The Singapore Dance Theatre is hard at work preparing for Ballet Under the Stars, the annual outdoor ballet event on 20 – 22 July. We recently interviewed Artistic Director Janek Schergen, a gregarious Swede, about his long involvement with the company and the life of a ballet dancer. He scotches a few myths along the way, too.
Did you always want to pursue a career in ballet?
My mother was a ballet dancer and my grandfather was a percussionist in an orchestra, so my childhood was unquestionably artistic. Learning ballet was seen as an entirely normal activity. By the time I was in my late teens I had moved to the US and was studying full-time for a professional career in dance.
The film Billy Elliot ignited interest in males becoming ballet dancers. Your upbringing was very different, though.
My parents encouraged my interest and career in ballet but didn’t interfere. To my recollection, my father never met my ballet teacher. Nowadays, some parents are too pushy with their children, but mine were very hands-off. It was very much my decision to pursue ballet, but at the same time it was not viewed as unusual at all.
Having reached the lofty heights of principal ballet dancer at 30, when did you decide to make the leap from performer to ballet master?
I was based in the US for much of the time I was studying and dancing, including 11 years in the Pennsylvanian Ballet in Philadelphia. I’d always been interested in the construction of a ballet and received early mentoring from various teachers who encouraged me to learn.
My break came when I did some guest teaching with Goh Choo San, a Singaporean with an international reputation, who was then resident choreographer at the Washington Ballet. I was invited to become ballet master, the person who knows all the steps in a ballet, but on reflection, it was probably a little early for me. After seven years in Washington I went on to work at the Royal Swedish Ballet in Stockholm, the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, the Nashville Ballet and the Norwegian National Ballet.
How did you end up working for the Singapore Dance Theatre?
The collaboration with Singapore began in 1988 when Choo San asked me to assist with the very first ballet of the newly formed company, performed at the Victoria Theatre. Over the ensuing 20 years I returned to Singapore yearly to assist with ballet productions, for up to 10-week stints.
By 2006 I had settled back into Scandinavia and was ballet master at the Norwegian National Ballet in Oslo. A twist of fate meant I was commitment-free and in the position to accept a request to join the Singapore company full time. So in 2009 I commenced as artistic director, which is ironic given my encyclopaedic knowledge of the company. I feel I have been involved with the company in some way for its entire history, and there was in fact only one dancer that I didn’t know!
In one word, how would you describe your position as artistic director?
Challenging! It’s the artistic director’s role to oversee the managerial and administrative side of running a company. This includes organising tours and the performing schedule and keeping track of the ballet dancers: they are professionals who have trained at some of the best institutions in the world and chosen to dance here.
Tell us about the life of a ballet dancer.
There is a misunderstanding that ballet dancing is a recreational thing, but that’s not so. The dancers are paid a monthly salary; they train, practise and rehearse from Monday to Friday, 10am to 5.30pm, and also work on Saturday when there is a performance. The average career of a dancer is 10 years. They enter a company at 18, having learnt ballet since they were five or six. Most people dance until their 30s, with the occasional exceptional dancer working until 40.
It’s true that dancers must watch their weight, and they are very conscious of what they eat. The female dancers have to be lifted, so weight is important in that respect. But in the lifting manoeuvres there is more to it than weight; timing, sensitivity and the chemistry between the dancers are also important.
Relationships between the dancers are a normal part of any company. The wonderful thing for male dancers is that they get to be around beautiful women and dance with them all day long. Why wouldn’t any man want to do this job? We’ve had two weddings between dancers and several children so far.
The thrill of being a dancer is the most exciting and rewarding experience I can imagine. An actor would say the same; the thrill of a good performance is so powerful, it’s like being in love, it’s euphoric and gives you an adrenalin rush. That’s why dancers are so dedicated and focused.
How does the Singapore Dance Theatre rate globally? What are your aspirations for the company?
During my career I’ve been in two royal companies and three national companies, so I can confidently say we are now at an international standard. There was always a selection of fine individual dancers, but what’s different now is the uniform standard of all of the dancers. From the newest recruit to the veteran, they tend to all be at a consistently high level.
The good thing about being in a company like Singapore is that because there aren’t 60 or 80 dancers, the rise to soloist doesn’t take so long. In large companies like London and New York, very talented dancers can spend five or six years out of a 20-year career waiting for something good to happen.
Singapore is a smaller institution in the fact that we don’t have the same history in years, size of budget or audience development, but we are definitely in the international league. My vision for the future is to expand the repertoire so that we can offer more of the works of international choreographers, and tour internationally. And, of course, encourage more Singapore residents to see and appreciate the wonderful dancers that live on their doorstep.
About Singapore Dance Theatre
There are 34 dancers, 21 women outnumbering 13 men. Five are Singaporean and the balance a mix of Japanese, Australian, British, French and Korean. The company is based at the Fort Canning Centre, but is soon to move to a new venue. Fort Canning Park is also the venue for the popular Ballet Under the Stars, held annually for the past 16 years. www.singaporedancetheatre.com