Singapore International Festival of Arts

Enchantment at Singapore International Festival of Arts this year, but there's also a dark side

From epic productions to intimate theatre in homes, there is something for everyone

Sense the history of a family through traditional Malay flower arrangements and understand how history repeats itself in a Greek epic restaged in Korean at this year's Singapore International Festival of Arts (Sifa).

This edition is the fourth and final one helmed by festival director Ong Keng Sen and it runs from Aug 5 to Sept 9. It comes on the heels of a month-long season of engagement titled The O.P.E.N, which began on June 28.

The main season of Sifa kicks off with Open Homes, back after a successful run in 2015. Small groups of ticket-holders visit one or more of 30 residences around the island to hear the home owners' stories.

In one performance, poet Elancharan Gunasekaran, 29, will usher visitors into his parents' Housing Board flat in Bukit Panjang. He will point out the polished bull horns above the door, a caste symbol his grandfather brought from India. In the flat, he will read his poetry in between telling the stories behind his parents' collection of brass and wood artefacts and antiques.

Theatre facilitator Jeffrey Tan, who curated Open Homes, says: "It's about experiencing the home in a way you don't get with your friends. If we are successful, we are able to open minds, open hearts and share stories."

Ten theatre facilitators worked with home owners over six rehearsals to understand the residents' personal stories and develop these into performances.

Another home owner, floral designer Hamidah Abdul Karim, 50, will demonstrate bunga rampai, or the traditional art of Malay flower arrangement, to visitors in her home in Eunos. "Putting different kinds of flowers together is like bringing different people together and creating beauty. I want to show visitors that," she says.


  • WHERE: Various locations, revealed only to ticket-holders

    WHEN: Aug 5, 6, 12, 13, 19 and 20, various times

    ADMISSION: $15 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to Register at


    WHERE: Victoria Theatre, 11 Empress Place

    WHEN: Sept 7 to 9, 8pm

    ADMISSION: $30 to $85 from Sistic

Also open to visitors is the home of social entrepreneur Anthea Ong, 49, who reinvented herself after the failure of her marriage and e-learning business. She started Hush TeaBar (a cafe with deaf staff) and community projects to bring yoga to children and the underprivileged. She says she wants "to share hope, resilience and the strength we have in all of us" through her performance.

Along with such intimate works are bigger plays such as Nine Years Theatre's adaptation of Yeng Pway Ngon's novel Art Studio (see story on D2) and Pangdemonium's Dragonflies, about migration and climate change in 2021.

There are big-name shows from French choreographer Christian Rizzo and American string ensemble Kronos Quartet. The quartet present their new work My Lai, inspired by the massacre of villagers in My Lai during the Vietnam War.

This may seem odd, given the festival's theme of Enchantment, specially chosen to offer hope in a time when protectionist tendencies are causing nations to turn hostile. However, festival director Ong says enchantment includes disenchantment as well.

His idea is to offer viewers windows into new worlds. "Moments of enchantment are where we see beyond our experiences, beyond what's classified, beyond the known. It's a window into the unknown," he says.

A dance choreographed by South Africa's Robyn Orlin challenges assumptions about gender and even species. The painted body of dancer Albert Ibokwe Khoza morphs from traditional healer into contemporary performer into animal onstage during And So You See... Our Honourable Blue Sky And Ever Enduring Sun... Can Only Be Consumed Slice By Slice...

Then there is Trojan Women, directed by Ong and presented by the National Theater of Korea. It is based on Euripides' tragedy about the women who suffered after the fall of Troy.

Trojan Women uses the Korean pansori tradition of musical storytelling. Each singer is accompanied by just one instrument. The music is from Korean pop composer Jung Jae Il, who most recently wrote the music for Netflix movie Okja.

In 1991, Ong directed an adaptation of Trojan Women for his company, TheatreWorks. In the new production, he unites his interest in traditional, shamanic Korean melodies with the socio-political turmoil around the world.

"Trojan Women has been performed by women in every major war as a memory that war should not be repeated, but unfortunately it is," he says. "Human civilisation is like the tides repeating."

These cycles of violence, migration, anti-foreigner sentiment may not be countered by an arts festival. But the best art often comes from these times, says Stephanie Street, the playwright behind Dragonflies.

The Britain-based Singaporean theatremaker is married to a Frenchman and affected by Brexit. Dragonflies' title is inspired by the insects which may migrate halfway around the world, just like humans.

In it, Street, 40, responds to the protectionism and isolation obvious in the West, asking: "If you're a person like me, with a family like mine, how will this affect you?"

This does not mean Dragonflies is all gloom and doom. "It's a tale of disenchantment with a hopeful promise," she says. "If the festival's theme of Enchantment has been chosen to counteract the disenchantment in the world, this play is an homage to what will happen if we give in to the disenchantment."

For more stories on the Singapore International Festival of Arts, go to

Three art forms meet in Art Studio

To prepare for Nine Years Theatre's stage adaptation of an epic novel about a group of artists, the Mandarin troupe's artistic director Nelson Chia and the cast of Art Studio sat down and read the novel of the same name by Yeng Pway Ngon to one another over three days.

Later, the actors also tried their hand at charcoal sketching.


  • WHERE: Victoria Theatre, 11 Empress Place

    WHEN: Aug 17 to 19, 8pm

    ADMISSION: $35 to $65 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to

    INFO: Advisory 16 (mature content). Performed in Mandarin with English surtitles

How else to prepare for a play based on a novel about visual artists? Chia, 45, says: "There's the meeting of three art forms here." He adapted the book into a theatre script and will direct the production commissioned by the Singapore International Festival of Arts.

Yeng's novel was published in Chinese as Hua Shi in 2011 and won the Singapore Literature Prize a year later. It follows the lives of artists who share a studio and art master. With its large cast of characters, whose lives take them across Asia over the decades, it is a map and commentary on the region's changing social and political landscape.

Chia plans to have a monochrome set design, like a canvas. The actors are "inks or colours for me to paint", he says.

Nine Years Theatre stalwarts Tay Kong Hui and Mia Chee play Yan Pei, the art teacher, and his estranged wife. Timothy Wan plays the artist Si Xian, whose love for his childhood friend Ning Fang, played by Ellison Yuyang Tan, is thwarted by her desire to study traditional music in India. Neo Hai Bin plays Jian Xiong, an artist whose communist leanings send him to hide in the Malayan jungle. He also plays the model Ji Zong, whose session posing for the artists is a significant thread in the novel and play. Other roles are taken by Hang Qian Chou, Jean Toh, Jodi Chan, Darren Guo, Chen Yiyou, Toh Wee Peng and Chng Yi Kai.

Chee, the co-founder of Nine Years Theatre, says the troupe had been considering this project, but it would have taken 10 years to budget for it. The festival commission gave them the push they needed, Chia says. "No, it made us leap."

Akshita Nanda

Other highlights

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In 1979, 14-year-old French schoolboy Christian Rizzo had his first nightclub experience in London while on an exchange programme. He expected to hear the sounds of disco, but instead heard the tortured stirrings of English rock band Joy Division, fronted by singer Ian Curtis.

"It was strange for me," says Rizzo, now 52 and the director of Centre Choregraphique National de Montpellier in France.

"I expected happy, disco music, but I heard the sound of a new wave arriving - it was dark and poetic."

People also danced to that music differently - "it was something very inside, abstract but electric" - which made him start thinking about body movement differently.

In Le Syndrome Ian, Rizzo looks at the beauty of clubbing dance, complete with pulsing beats, smoke machine and lights. It is performed by nine professional dancers.

This is the first time the work is being presented in Asia. It has been performed in countries such as Germany and Portugal.

Le Syndrome Ian is the last in Rizzo's trilogy of "anonymous dance" works. The first two looked at partner dances and community dances.

The 60-minute piece has a dark side as well. Curtis committed suicide in 1980 at age 24 and clubs have come to be associated with drugs, the Aids crisis and, in recent years, terror attacks.

"Clubs are a place to celebrate life, but there is also the opposite side. There are some clues in the piece that something might not be working so well," says Rizzo.

Where: School of the Arts Drama Theatre, 1 Zubir Said Drive When: Aug 24 to 26, 8pm Admission: $45 to 75 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to

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The San Francisco-based Kronos Quartet are one of the best-known and most influential string groups in the world. They have collaborated with American composers such as Philip Glass and Steve Reich and musicians from Paul McCartney of The Beatles to Chinese pipa virtuoso Wu Man.

On Aug 31 and Sept 1, the quartet present the Asia-Pacific premiere of My Lai, composed by Jonathan Berger and performed with tenor Rinde Eckert and Vietnamese artist Van-Anh Vanessa Vo. The work is inspired by the American helicopter pilot who tried to stop the horrific massacre of Vietnamese villagers in My Lai.

On Sept 2, the quartet showcase some of their favourites in a special concert.

My Lai

Where: Drama Centre Theatre, Level 3 National Library Building, 100 Victoria Street When: Aug 31 and Sept 1, 8pm Admission: $45 to $85 from Sistic

An Evening With Kronos Quartet

Where: Drama Centre Theatre, Level 3 National Library Building, 100 Victoria Street When: Sept 2, 8pm Admission: $50 to $110 from Sistic

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Acclaimed graphic novelist Sonny Liew and theatre director and performer Edith Podesta will be joining forces to bring a comic to life onstage.

Liew, 42, will be creating a comic for the 90-minute piece, which uses the superhero genre as a springboard to explore complex, difficult ideas about ageing and mortality.

"These are issues that all of us face - in ourselves, our parents and loved ones," he says. "At a social level, demographic changes have also made greying populations a serious challenge for many countries."

Both Liew and Podesta, 37, have won strings of accolades for their work recently.

Liew's best-selling graphic novel The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye was awarded the Singapore Literature Prize last year and is leading this year's nominations for the prestigious Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards.

Podesta's play, B*tch: The Origin Of The Female Species, won Production of the Year and Best Original Script at this year's M1-The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards.

Becoming Graphic will feature sections in which Liew will draw or ink his illustrations live, a process which will be filmed and projected onstage.

Podesta and her team are working on ways of translating the language of comics into that of theatre - for instance, by using lighting to serve as frames, emulating the way panels work in comics.

Such translation is a daunting challenge, says Liew. "Most theatre adaptations of comics seem to adopt the narrative and plots without trying to emulate the form.

"But I think (Podesta's) got all the creative brilliance needed to pull it off."

Where: 72-13, 72-13 Mohamed Sultan Road When: Aug 17 and 18, 8pm; Aug 19 and 20, 3 and 8pm Admission: $50 from Sistic

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 18, 2017, with the headline Enchantment at Singapore International Festival of Arts this year, but there's also a dark side. Subscribe