Singapore arts groups celebrate 25 years and more

The Straits Times speaks to long-running art groups about renewal, staying relevant and challenges ahead

Singapore's performing arts scene is maturing. The Singapore Dance Theatre (SDT) and Malay drama group Teater Ekamatra celebrate their 30th anniversary next year, while the Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT) and Dance Ensemble Singapore turn 25.

These groups have established a style and mission here, but some others, just as old, are still finding their feet.

Issues that all long-running arts groups struggle with include leadership renewal, funding and staying relevant in an increasingly packed performing arts scene.

When it comes to funding, the groups The Straits Times spoke to said it is becoming harder to find sponsors or patrons. SRT's outdoor event Shakespeare In The Park was an annual event from 2011, but could not be staged this year due to budget woes.

SRT ran an online SOS - Save Our Shakespeare - fund-raising campaign, which has raised at least $73,000 so far. In May, the troupe will stage Julius Caesar with Jo Kukathas in the lead role.

SRT's managing director Charlotte Nors, 50, says: "Our unique selling point has been that we have super high production values, but now so does everybody else."

She adds that competition is from not just other theatre groups, but also visual arts festivals, museums - where Singaporeans get free access - and even Netflix.

  • Next year's highlights

  • SINGAPORE REPERTORY THEATRE

    May 2018: Outdoor event Shakespeare In The Park returns. Malaysian actress Jo Kukathas takes the lead in Julius Caesar.

    November 2018: The premiere of Mu-Lan, a new musical from Dick Lee.

  • SINGAPORE DANCE THEATRE

    April 12 to 15, 2018: The romantic tragedy Giselle, choreography by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot.

    May 31 to June 3, 2018: Children's ballet Peter & Blue's Forest Adventure

    July 27 to 28, 2018: Thirtieth Anniversary Gala, featuring a new work specially created for the Singapore Dance Theatre by The Australian Ballet's choreographer Timothy Harbour.

  • TEATER EKAMATRA

    March 2018: Potong, a new play about an Australia-born teen who returns to Singapore to do national service.

    Late 2018: Projek Suitcase, a showcase of short plays from Teater Ekamatra's repertoire, adapted by invited theatre groups.

"Do you want to watch House Of Cards or come to SRT's Hand To God? That's a tough one," she says.

Ms Nors runs the company until 2020, while SRT's artistic director Gaurav Kripalani takes a leave of absence to helm the Singapore International Festival of Arts as festival director.

Teater Ekamatra's new company director Shaza Ishak says funding is equally problematic for the troupe. Non-Malay donors are hesitant to come forward and Malay donors are uncomfortable about a troupe that challenges ideas of what Malay theatre should be like.

Teater Ekamatra was started in 1988 by theatre-maker Lut Ali and his wife Rubie Lazim to develop a contemporary language and style for Malay theatre.

In 1995, Lut handed over the reins to poet Rafaat Hamzah, actor Zamberi A. Patah, and interdisciplinary artist Zai Kuning, along with theatre-maker Noor Effendy Ibrahim. The latter left for the United States two years later, but returned to lead the troupe from 2001 to 2006.

Effendy, 44, now runs experimental arts collective Akulah Bimbo Sakti. He says: "Teater Ekamatra in the 90s openly and simply said out loud that Malay theatre can speak, play, manipulate, empower, violate, celebrate and claim the Malay language in any way it wants to on the contemporary stage for both the Malay and the secular audience."

Scripts abandoned traditional verse styles and performances drew heavily on visual arts and design for their narrative. This continues to define the group today and has contributed to its longevity in the scene.

Effendy and his successor Zizi Azah Abdul Majid also set up training frameworks that nurtured younger artists including Shaza. She and artistic director Fared Jainal are part of an expanding team which this year added company manager Erny Melissa and resident designer Akbar Syadiq.

Fared, 43, says Teater Ekamatra wants to help younger artists grow as their voices add diversity to the artistic community. "We want to give them space to explore. We want to support one another through sharing resources."

Four associate artists are also attached to Teater Ekamatra and given first pick of projects plus its space at Aliwal Arts Centre for any personal productions. The artists are Irfan Kasban, Eric Lee, Munah Bagharib and Ruby Jayaseelan.

Teater Ekamatra has big plans for its 30th anniversary next year. It will invite six drama companies to reinterpret plays from three decades of its repertoire as short, one-man performances.

Fared says: "It's for us to engage with people we've not thought about or talked to, to understand what's out there so we are connected to the larger community."

Over at SDT, artistic director Janek Schergen says the question of succession is a tough one to answer.

The Swedish-American, who is in his 60s, says: "There may be people who want my job, but nobody wants to do my job."

The challenge is funding SDT's performances and managing an expanding troupe. There are 38 dancers in the company this year, with another couple slated to join soon under a new trainee programme. Twelve of the dancers are Singaporeans or permanent residents.

Hard to grow with funding issues

SDT puts on six main seasons a year, including two full-length classical ballets; the outdoor performance Ballet Under The Stars in Fort Canning Park and Passages Contemporary Season, in which invited choreographers work with the company's dancers.

Some of the repertoire is made specially for SDT by acclaimed names such as Dutch artist Nils Christe and Taiwanese-American Edwaard Liang - both of whose works were restaged this year - but performed to recorded music.

"You tell anybody that after 29 years you don't have an orchestra of your own, they'll say: 'That's ridiculous,'" says Schergen. "But I need half a million dollars. Do you have half a million dollars?"

Another group which believes that collaborations can help elevate their artform is Dance Ensemble Singapore. The Chinese dance troupe's annual calendar of events includes one performance co-created with choreographers from South Korea, China, Taiwan or other places.

Founder Yan Choong Lian, 63, says she also hires teachers and performers from China because "we are still building a foundation in Singapore for Chinese dance".

Yan herself got her start in the National Dance Company in 1972, trained in Beijing and considered a career in ballet before setting up a Chinese dance troupe bearing her name in 1988.

The Yan Choong Lian Dance Troupe became Dance Ensemble Singapore in 1993. It runs a school for 500 students of dance and martial arts, while also performing professionally here and overseas.

Yan is the artistic adviser, while three former students, including her daughter Cai Shiji, run the company as well as its contemporary performance arm, DES Arts.

This April, DES Arts put on The Wedding, a Nonya-inspired dance drama.

Yan refuses to pigeonhole her company as a Chinese dance troupe, insisting she has to establish a "Nanyang style" unique to Singapore, in the vein of her dance contemporaries Som Said of Sri Warisan and the late Neila Sathyalingam of Apsaras Arts.

She says maintaining a distictive voice is what sets her group apart.

"I must do Singaporean repertoire so when I go overseas, people will see us as something special and say, 'This is Singaporean style,'" she says.

It is a long road ahead, she admits. "In 30 years, we don't expect to be like the Beijing Academy, but I hope the younger generation will continue to progress in this direction."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 28, 2017, with the headline 'Still young at art'. Print Edition | Subscribe