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The twilight of dance

Reflections on age and a dancer’s life


Published: 2 Jan 2020

Time taken : ~10mins

A dancer, more than any other human being, dies two deaths: the first, the physical when the powerfully trained body will no longer respond as you wish it would… I changed steps in Medea and other ballets to accommodate change. But I knew. And it haunted me. I only wanted to dance.

Martha Graham

This achingly honest statement from modern dance doyenne Martha Graham late in her career is an acknowledgement of the undeniable role of the body in dance. A body that is strong, agile, fit – in essence, a body that is young. Graham, who lists her last performance as being well into her 70s, was altering certain movements in her ballets to adapt to her evolving physicality. She fought hard to keep dancing, while using her body to choreograph for the younger dancers in her ensemble.

Dance does not seem to sit well with age and ageing, with studies showing that many professional dance careers end by the age of 40. But this discussion on the body and age in dance has to be situated within Western culture’s obsession with youth and beauty. Thus, old age is something that is feared, resisted and underestimated.

However, in recent years, there seems to be a growing interest in the mature (performing) artist. Continuation is an option over retirement as artists achieve greater longevity in their careers, particularly in contemporary dance which questions and challenges norms and expectations to break new ground in terms of presenting and experiencing the body in motion.

In the early ’90s, Czech choreographer Jiří Kylián founded Nederlands Dans Theater (NDT) III, which featured dancers above the age of 40. American modern dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham appeared in every performance by his company until 1989, when he was 70. Wendy Whelan enjoyed a career spanning 30 years at the New York City Ballet, after which she embarked on her Restless Creature series, redefining herself in pieces by contemporary dance choreographers.

Dancers carry so much in their bodies, the arcs of movement etched into their limbs. Maturity and life experience contribute to a special embodiment – one that is both learned and lived. This is where physicality is more than the physical and American choreographer Beth Corning describes this as “a more nuanced reality, the ability to express the depth and breadth of this life, bodies that can imbue each and every gesture, attitude and the frailty of our mortal selves…”

It is then, often more powerful when these mature dancers are seen in intimate portraits of themselves. We might see age creeping up their spines, limiting their leaps and keeping them grounded. But we also feel each curve and flex, performed so thoughtfully even though their bodies have passed through those shapes countless times before. The performances listed below are a few examples of beautifully authentic autobiographical performances by dancers telling their own stories of a lifetime of struggle and reward.

Veronique Doisneau (2004)

Recorded live and screened at Singapore International Festival of Arts’ (SIFA) The O.P.E.N. in 2014, this provocative piece by Jerome Bel is named after its performer and subject. The curtain rises on the grand stage of the Palais Garnier and on walks Veronique Doisneau of the Paris Opera Ballet. She introduces herself as a 42-year-old mother of two, a member of the corps de ballet on the cusp of retirement.

Interspersing her monologue with dance excerpts, Doisneau is firmly centre stage as she has never been before. “I never became a star – the question never came up,” she states. But for a brief moment, she gets to live her fantasy. Accompanied by her own humming, she shapes her arms into the soft, Romantic port de bras of Giselle. Then she gives us a glimpse of her reality – the punishing motionlessness she holds in Swan Lake while the principal couple dances.

This stark revelation of the effort that ballet dancers work so hard to conceal, also allows us to see the human within the dancer.

Bye (2011)

Though Mats Ek did not create Bye for Sylvie Guillem’s international farewell tour (which made a stop at Esplanade’s da:ns festival in 2015), he painted a poignant portrait of the renowned dancer, on the threshold of retirement, in between two worlds – the stage and reality. Guillem’s limbs first poke awkwardly out of a doorway, then unfurl gracefully in leaps, on the floor and even in a headstand. Her blunt bangs bob along as she skips through the strains of Beethoven’s last piano sonata, lacing its melancholy with childlike verve.

Guillem layers her balletic physicality with a compelling intelligence and whimsy. She thrusts her right leg out in front of her then emphatically turns her head in the opposite direction, swinging her off-kilter. She plays, throws a tantrum, collapses and eventually steps back into the doorway, only looking back at us once.

Above 40 (2015)

Created from their enduring friendship and diverse movement repertoire, Above 40 was a labour of love by beloved local dance artists Kuik Swee Boon, Silvia Yong, Jeffrey Tan and Albert Tiong. The audience, packed with their mentors, counterparts and students, was held rapt by every joke, breath and nuance.

A ceiling fan rotates overhead, marking the unceasing passage of time – time that is borrowed to be on stage again. The quartet take turns to bear and give their weight, their effort evident as their breathing gets heavier. They take jabs at one another (“No stamina ah? Jump higher!”) but they level these exacting standards at themselves as well. In quieter moments, they surrender their pasts as performers in rich, heartfelt solos and duets.

Bookending the show with long, sincere bows, Kuik, Yong, Tan and Tiong thank the audience for their presence and continued support not just for them, but for dance itself.

Almost 55 (2019)

Likening his process to making a documentary, Taiwanese choreographer Chou Shu-yi uncovers the chronicle of movement that lies within Qiao Yang, the veteran Resident Artist of City Contemporary Dance Company in Hong Kong. Captivated by her physicality and presence, Chou proposed to make a piece on Qiao.

Thus they retraced Qiao’s footsteps in dance – from a small village in Shaanxi province to being part of the pioneer generation of Chinese contemporary dancers – to reveal the stunning variety of movement embedded in her body and spirit. Alternating between text and movement, Qiao tells her story as she reflects on her identity and the many places dance has taken her.

“But where is home? And which home is it?”, she asks. Perhaps for all these seasoned artists, home is the stage which they revere, their bodies which they deeply understand and movement which they love.

Contributed by:

Germaine Cheng

Germaine Cheng is a freelance dance artist and writer. She is currently making strides into dramaturgy and her movement practice centres around discovering personal groove.

Huayi – Chinese Festival of Arts 华艺节 2020

Almost 55

Interspersing physically challenging dance solos with monologues, pioneer contemporary dancer Qiao Yang shares her ongoing journey in dance as she reflects on her purpose in life in her 50s. 

7 – 9 Feb 2020
Fri – Sun

Fri & Sat: 8pm
Sun: 2.30pm

Esplanade Theatre Studio
Get your tickets now!
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