Bumper turnout for Singapore arts festival

Audience numbers more than double on the back of an art installation at Gardens by the Bay and 10 sold-out shows

A well-timed work of installation art at Gardens by the Bay and several sold-out shows meant attendance at the Singapore International Festival of Arts more than doubled, despite the number of works programmed shrinking to a third of last year's.

The 155,000-strong attendance seems to validate the vision of festival director Ong Keng Sen, 53, who will helm the event for a fourth and last time next year. He says: "It's not that Singaporeans agree with everything I choose, but they're game to try."

The festival's main line-up from Aug 11 to last Saturday included only 20 works of theatre, performances of music and dance and installation art, compared with 66 works last year. Counting the attendance at The O.P.E.N., the pre-festival line-up of exhibitions, talks and films from June 22 to July 9, the arts festival this year had more than double its audience numbers of 62,000 last year.

The major crowd-puller was a giant video installation in The Meadow @ Gardens by the Bay, set up from Sept 2 to 11 and well timed for crowds heading to the gardens for the Mid-Autumn Festival light- up. The 18m-wide cylinder of silicon cords, created by Israeli architect Ron Arad, was titled 720° and drew 80,000 viewers as films by international movie-makers and award-winning home-grown artist Brian Gothong Tan played across its surface.

A Letter/Singapore by famed American choreographer Bill T. Jones was presented with students from Lasalle College of the Arts. PHOTO: BERNIE NG

Of the 15 ticketed shows, 10 were sold out and the rest did well enough that total ticket sales were at 96 per cent.

Paradise Interrupted, an operatic experience composed by Chinese- American musician Huang Ruo and played by Singapore's T'ang Quartet, was only 44 tickets short of selling out.

There were full houses for Hamlet|Collage, a one-man reworking of Shakespeare's Hamlet played out in a rotating cube and presented by Moscow's Theatre of Nations and Canadian director Robert Lepage.

Also sold out was the provocative Five Easy Pieces, in which child actors learnt about drama through re-enacting recent history involving a real-life paedophile. It was one of 15 festival creations, most of which sold fast and well.

All spaces were also taken for I Am LGB, a four-hour performance experience by Loo Zihan and American artist Ray Langenbach, which required 100 ticketholders at a time to go through a series of tests.

Packed to the rafters was Sandaime Richard, Japanese playwright Hideki Noda's reworking of Shakespeare's Richard III, adapted again by Ong.

However, some theatregoers preferred last year's basket of Singaporean commissions to the international offerings this year.

How do we deal with the inflammatory issues of today?...We have to discuss these issues. That’s what the festival has become in the last three years, a special period of reflection where everybody who wants can engage.

SINGAPORE INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL OF ARTS DIRECTOR ONG KENG SEN, who wants the event to raise issues and start conversations

Seasoned theatregoer Catherine Ho, 35, used to work for ticketing agent Sistic and is currently a student at the Intercultural Theatre Institute. She is an avid follower of Singapore theatre companies such as Nine Years Theatre and The Necessary Stage, and the annual M1 Fringe Festival organised by the latter.

She caught Drama Box's It Won't Be Too Long: The Cemetery at last year's festival and felt the line-up this year was not as appealing. She gave I Am LGB a try, but tired of the experience long before the four hours were up. She says: "When I think about the arts festival, it's intimidating. There will be a lot of things I don't understand. I have limited funds so I want to spend on things I can relate to."

Ong expects such reactions, as the festival is not solely meant to showcase crowd-pleasing works. "We have to dance on the border, we can't just do the tried-and-tested," he says.

The corollary is that he wants the festival to start conversations, as it did this year.

During The O.P.E.N., an exhibition by Iranian photographer Newsha Tavakolian ran with 15 photographs replaced by black cards.

The pictures, published previously in Time magazine, showed Kurdish female soldiers who fight against the group calling itself the Islamic State, but the Media Development Authority objected as the women were from a terrorist- linked organisation.

Festival a learning experience

During the main festival run, Five Easy Pieces received an R18 rating from the Media Development Authority, making it the first time this work created for audiences 12 and older played to houses of only adults.

The Straits Times reviewer Cheong Suk-Wai called it "a special kind of irony" and Ong stated on Facebook that "the strongest reason to do this work has been lobotomised".

He tells The Straits Times that he wants the festival to raise issues such as censorship and terrorism and start conversations.

"How do we deal with the inflammatory issues of today? I do not believe these are issues just for the authorities," he says. "We have to discuss these issues. That's what the festival has become in the last three years, a special period of reflection where everybody who wants to can engage."

Bookended by festivals such as the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival in January and the Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay's annual da:ns festival at the end of the year, the Singapore International Festival of Arts is establishing an identity beyond a vehicle for international productions that Singaporeans might not otherwise be able to see.

That was the role of its forerunner, the Singapore Arts Festival, which took a break in 2012. It regrouped two years ago as Singapore International Festival of Arts, a festival meant to be led by the home-grown arts community.

For Ong, the festival is more than curating the best new works to feature in Singapore. It is about creating relationships between artists, both Singapore and international, as well as between the audiences and the artists brought in by the festival.

He says: "We want to give artists space to take leadership in ways they have not done before."

At this year's festival, multimedia artist Tan created Tropical Traumas: A Series Of Cinematographic Choreographies, a 70-minute work combining animation and live performance within Arad's 720° installation.

Singaporean actor Oliver Chong inhabited Argentinian artist Fernando Rubio's custom-built house in the Marina Bay Sands Event Plaza for 108 hours in the sold-out show Time Between Us. Actress Margaret Chan was one of 10 performers who lay in bed at the National Gallery Singapore and told stories to ticketholders in Rubio's other sold-out performance, Everything By My Side.

The festival also brought in famed American choreographer Bill T. Jones and members of his Bill T. Jones/ Arnie Zane company to present a production with students from Lasalle College of the Arts.

Last year, the festival ensured the school's acting students worked with Wang Chong, artistic director of Beijing experimental theatre group Theatre du Reve Experimental, in a performance about the wife of the late Mao Zedong.

Ms Melissa Quek, 35, who leads Lasalle's dance and theatre programme, was struck by the attention Jones gave her 22 students. He asked them pertinent questions and respected their answers, using their input for the work A Letter/Singapore, which was staged at The Singapore Airlines Theatre last Thursday to Saturday.

She says: "It's this kind of thing that shows how art is personal, how art is people to people. A residency goes beyond seeing people on stage. It's about having people in your life. It's incomparable."

Ms Neo Jia Ling, 22, who is doing her bachelor of arts in dance at Lasalle, was inspired by Jones' history challenging notions of race and identity on stage. "It's very inspiring to be working with a man who's lived through history. It's further sparked that fire I've always had about making dance for Singapore," she says.

Ms Chua Pei Yun, 19, a level 3 diploma student of dance at Lasalle, says Jones made her think deeper about her art. "When I do my choreography, it's only on one level. I want to explore patterns of ferns or circles. Jones is considering situations around him. I'm trying to see how I can use the way he thinks in my choreography," she says.

"Previously, I'd make a piece about a character and emotion. Now I'm wondering what would happen if I give a context. What's the age of the character, what's the race, where is the character living?"

Ms Quek says she sends students to Singapore International Festival of Arts productions every year because it is about education and not just presenting good work on stage.

Similarly, arts reviewer and dramatist Pawit Mahasarinand, 44, chairman of Thailand's Chulalongkorn University's Department of Dramatic Arts, has brought classes to the arts festival since last year to watch the shows and interact with artists.

This year, they met iconic Indonesian choreographer Sardono W. Kusumo - his Black Sun dance production was sold out - and caught several shows including Everything By My Side.

He says: "It's very educational for them, watching theatre from many places in the world and talking to artists. In Bangkok, we are conservative in terms of Western theatre. They would not get to see something like Everything By My Side or Hamlet|Collage."

He also likes that the festival programmes Singaporean artists. In comparison, the long-running Bangkok International Festival of Dance and Music usually programmes classical work and Western greats, such as Swan Lake by the Moscow Stanislavsky Ballet this month.

He says: "In its 18-year history, this festival has presented only three local works. I'm hoping that in the future, the Singapore International Festival of Arts will invite some Thai artists to be a part of it."

Ong declines to reveal next year's theme, but it will focus on Singaporean works, just as last year's edition did. Theatre group Pangdemonium is among those commissioned to create something for the festival while Ong is considering an adaptation of Greek tragedy using Korean musical tradition.

He says: "The national festival once a year will allow us theatregoers to see things we wouldn't normally see. That's very, very important."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 20, 2016, with the headline 'Bumper turnout for Singapore arts festival'. Print Edition | Subscribe