapore Dance Theatre - Reminiscing The Moon - Boi Sakti - 2002

How does one become a dancer at Singapore Dance Theatre?
The path to being a professional dancer is unique for every student who grows to be a full-time professional dancer. It might be an individual path, but it revolves around serious training at a formative age and then going through the audition process to finding a place in a company. You progress from pre-professional training into becoming a company apprentice, and then you're offered a full contract with a professional company.

Besides performing, SDT does outreach programmes too. Tell us more about that.
SDT goes into academic schools to present Arts Enrichment Programmes (AEP) that is one part introduction and one art performance. We also do the Dance Appreciation Series with Esplanade that focuses on shortened narrative classical ballets. In our own studios, we present a monthly dance education programme called One @ the Ballet on various topics that give a greater insight into how dance reaches the stage for performance. We also do "Behind the Scenes" tours for schools and interested groups to give then a look into our world.

How do you decide on what to perform annually?
It is a balance of what we have recently presented in performances, balanced with new works, either world premieres or company premieres that are entering the repertory, as well as existing works that need to be seen by our ever developing audience. As important is the balance between classical, neoclassical and contemporary pieces, as we are not strictly a "ballet" company. It can be also affected by finances and/or the availability of a choreographer that we would like to work with the company. Sometimes, we don't have the budget. Sometimes a choreographer does not have a free slot in their schedule.

Singapore Dance Theatre - Nameless - Xing Liang - 2010

How do you think the dance landscape has changed in the last 30 years?
It has changed because of the growth of both contemporary dance and the independence dance scene in Singapore. The opening of Esplanade and various things like da:ns festival bring an international scope into available performances to see.

Has the audience changed?
The audience is more diverse in its eclectic taste and desire to see a little bit of everything at times. Some people have never seen SDT outside of Ballet Under the Stars and there is another group that has no desire to see dance in a casual setting. Some element of an audience will not go to Singapore-based arts groups, but will go to things from international groups appearing here. In reality, the audience for attending music, dance and drama is still in its developing stages compared to other major capitals of the world.

Singapore Dance Theatre, Variations Serieuses - Goh Choo San - 1997

What misconceptions would you like to correct about ballet and about Singapore Dance Theatre?
Firstly, that there is something exclusive about ballet as an art form. Dance is a language, the language of movement, and exposure gives you a sense of where your interests are. Every art form is not for every personality, but dance as an experience is not elite.

Do you think everyone can appreciate ballet?
Yes, but not all forms of ballet. Taste is individual and not everyone can grasp every dance work with the same level of understanding and appreciation, nor should they.

Where do you see SDT in the next 10 years?
The two co-founders, Goh Soo Khim and Anthony Then wanted SDT to provide high level international scope dance performances for the audiences here in Singapore, as well as create a place where Singaporean dancers could thrive professionally. I'd like to think that we can develop and refine the things that we have done well for 30 years and find a path forward to present an interesting repertoire onstage that further defines the company's unique and individual identity.

Singapore Dance Theatre - Passages 2010

What's been your best takeaways and highlights as part of Singapore Dance Theatre?
For me it is the development of the company through its performances, the expansion of the repertoire and the growth of the dancer's abilities through those things. I have a particular fondness for programmes like One @ the Ballet, Ambassador's Circle, The Moon and the Stars Galas, the SDT Choreographic Workshop and international touring. The dance education programmes, including Ballet Associates Course, Scholars Programme and the SDT Intensive Ballet Programme are things that I invest myself in deeply and matter to me greatly.

What do you think about all these dance programs out there like So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing with the Stars? Do you think it betters the industry and grows audiences?
I think it is a form of entertainment that can produce positive effects, but it is not going to make dancers professional. It is the same with competitions. They provide a valuable form of inspiration, but after that comes the actual work.

Why should people be excited about your next performance, the 30th anniversary gala?
Anniversary events become moments in time that are always remembered. They create the memories that inspire the next stages of development. In this performance, one can see what our heritage gave us with choreography from Choo-San Goh, to a new work from an international master craftsman in dance, Nils Christe, to a world premiere, Linea Adora, that was made especially for the company and feature all 32 dancers in the company in a significant way.

Singapore Dance Theatre's 30th Anniversary Gala performances takes place on 27 and 28 July at the Esplanade Theatre. Tickets are available at Sistic.