A well-curated museum of Border Crossers comes to life

The Incredible Adventures Of Border Crossers at the 2015 Singapore International Festival of Arts.
The Incredible Adventures Of Border Crossers at the 2015 Singapore International Festival of Arts.PHOTO: KEVIN LEE

THE INCREDIBLE ADVENTURES OF BORDER CROSSERS by Ong Keng Sen

Singapore International Festival of Arts

National Museum of Singapore Exhibition Galleries/Thursday

In the introductory chapter of The Incredible Adventures Of Border Crossers, Italian design director Laura Miotto speaks to the camera about her love of museums. Her face is magnified on large screens around the darkened exhibition gallery, and she seems to be looking you right in the eye.

Museums are "theatres of memories", she says, with deep conviction, "a miniature version of the world". One gets the sense that these objects "have been there before you - and will survive you".

In that sense, this sprawling showcase - part catwalk, part infectious karaoke session, part multimedia installation - is director Ong Keng Sen's own slick, futuristic museum of moving dioramas, a showcase of a confluence of people from all across the world who have decided to make Singapore their home.

Some of these "runway models" are theatre-makers and artists, but most of them were non-performers yanked from their everyday lives (where they might have been a homemaker, a perfumist, or a manager of air-conditioning systems) and placed at the centre of a live exhibition of themselves.

At over five hours in length, this is a slow-burn production that rewards the patient. The show takes its time across 11 "chapters", sections with titles that are easy enough to grasp: Panorama (a prologue of sorts), Feast, Travel, Education, Work, Everyday Life, Wedding, Anthem, Theatre, Funeral, and Spirituality (an epilogue).

Each explores the performers' lives: a Chilean woman falls in love with a Singaporean the moment she sees him across a crowded room; a Malaysian woman recalls a childhood spent crossing the clogged Causeway by bus; a Chinese man, who obtained permanent residency in Singapore, is devastated when his girlfriend leaves him.

Ong's minimal, almost clinical aesthetic, which has won him both supporters and detractors, works well in this context of a living museum, where each of his subjects are presented to the audience at arm's length through story, song, or a strut across the stage. They are at once objects for our viewing pleasure - made clear in a fantastic middle segment (Anthem) that draws from old-school photo studios - but also multi-faceted individuals with intriguing tales to tell that erase the boundaries of nationality.

As the 20 very endearing performers re-enact their own rituals and traditions, their connection with the familiar in a foreign land, Border Crossers excises the stigma of the "immigrant", an act made even more affecting by the real-life refugee crises in Europe and Asia. But Ong does not allow the audience to wallow in sentimentality. A personal take on the partition of India in 1947 that ripped families apart, for instance, segues quickly into a joyful Bollywood dance sequence involving the entire cast.

While there are nods to the native cultures of these Border Crossers through poetry recitations and folk songs, some have picked up new blends of cultures. Frenchman Gilles Massot sings a celebratory mash-up of Edith Piaf's La Vie En Rose and Teresa Teng's The Moon Represents My Heart, and does a hysterical literal line-by-line translation of the theme song to the hit Taiwanese drama serial Love (Ai).

Brian Gothong Tan's mesmerising multimedia design is the other backbone of this production. His outstanding visuals are hypnotic even in the most static of moments, from a blistering onslaught of food images to geometric creatures ambling along like an endless journey to Noah's Ark. He has also captured the Border Crossers themselves, larger than life, walking and dancing and supplicating in loops across the translucent screens on stage, layered cleverly against each other.

This presentation of Border Crossers feels more compact and streamlined than its first incarnation at the Singapore Festival in France, where it was staged in the cavernous Palais de Tokyo in Paris. There, in an open space with no demarcated entrances or exits, audience members were under less pressure to remain and there were many more "wanderers" who came and left as they pleased. In the enclosed confines of the National Museum's basement exhibition galleries, there was more of a "captive audience", many of whom stayed for the entire trip (from 6.30pm to a little after 11.30pm).

While there are atmospheric climaxes bolstered by Kaffe Matthews' lush music and sound design, there are no narrative climaxes that one might expect in a more theatrical piece. There are also many moments of stasis between chapters.

But this measured pace allows the stories presented to slowly gain more texture and context as one journeys with the Border Crossers from beginning to end, mirrored by the costumes they wear, created by local designer Reckless Ericka. The performers start off in oddly amoebic, translucent white outfits, but eventually shed these artificial layers to put on colourful and beautifully intricate costumes inspired by traditional wear.

As a whole, Border Crossers manages a difficult feat: to capture both a global phenomenon of migration, as well as the very specific intercultural mix of Singapore.

These individuals are unable to choose between the place of their birth and the place of their residence, and have left fragments of their colourful selves in both places. This country is the richer for it.

corriet@sph.com.sg

Follow Corrie Tan on Twitter @CorrieTan

book it

THE INCREDIBLE ADVENTURES OF BORDER CROSSERS

Where: Performance at National Museum of Singapore, Exhibition Gallery 1 & 2. Separate standalone installation at Tanjong Pagar Railway Station

When: Sept 18 and 19, 6.30pm to 11.40pm (live performance); 7pm to 10pm (installation). Audience members are free to come and go as they please

Admission: $45 from Sistic (excludes booking fee; call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)

Rating: Advisory 16 (some mature content)

Info: Performed in various languages with English surtitles