Arts groups settle into new homes

Bhaskar's Arts Academy and The Theatre Practice have vacated the Stamford Arts Centre to make way for its revamp

Bhaskar's Arts Academy, led by Santha Bhaskar (right), has moved to the fourth level of Bras Basah Complex.
Bhaskar's Arts Academy, led by Santha Bhaskar (right), has moved to the fourth level of Bras Basah Complex.ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
The Theatre Practice has moved into its new office at 54 Waterloo Street.
The Theatre Practice has moved into its new office at 54 Waterloo Street.ST PHOTO: AZMI ATHNI
The Stamford Arts Centre will be transformed into a centre with a focus on the traditional arts.
The Stamford Arts Centre will be transformed into a centre with a focus on the traditional arts.ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

Silence is already taking hold of the Stamford Arts Centre as it prepares for its next life as a space for the traditional arts.

The stomping and screaming have stopped, now that two of its oldest tenants, Indian performing arts group Bhaskar's Arts Academy and bilingual theatre company The Theatre Practice, have moved out.

"After we left, there's nobody banging on the floors anymore. And now that The Theatre Practice is also gone, there's no more screaming and crying. Sometimes we wonder, are they acting up there or is something really happening?" Indian dance pioneer Santha Bhaskar says with a laugh.

"I liked listening to all the different sounds. It's an old building, but because there was so much noise, it had a lot of life."

The sounds of art practitioners honing their craft - from the shuffle of feet during Dance Horizon Troupe's rehearsals to Singapore Lyric Opera singers bursting into song - will vanish as the Stamford Arts Centre closes for a massive revamp.

It will be transformed into a centre with a focus on the traditional arts.

The building, a Waterloo Street stalwart of almost a century, has been reincarnated time and again. It was built as a Japanese school in the 1920s and then changed hands - and names - several times: the Gan Eng Seng School, Stamford Girls' School, Stamford Primary School.

After Stamford Primary moved out in 1986, the building - battered and vandalised - was left vacant until it was restored as the Stamford Arts Centre in 1988 under the National Arts Council's Art Housing Scheme to provide subsidised spaces for arts groups.

But the groups that have called the centre home for years now are packing up.

Bhaskar's Arts Academy - along with its dedicated teaching wing Nrityalaya Aesthetics Society - has moved to the fourth level of Bras Basah Complex and The Theatre Practice's new home is a two-storey building at 54 Waterloo Street. They have all been at the centre since 1988.

The five remaining groups - the Singapore Lyric Opera, Hsinghai Art Association, Dance Horizon Troupe, Singapore Broadway Playhouse and Nam Yeong Society of Performing Arts - will leave the building by the end of November.

The revamped centre is expected to be ready by the end of next year.

The arts council's director of traditional arts sector Elaine Ng tells The Straits Times: "The centre aims to rejuvenate public interest in traditional art forms with interesting and engaging content, with contemporary concepts and new approaches."

The redevelopment was announced last year, as part of a push for the traditional arts.

The arts council, says Ms Ng, encourages audiences to understand one another's cultural roots and hopes more Singaporeans will support traditional art forms, "which form our shared heritage and have become a rich source of distinctive and original Singapore content".

The Theatre Practice handed over its keys to the centre last Friday. It is already making full use of its new home, with the M1 Chinese Theatre Festival, which runs till Aug 14, in full swing on the premises.

Its artistic director Kuo Jian Hong says: "It has really good energy so we're all excited. We're still getting to know it - when you move in to a new place, you have to paktor (go courting) with the space - but we're looking forward to what we can do here."

But renovations have placed the company under considerable financial strain.

Last month, it held its first gala fund raiser in its 51-year history, raising nearly $100,000. This, she says, does not come close to covering costs for the new space, with the new black box theatre alone already costing $500,000.

Kuo, 48, the elder daughter of the late The Theatre Practice co-founder Kuo Pao Kun, has fond memories of the Stamford Arts Centre, recalling the "sweat, blood, skin, and tears" performers have left behind.

"We were literally in the floor, in the walls, in the air there. It was an old space - things would fall from the ceiling, there were rats and pigeons, but we kind of got along and got to be an old married couple.

"We've seen each other's ups and downs. We've gone through different stages of our growth, the best of times and the worst of times. It's definitely sad to leave because we've left imprints on each other."

The Theatre Practice is also selling plaques made from the wood flooring of its old studio at the Stamford Arts Centre for $50 apiece at its office.

She calls it a representation of the "crossing of two venues and two stages of our lives". The plaques are imprinted with a sketch of the company's new building and a quote from her late father.

Meanwhile, Bhaskar's Arts Academy, which has been around since 1952, started operations at its new premises - made up of three dance studios separated by heavy black curtains and four music rooms - in mid-June.

Mrs Bhaskar, 76, says the troupe plans to install partitions in the dance studios "when we have the money". It spent "an enormous sum" to acquire and renovate the space and now pays the commercial rate for the new space, instead of the subsidised monthly rent at Stamford.

It is organising its first fundraising dinner and dance on Aug 20 and has other plans on the cards to reach out to supporters.

Mrs Bhaskar says: "I used to say, the walls at the Stamford Arts Centre all know my dancing. They may look old and worn out, but they're my walls. The walls know what I've done.

"But it was about time for a revamp. When it becomes a more pretty lady, maybe I'll visit again. It's sad, but things have to change. New changes always bring new energies, new openings. If we're in an old place, we'll only be doing the same old things."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 02, 2016, with the headline 'Arts groups settle into new homes'. Print Edition | Subscribe