Arts festival gamble pays off

Festival director Ong Keng Sen's performance installation, The Incredible Adventures Of Border Crossers, was among the 12 local commissions lined up for this year's edition of the arts festival.
Festival director Ong Keng Sen's performance installation, The Incredible Adventures Of Border Crossers, was among the 12 local commissions lined up for this year's edition of the arts festival. PHOTO: KEVIN LEE

The blockbuster Singapore International Festival of Arts concludes with many of its local commissions drawing warm reviews

A strong "Singapore edition" with bold, all-new local commissions - that was how this year's Singapore International Festival of Arts (Sifa) positioned itself in an arts calendar packed with Golden Jubilee events and celebrations.

The seven-week, $7-million festival concluded over the weekend after a blistering run of 66 productions, including a mini dance festival. It drew a total attendance figure of about 62,000, a significant leap from the 22,000 at its more boutique inaugural edition last year (See correction note below). Twelve of its shows were sold out and gross ticket sales held steady at 86 per cent.

If previous editions of the former Singapore Arts Festival are anything to go by, commissions both local and international can be quite the gamble.

At their best, they up the prestige factor of the festival as an astute institution that produces exciting new content without sacrificing quality. At their worst, they can come off as shabby works in progress, bleed out the festival financially from poor ticket sales and severely dent the reputation of the festival among audiences and sponsors.

For instance, in the 2011 edition of the festival, which was under a different leadership, 16 out of 35 ticketed programmes were commissions - many of which drew poor reviews and even poorer attendance figures.

Lining up 12 local commissions this year was a risk-taking move by the organisers and festival director Ong Keng Sen - and, thankfully, one that paid off.

Ong, 52, tells Life: "I think that Sifa as a brand continues to grow, regardless of productions being more positively or less positively received. I think the brand is seen to be an adventurous one, and younger, more adventure-seeking audiences flock to it."

Many of the Singapore commissions were sold out and some, such as Wild Rice's ambitious two-part play Hotel, the T'ang Quartet's series of three concerts and Ong's own performance installation The Incredible Adventures Of Border Crossers, received uniformly warm reviews.

Ong says he was initially worried that negative comparisons would be drawn between the local and international productions, but that these worries subsided as he observed their rehearsals and development process over the past two years. Each of the local commissions cost about $400,000 on average to produce.

He says: "The criterion I insisted on was that they do something that they can't normally do. It became very clear that this was not going to be their regular season."

He cites Hotel, a five-hour theatre piece in two parts that takes place in a hotel room over the span of a century, as an example: "I think Wild Rice, by themselves, wouldn't have dared to produce the show as part of their repertory because it was expensive and time-consuming, and you don't know what the product will be.

"If it had not been a success, it would have been forgotten and the risk is not really borne by them. But now that it's a success, it will come back into their repertory."

Incidentally, Wild Rice received a licence to perform Hotel only three days before the show opened. It received an advisory for mature content.

Ong adds: "I think many arts programmers in Singapore self-censor. They're quite conservative and they tend to programme something that is bound to sell. It's about having the right expectations of the audience. You know this is a niche audience and then you programme something with that expectation."

Even shows that received mixed reviews for their content, such as Nanyang, The Musical and Cake Theatrical Productions' Versus, could not be faulted on top-notch production quality.

Ms Michelle Zee, 33, a programmer who attended 10 productions, says the Singapore shows were "the highlight" for her this year: "The local productions felt very complete - they didn't feel sketchy, or like works in progress, the way new commissions can be."

Mr James Brunner, 55, who works in financial services, attended several of the Singapore productions, including a classical music concert by T'ang Quartet and Melvyn Tan, Margaret Leng Tan's toy instrument medley Cabinet Of Curiosities, and Wild Rice's Hotel.

The expatriate from the United States, who moved to Singapore a year ago, feels that the festival's curation was "fantastic" and "top of the class", comparable to others he had attended abroad.

Mr Brunner adds: "Even the shows I didn't particularly respond to, or responded to less, were undeniably good. The talent, the work and the quality were clear - and they were interesting to watch even if some were better than others."

It was not only the productions in conventional performance spaces - be they the theatre or the concert hall - that did well. This year's festival shed a bit of its highbrow, avant-garde air with a strong showing of community performances that were free to the public, as well as a large swathe of productions that took place in unexpected locations such as Bukit Brown Cemetery, an open field in Bugis, the Tanjong Pagar Railway Station and the living rooms of people's homes.

Open Homes, the festival's collaboration with the People's Association, was a large-scale "living room theatre" festival of its own, where home owners and non-artists spun personal stories in an intimate environment of 10 to 15 audience members. The programme featured 25 short plays created together with artist-mentors.

Ong says: "It's not about making the arts accessible, it's about making the arts available.

"Ordinary residents and citizens begin to tell their own stories, they are the ones writing, directing and acting themselves... It's about the conviviality of opening not just my home to you, but also my life. There were productions that talked about father-son relationships or the loss of a spouse. It's about opening your heart."

Ms Yap Chern Kai, a teacher in her 30s, attended nine of these short plays and managed to convince her mother to go along.

Both of them loved the experience, which she found "very enriching". She also attended an experimental dance performance in the Dance Marathon, one that involved a Japanese dancer performing in and around mounds of rubble on railway tracks.

She says: "I think Sifa is so open that it doesn't define or confine any of these groups. It's a celebration of anything that is or might be art. Open Homes is community art from the ground up and that makes it very heartwarming... It gives you glimpses into Singaporean life and really offers something 'uniquely Singapore'."

Ms Sharon Tan, a senior lecturer at a polytechnic, was pleased that this year's edition catered to the experienced artsgoer as well as to the first-timer. She volunteered to participate in Drama Box's It Won't Be Too Long: The Lesson, a free, interactive performance that took place in a large inflatable theatre in the heart of Toa Payoh.

Ms Tan, who had taken part in last year's pre-festival engagement initiative, The O.P.E.N., had been looking for the opportunity to participate again and jumped at the chance to play a "resident" who would decide what public locale to demolish to make way for a new MRT station.

She felt that the show was very "non-threatening", a draw for the non-artsgoer: "It was located in Toa Payoh, an area we're all familiar with, and it dealt with issues we're all familiar with, things that are very fundamental and close to our hearts. And they got the public involved to make the decision.

"It shows that art is not just about watching what's happening on stage. Art can take many forms and that can be a very good way to introduce art to the layman and get him interested. And if you don't like it, you can come and go as you please."

But even though the local productions have acquitted themselves well, Ong is not resting on these laurels. He says: "Singapore is very slick. On the surface, everything looks great. Then when you go into more depth, you realise that there is a glass ceiling. At a certain point, maybe it's quite average or the content is lacking. So this is the challenge for Singapore. We can make things look good, but do we have depth, can we go deeper?"

He continues: "The productions that we see right now in the festival have that first criterion. The production values look good. But what is the next push? It's about developing deeper content in a more consistent way for more companies."

Ong, now two years into his four- year term as festival director, is pondering an alternating system where one year would be more international in flavour and the next more Singaporean. This would also give Singapore groups "time to mature" so that the festival is not constantly "recycling the same groups".

He also says that while this year boasted an extravagant programme, it was "probably not possible" for their "very small core team" to sustain a festival of this magnitude and that next year will likely see a return to last year's more boutique format.

He has also received feedback that some audience members found it difficult to wade through a thick programme and make their choices.

"I learnt that we have to diversify our audience. A lot of people said to me, 'I've booked four shows in the seven weeks, I have to ration myself, there's too much going on and I can't do everything'," he says. "And you realise that even your 'niche audience' is choosing. If you cater to the same niche audience, they're also not able to go for everything."

Artist and choreographer Eng Kai Er, 31, for instance, bought tickets to about a dozen Dance Marathon shows (out of a total of 21), then found herself overwhelmed from the sheer pleasure of seeing the productions back to back.

"I was busy all week with full-time workshops and trying to see all the shows at night. It was so intense - I was so overstimulated. I couldn't sleep at night because all the material was still in my head, all jumbled up," she says with a laugh. "In the end, I fell sick and I gave some tickets away in exchange for a peer review from the person I gave the tickets to, so I could get a rough idea of the shows that I missed."

While the audience for contemporary, experimental dance in Singapore is still a relatively small one, Eng is confident about its growth: "The existence of these shows might start to create the possibility for people to see them. I don't particularly feel that this is demanddriven, but I think by offering a lot of dance shows, more people will just come and see them."

She especially enjoyed the sitespecific dance performances at Tanjong Pagar Railway Station: "I was so amazed and so appreciative because the artists brought the show here, but adapted it for the railway tracks and created a totally different atmosphere. You really feel the specificity and it's so nice because they cannot replicate this outside of Singapore or the railway station, that exact mood and setup."

Ong says with a laugh that he has been "making a lot of demands of the audience" with shows that are over five hours long (Hotel and The Incredible Adventures Of Border Crossers) or others that require audience members to be there at 5.30am (It Won't Be Too Long: The Cemetery and an early morning kathakali demonstration).

"There are audiences for sitespecific work in Singapore who want to get grubby and dirty," he says with a chuckle. "There was a group who would go to these shows and do that and want that as part of that diet. I was quite impressed by that."

He adds: "It's a big investment for performers and audience members - but that's what a festival is about, you do it because it's exciting. I wanted to bring back that spirit of it, of what I remembered of festivals when I was young. This excitement of an event that happens once a year, I wanted that."

•Follow Corrie Tan on Twitter @CorrieTan

The Unofficial Awards

MOST DEDICATED AUDIENCE MEMBERS

Most of them woke up at 4am and were bang on time at 5.30am for the pre-dawn performances of Drama Box's It Won't Be Too Long: The Cemetery (above), which took place at - you guessed it - Bukit Brown Cemetery.

Extra points to audience members who managed to persuade taxi drivers to ferry them there without breaking into a cold sweat. Likewise, those who attended an intense training session and a make-up and costume demonstration at Fort Canning Park, led by kathakali dance masters Krishna Kumar and Ravi Kumar from the renowned performing arts university Kerala Kalamandalam - which also had a 5.30am start time.

MOST BRUTAL CONSEQUENCES

A villainous capitalist gets his comeuppance when his tongue is ripped out - and then sewn back again - in Hungarian director Kornel Mundruczo's theatre production Dementia (above), which also ends with a Blair Witch Project-style murder in a creepy, supposedly vacated psychiatric hospital.

And then there is the stylised, but no less gripping, slaughter of Dussasana in the kathakali performance Smriti Padha (Memory Route, above) by Kerala Kalamandalam and Bhaskar's Arts Academy, involving razor-sharp claws and a lot of fake blood.

BEST USE OF BODY AS INSTRUMENT

Japanese dancer-choreographer Yukio Suzuki (above left) and performance artist Fuyuki Yamakawa (right) let their bodies speak for themselves in the dance piece Lay/ered, where the two performers amplified their bodies and the vibrations of their skulls with bone-conduction microphones.

MOST INNOVATIVE USE OF A LANTERN

Margaret Leng Tan raised a red lantern (above) - and wore it on her head for one of her pieces at her concert, Cabinet Of Curiosities. The quirky mistress of toy instruments was performing the world premiere of American composer Phyllis Chen's six-movement piece for toy instruments, titled Curios, which is inspired by the bizarre but bewitching world of the carnival.

MOST DEMOCRATIC PRODUCTION

Everyone got to cast a vote at Drama Box's It Won't Be Too Long: The Lesson (above), where audience members got to decide on a neighbourhood locale to demolish to make way for a new MRT station. The free, interactive performances took place in the heart of Toa Payoh in the lead-up to Polling Day on Sept 11 and gave would-be voters a bit of practice before they approached the ballot box.


Correction: The original version of this story said the total attendance figure was about 40,000. The correct figure should be 62,000. We are sorry for the error.


What it should have been

Published on 23 September 2015

Yesterday's Life article, "Arts festival gamble pays off", said that the total attendance figure for the Singapore International Festival of Arts was 40,000 when the number was actually 62,000. We are sorry for the error.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 22, 2015, with the headline 'Arts festival gamble pays off'. Print Edition | Subscribe