Singapore Festival in France features more than 70 arts events

In a small, sound-proofed studio skirting the northern suburbs of Paris, Emily Of Emerald Hill is holding court.

Except this is no Peranakan Emily, clad in a kebaya and beaded slippers, but French actress Brigitte Damiens rehearsing to perform the iconic monologue by Singapore playwright Stella Kon for the very first time in French, in a new translation by French playwright-director Marc Goldberg.

"It is such a demanding play," he says, shaking his head with some incredulity, as they attempt to calculate a water break for Damiens in between scenes; they conclude that she has 10 seconds to step into the wings and take a sip of water.

"We've learnt so much about Singapore and its stories through these plays," says Damiens.

Stella Kon's Emily, together with another seminal 1980s play The Coffin Is Too Big For The Hole by Kuo Pao Kun, opened as a double-bill of dramatised readings at Paris' Vingtieme Theatre last Saturday, a partner event of the ongoing Singapore Festival in France, the largest-ever international showcase of Singapore's arts and culture.

With more than 70 events taking place over a span of three months across France, in cities such as Paris, Lyon and Lille, there is the sense of a heightened curiosity there about the tiny city-state and its South-east Asian environs.

The festival, a $6-million investment on the Singapore side, was a project that took years of careful negotiation.

In 2013, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, Mr Lawrence Wong, witnessed the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the National Heritage Board (NHB) and Institut Francais, France's international agency for cultural policy, for the organisation of the festival.

But the work on the festival had begun years before, in 2009, says festival director Tan Boon Hui, NHB's group director for programmes. That was prior to 2010's Singapour Festivarts, a much smaller festival held at Paris' Musee du Quai Branly that featured nine events.

Mr Tan says that he was firm on one thing from the beginning - that the Singapore Festival in France should not be "an export project" to merely market the Republic's cultural brand abroad, which is often the case when it comes to such exercises of cultural diplomacy. He hoped that the relationships forged would go deeper.

He says: "There was a lot of evangelising to get cultural institutions in France interested in this tiny island called Singapore and to introduce them slowly to not just our visual artists, but also our performing artists, film-makers, designers and literary artists."

The board started slowly, inviting arts and culture institutions from France to put Singapore on the itinerary when their staff went on research trips abroad to "get ourselves on their radar".

Eventually, their French counterparts began to express interest in showcasing Singapore work and the NHB was able to play "cultural matchmaker" in connecting artists to venues and presenters. Many of these French presenters have taken the positive step of sponsorship in kind, such as providing venues and publicity. Mr Tan says: "The good thing about this festival is that there is no sense of a 'cultural cringe'. Our artists are very confident that we have an original voice."

As it stands, Singapore is not well known in France for its arts and culture, but as a sort of a sterile, gleaming and business-oriented metropolis with a distaste for chewing gum. Playwright Goldberg, who relocated to Singapore three years ago, provoked shocked reactions from friends who told him: "There is no culture in Singapore."

"I was telling them, that's not true, there is a lot going on," he says. "A lot of people travel to Singapore, but what do they see? They have no idea about what Singapore really is." Which is why he selected the two monodramas to present in France: "Those two plays tell a lot about Singapore. You learn about a very complex nation and then you move far away from chewing gum and all that, you're at the heart of real cultural and political issues."

But there is also the general consensus that French audiences are deeply and genuinely interested in other cultures and art forms. A running theme in the response from French practitioners and industry players was that Singapore represented for them a sort of perfect marriage between "tradition and modernity".

Singapore conductor Darrell Ang has been music director of the Orchestre Symphonique de Bretagne in Brittany in the north-west of France for more than three years. He says the French classical music audience is "very open minded and very willing to try new things", noting that concert halls are always full "no matter who or what is playing", whether in Brittany or Paris.

He adds: "They are a very receptive and appreciative people, open to receiving and exploring new sounds, tastes and approaches."

During the festival launch last week at the Palais de Tokyo, a cutting-edge contemporary art space, visitors could be seen interacting with the artists at the Secret Archipelago exhibition curated by Khairuddin Hori, asking questions about the works and background. Going by previous numbers, the Palais de Tokyo expects more than 100,000 visitors to this exhibition of South-east Asian art in its 2,000 sq m space.

The work at the festival itself also has a strong emphasis on cross-cultural collaboration.

Theatre director Ong Keng Sen presented a new work, The Incredible Adventures Of Border Crossers, at the Palais de Tokyo last week and it will return home for the Singapore International Festival of Arts later this year. The sweeping six-hour theatrical piece, which deals with transnationalism and migration specific to Singapore, features new Singaporeans and permanent residents from all across the globe who have come to make Singapore their home.

One of them is Mr Gilles Massot, a fine arts lecturer at the Lasalle College of the Arts, who moved to Singapore from France more than 30 years ago and has the unique vantage point of feeling a sense of belonging to both places. He says: "Many of my Singaporean friends say that I am more Singaporean than them... But I have also remained very French in my way of being and thinking.

"Both cultures are clearly the subject of recurrent ongoing stereotypes, among which: Singapore is boring; France is arrogant. They are both true, but only very partially so. As practising artists, we can only hope to help people discover the other side."

The question is, then, whether this flurry of activity in France for the festival can be sustained beyond its three-month sampler of what Singapore has to offer and if the relationships cultivated between Singapore artists and their French counterparts can continue to evolve and grow.

Artist Loo Zihan, who often works with archives and archival material, is cautiously optimistic. He was part of a two-month residency at Nantes' FRAC des Pays de la Loire leading up to a group exhibition of five Singapore artists. His work, Tout Ou Rien (All Or Nothing), reconstructed the arts space's residency catalogues into a full-scale installation reflecting on the idea of artist residencies and their histories.

He felt that the residency had definitely "pushed my practice to a different level", but did not manage to connect with the community of artists in Nantes and as such there was no further "exchange". But "there were also no false promises", Loo adds, "we weren't lured to take up this opportunity because we wanted to collaborate with artists from France".

It is the responsibility of the artists and institutions, he says, to sustain this relationship beyond the conclusion of this residency. He adds: "The festival is an aggressive campaign to market the Singapore brand, but if it creates opportunities for dialogue and sustained conversations, it should be welcomed with open arms.

"We have to keep in mind that it isn't just the nation furthering its 'brand identity', but the contemporary, self-aware artist promoting his 'brand' at the same time too."

Culture Minister Wong has emphasised the international reach of Singapore artists, most recently in his speech at this year's Budget debate. He cites the Singapore Festival in France, but also other upcoming events in other countries which will have a Singapore presence, such as the Venice Biennale and the City of London Festival.

"These are not just ad-hoc events," he says. "Our cultural engagement needs to be done in a systematic manner. As part of our cultural diplomacy efforts, we are working closely with other agencies... to build meaningful, strategic and sustained cultural partnerships with other nations."

Last year, the Ministry of Cultre, Community and Youth established a $20-million Cultural Diplomacy Fund to support these efforts.

Festival director Tan notes that many of festival events have grown out of existing relationships that artists have cultivated independent of the festival.

Ong's Lear Dreaming (2012), which will be co-presented in June by Singapore's TheatreWorks and Paris' Theatre de la Ville, grew out of a relationship that Ong had established with the director of the French performing arts producing house, Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota. And Singapore dance company Frontier Danceland nurtured its ongoing relationship with French-Laotian choreographer Ole Khamchanla for the dance work Akalika 7, which will be shown in Paris next month.

Last year, Singapore curator Khairuddin was appointed deputy director of artistic programming at Palais de Tokyo. He oversees six curators and is viewed highly by its president, Jean de Loisy. There are plans to broaden this relationship between Singapore and Palais de Tokyo with an exhibition of French and South-east Asian artists at the Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore at Lasalle in November.

Mr de Loisy says: "This is not a one-shot event. We are going on to invite artists from South-east Asia in the coming years - it's not a caprice... We want to stay rooted in this area of the world."

In another good start to cultural exchange, Goldberg's translations of Emily and Coffin into French have been published by a prominent French publishing house, Les Cygnes, and French audience members bought more than 40 copies of the scripts on the opening night of the double bill.

He acknowledges that this sort of exchange must work both ways and hopes to bring a bit of French theatre to Singapore.

There are many similarities between the two countries, be they in issues such as immigration or xenophobia or in the arts, he says. "The state is very important in France and Singapore in the arts - subsidies are very important and then there are all these issues about the relationship between the artist who wants to be free and the state who gives money.

"These problems do not inspire the artists the same way and they are not solved the same way, so I think one country can be very interested in what the other country is doing with those issues."

Festival director Tan says there is a value to cultural diplomacy and showcasing a different culture: "One of the challenges in a globalised world is that we fly around all the time, we ship things to each other, but there is not so much opportunity for us to really understand how the other person ticks.

"I think people need to appreciate what is different about others. That's where the challenges come - it's not what is similar, but what is different."

Goldberg says of the festival: "We won't know the lasting effect yet. It could be that we are disappointed by the number of people who attend. But it might be the right people and 10 years from now, we might realise that this was really important."

corriet@sph.com.sg

Follow Corrie Tan on Twitter @CorrieTan