Singapore International Festival of Arts

Collabs take to the stage

After a year of pandemic closures, the local performing arts scene returns with a vengeance during this year's Singapore International Festival of Arts, which runs from May 14 to 30 with several landmark collaborations. The Straits Times checks out the highlights

The Commission

Home-grown theatre groups Pangdemonium, Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT) and Wild Rice are joining forces again for a meta-theatrical satire about three companies staging a play together.

The Commission, one of the highlights of the Singapore International Festival of Arts (Sifa), is the first stage collaboration between the three groups, all major players in the local theatre scene.

Written by Ken Kwek and directed by Tracie Pang, it is a sequel to The Pitch, a pandemic-inspired short film about the shuttering of theatres last year.

The Pitch was the groups' first-ever collaboration and helped them raise more than $120,000.

SRT's Gaurav Kripalani, Pangdemonium's Adrian Pang and Wild Rice's Ivan Heng will again play characters based on themselves, as they clash over how they think the play should be done. This time, they will do it in their natural element - on stage.

Pang, 55, puts on a movie-trailer voice: "Three companies, three divas, three egos, together at last. Are you ready, Singapore?"

Kripalani, 49, says that when the idea for The Commission was first brought up, they all laughed. "Slowly the idea took hold when we realised it might actually be possible."

This is his last bow as Sifa director, which means he is trying to simultaneously helm the festival and perform in it.

"It seemed like such a good idea at the time," he tells ST dryly, downing his third cup of coffee for the day.

Pang scoffs: "He hardly breaks a sweat. Look at him, he wears a suit."

  • SINGAPORE INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL OF ARTS (SIFA)

  • WHERE Various venues; online

    WHEN May 14 to 30; Sifa on-demand from May 31 to June 12. Selected films from Singular Screens, a film programme curated by the Asian Film Archive, will be available to Singapore audiences from May 31 to June 6. Festival commissions and selected shows from Sifa v2.020, which features a series of virtual events such as talks, workshops and performances that were launched amid the pandemic last year, will be available to audiences worldwide from June 5 to 12

    ADMISSION Tickets start at $8 for Sifa on-demand and $15 for selected in-theatre programmes. Go to sifa.sg or call 6348-5555

The Commission is an ode to theatre-makers, says Heng, 57, the founder of Wild Rice - "what we go through as producers, as actors, as directors... what it means to dedicate your life to the theatre".

The three men have diverse working styles, says Pang, who founded Pangdemonium with his wife Tracie.

"The way we learn our lines, the way we don't learn our lines." This appears to be a dig at Kripalani. "It's three very different energies forced into a cell together, trying not to kill one another," he adds with a laugh.

The Commission is funny and irreverent, but also tinged with pathos, Kripalani says, as it reflects what the arts industry is going through.

Performing arts groups have been badly bruised by Covid-19, reckoning with cancellations, closures and restrictions on seating capacity in theatres.

Tickets to The Commission sold out within an hour, but only about 35 per cent of the seats at Wild Rice's Ngee Ann Kongsi Theatre in Funan mall will be filled when the play is staged.

Heng laments that Covid-19 regulations for performers seem strict compared with those for restaurants.

"I can't go to Holland Village or Robertson Walk on a Saturday night without feeling angry, because just look at the huge crowds everywhere in restaurants. You feel hard done by, you just don't understand it."

Pang says: "We really would love to push for sensible and reasonable further expansion of audience capacities. And we know audiences are ready to come back, judging by the responses to our own productions in the last four or five months. People are hungry for it."

Kripalani says that the three companies, contrary to what some people think, are not competitors. "This friendship is one of the silver linings of Covid-19. The pandemic absolutely brought us together.

"When you have a young industry, when there's a hit on the street, it benefits everyone. And if there's a flop on the street, we all suffer - if there's one bad production and that's the first experience someone has of theatre, he is never coming back. So it's important that we are all doing well and supporting one another."

• In-venue tickets are sold out. Available as video-on-demand


Jazz icon Louis Soliano (left) will perform in A Song For Louis with other musicians including Jeremy Monteiro and Joanna Dong.
Jazz icon Louis Soliano (above) will perform in A Song For Louis with other musicians including Jeremy Monteiro and Joanna Dong. ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

A Song For Louis

With the live music scene curtailed by the pandemic in the past year, Singapore's "godfather of jazz" Louis Soliano has been feeling out of sorts lately.

But an upcoming live concert, in which members of the local jazz fraternity will pay tribute to his legacy, has put the spring back in the veteran musician's step.

The show, A Song For Louis, is part of the Singapore International Festival of Arts and will take place over two sets at Victoria Theatre on May 14. It will also be streamed online from June 5 to 12.

Soliano tells The Straits Times: "I am 79. I haven't been feeling fantastic lately. This recognition makes me feel happy to be alive and able to do what I love to do."

The concert will feature 13 other musicians, including fellow Cultural Medallion recipient Jeremy Monteiro, singer Rahimah Rahim, flutist Rit Xu and singer Richard Jackson. Soliano himself will also perform.

Soliano's long career in music spans six decades, earning him the Cultural Medallion, the nation's highest arts honour, in 2018.

Monteiro, 60, says Soliano made an impact on the Singapore jazz scene on many levels. "He was one of the first Singapore jazz musicians to have played on such a high level since the early 1960s."

He cites as an example Soliano's European stint with the band Dave Packer Trio, which included playing with iconic American group Bud Powell Trio at Blue Note, a famous jazz club in Paris.

Soliano has also mentored many of the succeeding generations of Singaporean jazz artistes, from Monteiro himself to seasoned composers and musicians Chok Kerong and Andrew Lim, as well as young musicians like Sean Hong Wei.

They have all gone through what Monteiro calls "the school of Louis Soliano, to hone our craft and develop a high level of performance".

"I often say, if there is no Louis Soliano, there would be no Jeremy Monteiro. I am incredibly indebted to him."

  • A SONG FOR LOUIS

  • WHERE Victoria Theatre, 9 Empress Place; online

    WHEN May 14, 6 and 9pm (in-venue); June 5 to 12 (video-on-demand)

    ADMISSION $58 and $68 at sifa.sg

Monteiro adds that Soliano taught him the importance of communicating with the audience both onstage and offstage, and engaging the emotions of the listener.

Singer Joanna Dong, who will co-host and perform at the concert, says that "Uncle Louis", as she affectionately calls him, is an inspiration.

The 39-year-old adds: "Onstage, his impeccable brushwork and vocals, combined with his flair for charming audiences, present the best of both worlds in musicianship and entertainment.

"Offstage, he makes a habit of uplifting younger musicians, often with words of encouragement and praise. That is something I've really taken to heart and remind myself to do especially now that I am considered a veteran myself."

Soliano describes the concert as akin to "a beautiful reunion with my brothers and sisters in music".

"I have watched these artistes grow up to become the successful people that they are now. I'm honoured that they all gathered today to join me in this show. I thank them with all my heart."

He also paid tribute to his own family who raised him in a musical environment.

"You know, I am the son of a migrant Filipino musician. I honed my craft in the streets, working my way up to perform with some jazz legends like (American pianist) Benny Green and (American jazz singer) Anita O'Day, just to name a few," he says.

"It has been a long journey and this recognition makes it all worth it. I share this recognition with my musical family who chose to settle in Singapore and contribute to its musical history."



Janek Schergen. ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

The Rhythm Of Us

A landmark collaboration between the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) and Singapore Dance Theatre (SDT) has been one of the happy upshots of the global pandemic.

The Rhythm Of Us, a three-part production at the Esplanade Theatre, is the first time the decades-old companies are performing together on stage for a commissioned project. And it all began with an invitation from the Singapore International Festival of Arts (Sifa) earlier this year.

"Covid-19 brought it all together. So, you know, good things can still happen," says SDT's artistic director Janek Schergen, 68.

The concert will begin on a meditative note with William Walton's Passacaglia for solo cello. Choreographed by Schergen, the piece features SSO principal cellist Ng Pei Sian and SDT principal dancer Chihiro Uchida.

Henry Cowell's Variations On Thirds, the second part of the production, involves a string ensemble and six dancers, choreographed by acclaimed American dancer Pam Tanowitz over Zoom.

It is "coming out very creatively, very inventively", says Schergen of the long-distance choreography by Tanowitz, who is now in New York. "She is taking a dancer on her side, modelling (the movements) and having us copy it on our side."

In the finale, an ensemble of musicians and dancers will perform to a new piece composed by jazz musician Chok Kerong and choreographed by Christina Chan.

SSO's director of artistic planning Hans Sorensen, 58, says it has been a challenge planning the show with a three-month timeline. Something like this would typically take one to two years, he says.

The orchestra was supposed to perform Tan Dun's Buddha Passion at Sifa last year, together with the International Choral Academy Lubeck, but the pandemic put paid to those plans.

After a year of closures, Zoom meetings and digital concerts, The Rhythm Of Us will be "a celebration of live music and live performance", Sorensen says.

SDT's Schergen chimes in: "The only thing we've been able to do is showings in the studio to 30 people at a time. To be back on stage again after more than a year is the most exciting thing."

Toh Wen Li

• In-venue tickets are sold out. Available as video-on-demand



The Year Of No Return, a play about climate change, is a collaboration between local theatre company The Necessary Stage and practitioners from Singapore, Malaysia, Japan and the Philippines. PHOTO: TUCKYS PHOTOGRAPHY

The Year Of No Return

Staging a play about climate change poses a number of dilemmas. How do you convey the urgency of the crisis without being didactic? How do you move away from a human-centred view of the world, while telling a story that still strikes a chord with the audience?

The people behind Sifa production The Year Of No Return, which is set during an international conference on climate change, had to grapple with these concerns.

Add a raging pandemic to the mix, and the result, as Filipino co-writer Rody Vera puts it, has been "one hell of a writing process".

The play, directed by Alvin Tan of The Necessary Stage (TNS), is a collaboration between the local theatre company and practitioners from Singapore, Malaysia, Japan and the Philippines.

"Many different voices come in - voiceless, marginalised communities, as well as the big corporations who tout themselves as green-minded," says Vera, 60, who wrote the play with Haresh Sharma and is also acting in it.

The Year Of No Return has been in the works since 2018 and has been revised many times.

"When the pandemic happened, we had to practically rewrite the whole play in order to incorporate what has been happening, because what we had written seemed outdated," Vera adds.

Uncertainty over whether they would stage it with all the actors physically present, or combine live acting with video presentation, also meant more rewriting.

Next month, Singapore actors Siti Khalijah Zainal and Lian Sutton will perform at the Victoria Theatre while the overseas cast - filmed amid local curfews and other constraints - are beamed in virtually.

The Year Of No Return examines people's responses to the crisis and the idea of coming together to push for systemic change.

Dramaturg Melissa Lim, 44, says: "We have a crisis of imagination around climate change because we cannot imagine how terrible it's going to be. But that is going to be what stymies our responses, because we fail to imagine. It's not going to be some Hollywood blockbuster where you get tidal waves coming in. But there are such huge human problems we need to grapple with.

"Inequality, wars that are started because of famine - that has to do with climate change as well. People driven from their homes, militarisation, because they have absolutely no more choice but to leave their homes or to take up arms."

Lim, who is also the general manager of TNS, sees parallels between the global responses to Covid-19 and climate change.

"A lot of people say Covid-19 is a dress rehearsal for climate change. You can see how different countries, world leaders and people respond to Covid-19 initially, some with a lot of dismissal, some with a strong belief in science.

"Nobody had better tell us you can't have immediate responses to climate change. Of course you can. Look at how you've treated Covid-19. It's a choice and we should acknowledge that."

Lim says Singapore is complicit in the crisis too, citing its role as one of the largest oil refinery centres in the world, low carbon tax, the Government's "focus on adaptation strategies rather than mitigation" and Singapore corporations' involvement in the degradation of land in neighbouring countries.

While these are all weighty topics, Vera adds that they will leaven the play with humour and plenty of self-awareness. "Much of the material came from the actors themselves, who are aware of their own contradictions.

"We use plastic. I turn on my air-con. I travel to Singapore by the fastest plane possible. We are aware of these things. It can be funny and at the same time make you think."

Tan, 58, hopes the play will make people reflect on what they can do and what agency they possess. "The little things that we do, like recycling and not using plastic bags, might not be the point."

Lim says: "This system of capitalism, where we are consuming way beyond the planet's means, is alarming. Making change is not just making individual change. Your individual change is a tiny, tiny drop in the ocean that's not going to make much of a difference.

"But change also means coming together collectively to demand changes in the way we run our industries, the way governments are addressing the problem. If you look at all the global movements of late, it's quite inspiring. This change is possible."

• In-venue tickets are sold out. Available as video-on-demand


Other local highlights


A Dream Under The Southern Bough: Reverie, the second instalment in the trilogy, was performed in 2019. PHOTO: TOY FACTORY PRODUCTIONS

A DREAM UNDER THE SOUTHERN BOUGH: EXISTENCE

The trilogy A Dream Under The Southern Bough finally comes to an end in its last instalment, Existence. Toy Factory Productions' modern adaptation of a 16th-century epic Kun opera blurs the line between dream and reality, as protagonist Chun Yu Fen finally awakens from his 20-year slumber.

Chief artistic director Goh Boon Teck says the show is directed as a chorus stage performance and "focuses a lot more on ensemble work and unified energy".

WHERE Drama Centre Theatre, Level 3 National Library Building, 100 Victoria Street; online

WHEN May 29, 2 and 8pm; May 30, 2pm (in-venue). June 5 to 12 (video-on-demand)

ADMISSION $48, $58, $68

INFO Performed in Mandarin with English subtitles

_T0701_

Arts collective Zeugma, which comprises Rizman Putra, Safuan Johari, Brandon Tay and Zulfadli "Big" Rashid, will present _T0701_ at the Sota (School of the Arts) Studio Theatre, as well as on a Web browser.

The theatrical performance is set in a post-Covid-19 world and follows a delivery rider who uses a motorised personal mobility device, which has been illegally modified, to navigate digital and physical worlds. It offers a glimpse into the struggle of being bound by financial incentives and social ratings online.

ADMISSION In-venue tickets to _T0701_ are sold out. Available as video-on-demand

FESTIVAL HOUSE PROGRAMMES

During the festival, The Arts House will also play host to discussions, workshops and immersive installations with a focus on care, compassion and community. Topics range from mental health to sustainable living and climate change.

WHERE The Arts House, 1 Old Parliament Lane; online

WHEN May 14 to 30 (in-venue) or June 12 (online)

ADMISSION Tickets start at $5; selected programmes are free with registration via sifa.sg

INFO sifa.sg/festival-house

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 22, 2021, with the headline 'Collabs take to the stage'. Subscribe