Best and worst 2015: Arts



• Wild Rice's Hotel

Victoria Theatre/Part 1, Aug 27, 29 and 30; Part 2, Aug 28 to 30

This sprawling production, set in an unnamed hotel in Singapore, spans 100 years (1915 to 2015) in 11 short plays.

Five hours long and written by Alfian Sa'at and Marcia Vanderstraaten, Hotel was both a set of finely crafted individual stories and an epic journey through Singapore's history, drawing connections between past and present.

By turns side-splitting and sobering, heartwarming and heartbreaking, this commission for the Singapore International Festival of Arts was the perfect SG50 offering. At the same time, it subverts the tired Golden Jubilee trope to focus on "SG100".

The excellent ensemble, speaking eight languages and dialects among them, was well-directed by Ivan Heng and Glen Goei.

• Drama Box's Triple Bill - It Won't Be Too Long: The Lesson

GoLi Theatre, Toa Payoh/ Sept 9 to 12

•The Cemetery (Dawn & Dusk)

Bukit Brown Cemetery and School of the Arts Studio

Theatre/Sept 18 and 19This set of performances by Drama Box comprised a free interactive performance in the Singapore heartland (The Lesson); a physical theatre piece set against Bukit Brown Cemetery's lush landscape (The Cemetery: Dawn); and a riveting work of testimonial theatre in a black-box theatre about the fight to preserve Bukit Brown (The Cemetery: Dusk).

Each was thought-provoking in its own way. But as parts of a whole, the trilogy was a powerful and moving commentary on how space is disputed - and ignored - in Singapore. It was a fitting conclusion to the Singapore International Festival of Arts and its meditation on democracy and choice dovetailed perfectly with the General Election on Sept 11.

• Teatro La Re-sentida's The Imagination Of The Future

72-13 Mohamed Sultan Road/ June 25 to 27

This gripping political satire by Chilean theatre company Teatro La Re-sentida and rebel-with-a-cause director Marco Layera pulsed with an anger at the status quo that comfortable audience members in Singapore are rarely incited to feel.

It reimagined the final hours of the late and beloved Chilean president Salvador Allende before his suicide while under siege during a military coup.

You might dispute its politics, but not its production value as well as its excellent, high-energy cast.

The show was brought in as part of The O.P.E.N., a pre-festival engagement initiative by the Singapore International Festival of Arts. It looks like it is a hat-trick for the festival this year and one well deserved.


• Singapura The Musical

Capitol Theatre/May 19 to July 2

This musical could not decide what Singapore story it wanted to tell.

Did it want to be a sweeping historical epic, packing in the facts and numbers and squeezing in every historical checkpoint it could manage?

Did it want to be the story of an ordinary Singaporean family, struggling to make ends meet? Or did it want to be a love story between a Singaporean girl and a British soldier? Or perhaps it wanted to be Lee Kuan Yew's story?

The answer was all of the above, but all done poorly. It often felt like a dense secondary school history textbook shoehorned into the structure of a musical.



• Siapa Nama Kamu (What's Your Name?)

National Gallery Singapore/Ongoing

For the first time, art lovers get to see the sweep of Singapore art from the 19th century to the present.

What is fascinating about this exhibition now on at the DBS Singapore Gallery is not just the encounter with several iconic pieces, including an 1865 engraving of Singapore. It also raises questions about identity, nation-building and the visual records that art makes.

Spread over 1,750 sq m and supported by a $25-million donation from DBS Bank, more than 400 artworks prove that, while Singapore has been an independent nation for 50 years, the island has been a draw for artists for much longer.

The exhibition's title is drawn from an iconic artwork in the show, National Language Class by Cultural Medallion recipient Chua Mia Tee. This was painted in 1959, the year Singapore gained self-governance from the British.

While this is by no means an exhaustive survey, the exhibition offers a rare glimpse into the many influences that have shaped art in Singapore for nearly two centuries.

• Allan Sekula's Fish Story, To Be Continued

NTU Centre for Contemporary Art/July to September

This seminal exhibition of works by the late American artist, photographer and critic Allan Sekula brought together, for the first time in South-east Asia, an important body of work on the maritime industry. It reminds people that the sea is often the "forgotten space" in the contemporary world.

Sekula was among the earliest artists and photographers to examine how globalism as well as human and trade connections in the maritime industry are changing the world.

• 5 Stars exhibition

Singapore Art Museum/ Till May next year

Five Singapore artists were invited to make works that reflect values symbolised by the five stars on the country's flag - peace, justice, equality, democracy and progress. Despite its kitschy title, it was fascinating to see the multi-faceted responses to the broad theme by Ho Tzu Nyen, Matthew Ngui, Suzann Victor, Zulkifle Mahmod and art historian T.K. Sabapathy.

The show's best surprise was Victor's installation Bloodline Of Peace, made of nearly 35,000 fresnel lenses with drops of real blood collected from individuals from key communities such as the armed forces and civil defence. It looks like a piece of fabric or a crystal wave, mesmerising viewers with its intricate light and shadow play.


• Growth in number of art fairs with indifferent quality

The glut in visual art fairs continued this year, with a lot of forgettable art with unimaginative subjects. Painting your pet and selling it for $200 is not an encouraging sign of a mature art market.

With no signs of a slowdown in the number of visual arts events next year, what organisers should be watching for is quality.



• Rising By Aakash Odedra

Esplanade Theatre Studio/Aug 22

The Samarpana - Asian Festival of Classical Dance has grown remarkably through its four editions, taking its place at the Esplanade and presenting a diverse programme comprising the traditional and cutting-edge.

Headlining this year's festival was British dancer-choreographer Aakash Odedra in an evening of solos by Akram Khan, Russell Maliphant, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and himself.

Schooled in the classical Indian forms of kathak and bharatanatyam, Odedra is a remarkable dancer of speed and dexterity.

His own choreography, Nritta, was a fleeting experience of sheer grace as he ignited the stage with the purity of rhythm and movement.

• Double Bill: The Daily Life Of Ms. D and Passage On Blur By Chie Ito and Tsuyoshi Shirai

Tanjong Pagar Railway Station/ Sept 4

The former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station was transformed by several performances in the Singapore International Festival of Arts' first Dance Marathon.

One of those was an all-Japanese evening that was both simple and complex, understated and unabashed.

Surprises abounded in Chie Ito's The Daily Life Of Ms. D, a manga- kitsch eruption of absurdity, spontaneity and desperation.

In contrast, Tsuyoshi Shirai and musician Yugo Morikawa took to the rustic railway platforms like two travellers on an adventure.

They both danced with a slinky nonchalance - the former on his feet, the latter on the guitar.

• Above 40 By Kuik Swee Boon, Silvia Yong, Jeffrey Tan, Albert Tiong

Esplanade Theatre Studio/ Oct 10

An honest and poignant meditation on life, love and dance, Above 40 - part of the Esplanade's da:ns festival - marked the highly anticipated return to the stage of four beloved dancer-choreographers.

The four artists, retired from professional performance, showed that expression that is borne of maturity is irreplaceable and wholly beautiful.

Their nocturne was a stirring account of disappointment and reward, in and through the art form that pulses through their moving bodies.


• Swan Lake

By St Petersburg Ballet MasterCard Theatres, Marina Bay Sands/May 28

The sold-out season of St Petersburg Ballet's version of the balletic classic was disappointing.

Bewildering deviations to the plot and garish designs marred the production and the corps de ballet lacked refinement and soul.

The requisite unison in the iconic white acts was not achieved and the dancing fell on either side of Tchaikovsky's soaring score.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 27, 2015, with the headline 'Arts'. Print Edition | Subscribe