Singapore International Festival of Arts unveils line-up

Living rooms will be converted into cosy theatre spaces

Dementia by Hungary's Proton Theatre is set in a psychiatric hospital.
Dementia by Hungary's Proton Theatre is set in a psychiatric hospital.
Local artists (from far left) Shane Mardjuki, Zaliha Hamid, Kumar, Koh Chieng Mun and Sharul Channa will perform in four HDB estates. PHOTOS: JASON WONG/STILLZ & MOTION, MARTON AGH

Following its well-received boutique inaugural edition last year, the Singapore International Festival of Arts will be traversing the heartland this year, with several performances that go right to audiences' doorsteps.

In its second year under festival director Ong Keng Sen, the $7-million festival has unveiled eight of its 19 main season shows, which seem to appeal to both mainstream and niche audiences.

These eight productions include a band of travelling comedians led by Kumar who will visit several Housing Board estates, as well as the T'ang Quartet's collaboration with Singapore-born, British pianist Melvyn Tan, which will see performances on period instruments such as the harpsichord.

Themed Post-Empires, the main festival season will run from Aug 6 to Sept 20, with 19 shows spread out over seven weekends. The O.P.E.N., its pre-festival public engagement initiative, will run from June 17 to July 4 and feature more performances this year, as well as its usual film screenings, exhibitions and talks.

With this edition of the festival taking place in Singapore's Golden Jubilee year and starting just ahead of National Day on Aug 9, its works examine the various facets of what emerges after empires, such as colonial regimes, dictatorships and communism.

This year will also see the premiere of more than 10 local commissions, each costing $400,000 on average to produce.

Ong says: "It's quite a diverse season because we're trying to match what is happening locally with the international perspective."

While there are some shows that promise to be crowdpleasers, the programming is no less cerebral than before, with the shows for the main festival falling into four main clusters - Transformations, Archives, Post-Empires: What Remains After?, and Play With Post- - that all interrogate the main theme.

In the Transformations category, the festival looks at the transformative power of individuals. Popular stand-up comedian Kumar, for instance, will be invading four HDB estates with a group of comedians and performers, including Sharul Channa, Koh Chieng Mun, Zaliha Hamid and Shane Mardjuki.

Ong says: "I think the stand-up comic is the best way in which issues are unpacked, in a very friendly way. And the conversations start people thinking about how we actually live in Singapore, where we're very cramped in our public space and social landscape."

Ordinary living rooms will also be transformed in Open Homes, where the festival will work with the People's Association to convert the living rooms of HDB flats into intimate, cosy theatre spaces, retaining the "open house" feel of a communal gathering during festivals such as Chinese New Year, Hari Raya Puasa or Deepavali.

Archives presents various productions inspired by archives or which interpret the archives in wildly different and exciting ways. One example is the Arts Festival's mini 16-day dance festival within a festival titled Dance Marathon - Open With A Punk Spirit!, which will be hosted at an unconfirmed heritage site.

The international dance festival, which Ong has been working on for two years, will see seven Japanese contemporary dance artists compiling "archive boxes" of their own dances, packing them with everything from notes and cassette tapes to objects such as cutlery and passing them on to other artists, mostly from South Asia, to interpret as they wish, even reinventing them quite radically.

Ong hopes this "dance-sharing forum" will "revolutionise how dance is being made" in bending and breaking traditional dance forms. The boxes will also travel to other places after their first stop in Singapore. In this way, the archive becomes more than just a documentation of a dead past, but also a living part of history.

Another production, Nanyang - The Musical, is inspired by pioneer artists such as Cheong Soo Pieng, Chen Wen Hsi and Georgette Chen, known for the Nanyang style of art combining Western techniques with Asian sensibilities and subject matter. It will feature fresh new actors, music by Mandopop songwriting power duo Eric Ng and Xiaohan and a script by director Alec Tok.

Ong says of the musical: "You begin to understand why these individuals start to form an identity here - not where they studied art, not where their original homes were, not where they were born, but where they found some purpose or mission."

The Post-Empires: What Remains After? category looks at what remains after an empire has crumbled and the entwining of the old with the new.

In the production Homecoming, pioneer dancer-choreographer Goh Lay Kuan, 76, returns to making large-scale contemporary dance after almost two decades. The Cultural Medallion recipient will capture three generations of Chinese, Malay, Indian and contemporary dance in Singapore.

One of the international blockbusters coming to Singapore is Winterreise, which the New York Times described as "compelling and insightful", with "superb" baritone Matthias Goerne and "sensitive" pianist Markus Hinterhauser. They will be performing the 24-song cycle by Franz Schubert with poems by Wilhelm Muller, a haunting piece which follows a young, heartbroken man on a journey through a barren landscape, paired with the moving images of the iconic South African artist and film-maker William Kentridge. It premiered at the Aix-en-Provence Festival last year.

Ong says of the overarching theme of Post- Empires: "We want to position art, the human voice, and the individual as central things that remain, no matter how governments come and go. These expressions and sensitivities remain."

And finally, there are shows that come under 'Play With Post-', which toys with the prefix of "post", whether it is post-communism, post- colonial, post-play or post-capitalism.

One of the productions is Dementia by Hungary's Proton Theatre, a modern-day parable rich in dark humour, which looks at the breakdown of communism and also the heartlessness of capitalism - a psychiatric hospital, full of patients struggling with dementia, is forced to close down.

The T'ang Quartet's concert featuring Melvyn Tan, titled Guts And Steel, will make use of the harpsichord, fortepiano and other period instruments to create a classical music concert.

Last year's festival programmes drew 22,000 people despite being held alongside popular events such as the National Day Parade, the Singapore Night Festival and the Formula One races.

The festival organisers will release more of this year's line-up in April.

Follow Corrie Tan on Twitter @CorrieTan

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