Jun 27 2012

Something for Everyone at the Singapore Arts Festival

by Kathy Zhang

View of the Singapore Arts Festival’s main site, Esplanade Park, and in the background Esplanade: Theatres on the Bay.

General manager of the annual Singapore Arts Festival (5/18–6/2), Low Kee Hong, developed the theme for this year, “Our Lost Poems,” which amounted to an equal dose of popular flair and rehashing of half-forgotten cultural tropes, to draw the interest of the general community. Whether orchestra music or an all-girl deejay bootcamp, from Ong Keng Sen’s reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s King Lear through Japanese Noh theater to a boxing match between contenders to be Singapore’s national icon, there was something for everyone at the festival. Needless to say the 22 performing events, which were centered around Esplanade Park and at venues throughout the civic district, did not always meet Low’s lofty vision, described in the curatorial statement, of addressing: “stories that inspire us, legends that have deep cultural roots and riddles that reveal the secrets of the world.”

Simple and attention-grabbing, Flux (2009/2012) by the two-person French dance troupe, Théâtre du Centaure, whose equestrian actors are complemented at all times with his steed and doppelgänger; or another crowd pleaser, They Only Come Out at Night: Pandemic (2012), the final performance of a trilogy by the British theatre company Slung Low, can be criticized as only superficially engaging and stuck within the conceptual limitations of pure entertainment. The attraction of Théâtre du Centaure’s performance, which was held at the festival’s main outdoor stage in Esplanade Park, lies not in the message—a stripped down love story—but in the novelty of acting as human-horse units. For Slung Low’s Pandemic at Old School—an on-and-off arts hub located in the former Methodist Girls’ School campus and supposedly the bastion for the last remaining survivors of a worldwide vampire outbreak—the audience was corralled shoulder to shoulder from the ground floor up three flights of stairs to watch the cloying drama of a teen vampire flick play out in what was once the site of Osage’s Singapore gallery, which closed in 2010.

Some performances were more successful than others. A highlight was Choy Ka Fai’s four-year research project, the Lan Fang Chronicles (2010/2012), which delves into a lesser-known history pre-dating the founding of the Singapore nation state. Exhibited at Shuang Long Shan—the ancestral hall, cemetery, and community hall for the Hakka Chinese in Singapore—as a documentary film, miniaturized replications of no longer extant artifacts and a number of performative readings and lectures, Lan Fang Chronicles pieces together the story of an early settlement of Hakka Chinese in Western Borneo that lasted from the mid-18th to late 19th century. When the Dutch took control of the Indonesian archipelago, the people of the Lan Fang Republic fled to outlying areas, including Singapore. How much of a role these itinerant Hakka Chinese played in Singaporean history and culture remains unresolved. But Lan Fang Republic does raise interesting questions about who writes history and those whom history forgets.

THÉÂTRE DU CENTAURE, Flux, 2009/2012, at Esplanade Park, Singapore, 2012. Photo by Anne Zorgdrager. Courtesy Singapore Arts Festival.

SLUNG LOW, They Only Come Out at Night: Pandemic, 2012, at the Old School, Singapore. Courtesy Singapore Arts Festival.

The challenge of bridging entertainment and art—of making the festival accessible to an audience who may not be familiar with theater, while also wanting to produce complex works that open discussions—is one Low has been grappling with since he took over management of the festival from Goh Ching Lee three years ago. In terms of showcasing critical works of art, the festivities were hit or miss. However, Low was most successful, not just at bringing art to the community, but bringing the people into the art. This year’s iteration of the festival was notable for the fact that it is the first to directly involve the community in its performances.

Toronto-based company Mammalian Diving Reflex, scouted a dozen women from non-professional senior performing clubs to participate in the tell-all performance, The Best Sex I’ve Ever Had (2010/2012). The group of women, 65 years old and over, disclosed their sexual history to all-female audiences, at the performing arts center Esplanade: Theatres on the Bay. At intervals, a moderator polled the viewers with questions comparing the younger audiences’ experiences and taboos with those of the performers. At the conclusion of Best Sex, the audience was shown a video interview with men of all ages whom are asked whether they think building a red light district that caters to elderly women is a good idea, and if so would they work there.

At the School of the Arts (SOTA), the one pre-tertiary school in Singapore with an art focused curriculum, Heman Chong’s commissioned piece for the festival, Advanced Studies in … Ten Lessons for Life (2012), involved a group of theater students from SOTA to teach one-on-one lessons to visitors in a Socratic style. Each 45-minute lesson, on topics including “existentialism,” “21st century democracy” and “poverty as eternal recurrence,” took its inspiration from 10 novels: The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, Poor Folk by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Beach by Alex Garland, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, The Tempest by William Shakespeare, The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut, Seeing by Jose Saramago, Elizabeth Costello by JM Coetzee and Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre.

Performative reading of the Malay poem Syair Perang Cina di Mandor (“Story of the Chinese Wars in Mandor”; c. 1853) for CHOY KA FAI’s Lan Fang Chronicles, 2010/2012, in front of the Shuang Long Shan cemetery, Singapore, 2012.

These community driven programs reflect the city-state’s art policy in general. The 2012 report by the Arts and Culture Strategic Review (ACSR), published January 31, maps out Singapore’s future cultural development through to 2025. The primary, long term vision, according to article 27 of this report, is for arts and culture to become an integral part of Singaporeans’ lives. “Arts and culture” is also broadly defined as anything from designer clothes and accessories, graphic magazines, cinema, and music to theater, visual arts and traditional forms of art, including Chinese calligraphy, Teochew opera, bangsawan Malay opera, Malay dance, Indian dance and Tamil literature.

Traditional, contemporary and popular art were all lumped together at the Singapore Arts Festival, which explains the event’s slightly schizophrenic character, attempting to showcase a bit of everything. The Singapore Arts Festival started out in 1977 as a national showcase of local arts, but today it promotes itself as “an international showcase of ideas, art and discourse with a distinctive Asian flavour.” However, instead of a true transition, the festival appears to have consolidated its former and current missions to the effect of overreaching itself. Community art that engages people at all levels of appreciation has a place (Australia’s Independent Theatre Association is an example), and so does internationally competitive performing arts (such as at the UK’s Edinburgh International Festival), but perhaps not together. Ironically, it is the broad scope of the Singapore Arts Festival that ultimately limits its potential to become a platform representing the best of Singaporean and regional performing arts.