Interview with Singapore Dance Theatre’s Janek Schergen, Kwok Min Yi, Satoru Agetsuma and Joshua Tan

from left to right – Joshua Tan, Janek Schergen, Kwok Min Yi and Satoru Agetsuma

This December’s Swan Lake will be Singapore Dance Theatre’s (SDT) third production with live music provided by Metropolitan Festival Orchestra. 

What is the symbiotic relationship between dance and music, and what are the challenges for both dancers and musicians? Aileen Tang has a chat with SDT’s Artistic Director, Janek Schergen, MFO’s conductor Joshua Tan, and SDT dancers Kwok Min Yi and Satoru Agetsuma to find out more.

The Flying Inkpot: How significant is live music to a ballet performance? 

Janek Schergen: It’s the international standard. It’s the way it was originally conceived and it’s what’s considered to be the standard of artistic excellence. I would say it’s of paramount importance. 

Joshua Tan: For me, there’s no substitute. With dancers, it has to be somewhat spontaneous. No one dances the same way and it’s going to be somewhat different every night, but with a recording you’re kind of stuck in a rut. There’s just no replacement for live music.

Janek: I had never been brought up with anything other than live music so I had to do a shift to get used to using recorded music. It’s funny because someone asked what technology has brought to the arts. And you think, Yeah, something not so good because now that recordings are so much better than they used to be, it’s considered to be a possible substitution. But as Joshua said, it’s only a substitution. 

Joshua: None of the recordings – even the live recordings – are real. Most recordings are 99.9% the work of the producer or the engineer. I get my inspiration from the dancers on stage and the dancers get it from the musicians. We’re constantly adjusting even though we don’t realise it, and the audience doesn’t realise it. But with recordings, you can’t make those adjustments. 

Janek: It moves on and you have to move on with it!

TFI: Satoru and Min Yi, you’ve both danced to live music as well as to recordings. How different is it?

Satoru Agetsuma: When I first heard that we can have an orchestra, I was so excited because live music gives me a lot more energy – it’s like motivation to perform. I think the entire company feels that it is amazing to have live music.

Kwok Min Yi: It’s a dream. It’s just absolutely wonderful. Especially just before we get on and we can hear them warming up, and it’s like, “This is it! We’re going on!” On stage, you can just feel it in your bones, in your skin – everything is just magnified. For us, the feeling is amazing.

TFI: Joshua, you’ve conducted symphonies and operas, on stage and in orchestra pits. How challenging is it to conduct for ballet?

Joshua: I think the most challenging thing for me is that the orchestra here are not used to playing for ballets. It’s a different way of playing – the pulse, the tempo, the reaction of the orchestra and the sound of the orchestra is totally different. The orchestra is always, always subservient to the dancers on stage. Tchaikovsky’s ballet music is often played as suites or in certain excerpts, but in any live performance with dancers, the tempo is totally different. There needs to be quite a large adjustment for musicians who are not used to that.

Janek: But the music was conceived as ballets. They were never meant for the concert hall.

Joshua: But it’s such wonderful music that people naturally started playing it for concerts. I remember doing my first Swan Lake and the concertmaster playing the solos had never played the full ballet. And he came up to me and said, This is so difficult to play. The tempos are so different.

Satoru: Even if the orchestra plays it at a speed we don’t like, we still have to adjust and go with the music. That’s one of the exciting things for us – there’s a kind of fear! You don’t know what’s going to happen because it’s not a recording. 

Min Yi:: It keeps you alert! When a pause is a little longer and you’re about to take a step, you have to listen to the music and tell yourself, don’t take the step!

JS: It makes you a lot more sensitive. When you’ve heard the same recording a hundred times, you know exactly how it’s going to be. But when it’s an orchestra, you have to be – no pun intended – on your toes. 

TFI: Joshua, how well do you need to know the ballet and the choreography?

Joshua: I go with the same philosophy whether I conduct a symphony or an opera or ballet. It’s getting to know the artistes, getting to know the dancers, what they’re comfortable with, and where their extremes are. If there are two casts, they’re not going to take the same tempo. With ballet, even a subtle, minute change in tempo can be felt. 

Janek: A dancer can be standing en pointe and there’s only so long she can stand en pointe!

Joshua: There’s a limit to how long they can levitate in the air! Sometimes what’s natural for them may be slightly unnatural for the musicians. It’s just my job to be the middle person and sometimes I just have to pull the orchestra along.

TFI: Swan Lake is the 3rd SDT-MFO collaboration after Sleeping Beauty last year and Don Quixote in Mar this year. Tell us a little about it’s changed things for SDT.

Janek: Once you start working with live music, you can’t go backwards. Once you’ve cracked that egg, it’s cracked for good. We have a live orchestra for full-length productions now. Someone said to me, That must make a huge difference in audience awareness. But I said, No, it makes no difference because live music is just expected. It hasn’t changed our audience attendance at all. 

TFI: That surprises me because I would think that people would see there to be an additional element to appreciate.

Janek: They appreciate it a lot more artistically. You can feel a different buzz in the theatre. But I don’t think someone is going to change their opinion about attending a performance because an orchestra is playing – which is really unfortunate.

TFI: Well, I’m really excited about the fact that SDT now performs with a live orchestra!

Joshua: If you think about it, it’s ridiculous to go to an opera and the singers sing to a recording. 

Janek: Well, it doesn’t happen in opera – it only happens in dance. 

But it shouldn’t. Live music is the standard that exists internationally. The fact that it didn’t exist in Singapore was unfortunate, but now we’re correcting it. There are times when we always have to be prepared to dance to a recording – when we go on tour or for Ballet Under The Stars (SDT’s open air performances at Fort Canning Park). But that’s fine – it’s being prepared to dance to a recording, rather than no choice but to

Swan Lake presented by Singapore Dance Theatre runs from 5 to 8 Dec 2019 at the Esplanade Theatre. 

Tickets are available from

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