University students in Singapore get ample opportunity to shine and develop their talents in a potpourri of arts and culture events.
BY DAPHNE ONG
Published on 28 February 2016
BY DAPHNE ONG
Universities conjure images of hallowed halls of higher study and endless hours poring over books. But this stuffy image comprises only part of varsity life in Singapore’s three main universities — the National University of Singapore (NUS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), and Singapore Management University (SMU). In addition to academic learning, the campuses are teeming with artistic life.
The sheer number and variety of arts events coursing through our campuses are overwhelming. Even a cursory glance at their respective event calendars reveals a plethora of performances, workshops, exhibitions and competitions. Events range from full-scale university-wide festivals to intimate gigs in halls of residence. Each school also boasts its own rich arts culture and range of activities.
Being the country’s oldest university with the richest and longest heritage, NUS has the most prolific and structured arts scene among the three. Both performance and visual arts have a very prominent presence in everyday life on campus. In almost any given week in the semester, there will be a music concert, dance performance or exhibition held somewhere on campus.
For a start, the infrastructure is all there and maximised: the University Cultural Centre with its various performing venues; the historical NUS Museum; the Peranakan gem that is Baba House, and the latest addition to the family; the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum.
What sets NUS apart is that while events are student-led, there is active leadership and support at the school administrative level. Sharon Tan, director of the NUS Centre for the Arts (CFA), explains the centre’s key role in the dynamic campus arts scene. “With our team of more than 60 full-time staff, we have dedicated attention to students and groups whom we identified as having potential to be nurtured and developed further. We hire trainers, artistic directors and conductors to work closely with them to develop productions. We also give them many platforms along with all the support and resources they need to train and put up performances.”
With around 2,000 student members of the CFA and 50,000 audience members attending various NUS arts events in 2015 alone, the centre’s staff are kept very busy. The talent development, programming and museum teams, along with the venue, technical and support staff form the backbone of the university’s cultural life. The students work together with the CFA to get their projects up and running. “Student groups know when the opportunities are to submit proposals to be part of, say, the arts festival or ExxonMobil Campus Concerts or their own annual productions,” says Tan.
BLOWING THEIR TOP The NUS Wind Symphony has been having a blast since 1968. PHOTO NUS Centre for the Arts
ON THE MOVE NUS Centre for the Arts has seven different dance groups under its wing. PHOTO NUS Centre for the Arts
Even before Nanyang Technological University offered arts-related courses of study, there was already a keen arts presence. Every hall of residence had its own arts groups in addition to the various performing groups under the Cultural Activities Club. Annual talent competitions, campus concerts and performances at events were a regular occurrence on campus. With the incorporation of the School of Art, Design and Media, National Institute of Education, and humanities department, the arts scene amped up. In addition to the established stable of performing clubs, more arts groups sprang up, like the Salsa En Sync and Breakdance clubs in 2006, and the Soul Funky Pop & Lock group in 2008.
The NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore opened its doors in 2013, establishing the university’s place in visual art research and exhibition. Nestled in the gallery hub of Gillman Barracks, the centre churns out a regular stream of exhibitions, residencies and educational programmes. Its distance from the main NTU campus in Jurong West is no deterrent as a free shuttle bus plies the route between campus and the centre at Gillman, making it easy for students and staff to partake of the rich visual pickings.
OLD IN NEW Heritage takes on a modern feel in this art exhibit at NTU’s School of Art, Design and Media. PHOTO School of Art, Design and Media, NTU
Started in 2000, SMU is the youngest of these three universities, but there’s no lack of zest and vigour in its arts scene. “When we started, there was a lot of focus on creating student vibrancy on campus just to raise interest and awareness of the arts; there were only four or five core groups then,” says Geraldine Pang, senior associate director of Arts & Culture from the SMU Office of Student Life. “Since then, SMU’s arts fraternity has grown to 25 groups. Arts excellence has always been and will remain our focus.”
Being in the heart of the Bras Basah Arts and Heritage District has helped the talents in SMU work and collaborate with partners for their arts projects, and also ensures healthy attendance at these events. In addition to the highly-visible Night Festival events which spill onto its campus grounds every year, SMU also boasts its own annual arts festival which attracts more than 4,000 audience members.
Inter-varsity interaction keeps campus artists connected. Events like the Tri-Uni, an annual dance event by NUS Dance Blast!, NTU MJ Dance and SMU Eurhythmix, bring student talents together not only to compete but to establish bonds. Second-year business management student and dancer Jolyn Seet relishes this interaction and shares how she is “inspired and motivated to raise the standards of the dance and arts scene in schools and in Singapore.”
ARTISTIC STRETCH The dancers of SMU Eurhythmix are used to juggling art with academics. PHOTO Megan Foo/SMU Vivace Organising Committee 2015
Why have the arts boomed and expanded in our institutions of learning? Once seen as mere pastimes, something has changed in the way performing and creating are perceived in the context of education and youth development.
“NUS’ long-term vision is to give a transformative experience to our students, broadening their minds to become future-ready graduates who are versatile, well-rounded global citizens,” says Tan.
“Part of the educational experience is to expose them to a broader perspective through art, develop soft skills, and develop the self as a full person.”
SMU is very clear about the place arts has in preparing their students for working life. “The future of SMU arts has a lot to do with our LifeLessons,” says Pang. SMU LifeLessons is an innovative structured programme that incorporates experiences outside of the classroom, including arts participation.
Fourth-year SMU Law student M Valluvan Nandeeshwar’s view reflects this perfectly: “Campus life isn’t defined solely by our academic journey. Half of it is made up of the extra contributions and involvements outside of studies.”
Nandeesh joined the salsa performance team, Caderas Latinas, in his first year and went on to excel in salsa competitions. Along the way, he learnt that, “Art teaches you how to strive for perfection and not be bogged down by adversities.”
Time management is one of the biggest challenges faced by the student talents. At the university level, activities are no longer led by teachers — everything is spearheaded by the students, which results in very steep learning curves and inevitably takes up much time, leaving students with less study hours.
“My biggest challenges are time and energy!” says Tong Miin, vocalist for the NUS Jazz Band, with a laugh. “Being on the ex-co for two years gave me discipline and perseverance. As NUS students, we’re encouraged to stretch ourselves artistically. It’s totally rewarding when people tell me they are impressed with the quality of our works.”
“Interestingly, my best academic performance was during the semesters with the heaviest dance commitments!” says third-year Psychology student and NUS Dance Blast! dance mistress Ong Si Qi.
“It’s all about balancing work, art and relationships. My parents discourage me from dancing because of the injuries I get, and it’s hard to explain to them why I have to continue. There’s always a lot of learning going on — if you fail, you learn to work around it and try something else.”
CAMPUS VOICE Annual competitions draw out hidden talent from all the universities. PHOTO School of Art, Design and Media, NTU
Big dreams are in store for the arts in the universities. NUS, for one, is already planning on funding more experimental and original works. Shares Tan, “We want to see more cross-genre and multidisciplinary works. We hope our NUS Performing & Visual Arts Scholarship will attract more highly-talented and academically- strong individuals.” Artists and anthropologists can also look forward to symposiums on how to use the school’s museum resources.
Strengthening relationships and building new ones with the arts community go hand in hand with SMU LifeLessons, says Pang. “We hope to engage in more collaborations with community partners while learning to be more innovative with our limited resources.”
Fourth-year Interactive Media student Jayseellan Eisvran expresses his hopes for NTU’s artistic future: “We have big events as well as many fringe events throughout the year. There is constantly some display or exhibition going on. That said, I hope to see the perspective of art widen in the NTU arts scene in the near future, to go beyond the mainstream and reflect more on issues.”
DEFYING GRAVITY Traditional meets contemporary in NUS Ilsa Tari’s dance repertoire. PHOTO NUS Centre for the Arts
Campus students unveil their talents at these upcoming showcases.
NANYANG TECHNOLOGICAL UNIVERSITY (NTU)
Impresario Grand Finals
The highlight of the NTU campus calender, Impresario is the Cultural Activities Club (CAC)’s annual natonwide talent-search competition. Since its start in 1992, aspiring vocalists, bands, dancers and songwriters have vied for recognition and reward. With former finalists popping up as professionals and even shining in Singapore Idol, this is a must-watch event that will have you rooting for your favourites!
NTU CAC Arts From the Heart
Formerly known as CAC External Performance, Arts From the Heart is an annual charity project, currently into its 13th year. All 22 of NTU CAC’s member clubs come together to put up this large-scale event. NTU’s best talents use their craft to raise awareness and funds for various charitable causes. This year’s concert will benefit the Children’s Aid Society.
NATIONAL UNIVERSITY OF SINGAPORE (NUS)
NUS Arts Festival 2016
The festival’s theme ‘Wonder’ explores the bridging of arts and science, with several works collaboratively developed involving NUS talents, arts practitioners and academics, such as NUS Indian Dance resident choreographer Santha Bhaskar working with the Centre for Quantum Technologies.
Look out for a series of international collaborations which see NUS Chinese Dance teaming with Beijing Dance Academy Youth Dance Company for space. time. mind. Meanwhile, award-winning dancers KENTARO!! from Japan and Ricky Hu from Hong Kong weave their moves with the NUS Dancers in Overdrive III: The Final Chapter. Other foreign acts include Australian performance artist Joseph Simons and theatremaker Brian Lobel. The rest of the extensive festival programme ranges from classical and electronic music to theatre, dance, film and visual art
ExxonMobil Campus Concerts
Celebrating its 30th birthday is the well-loved ExxonMobil Campus Concerts series. Singapore’s longest-running arts outreach programme presents a season of both new works as well as tributes to the past. Watch out for First Sparks on 13 March, which features various artists including Jack & Rai, Karen Tan, Pam Oei and ShiLi & Adi.
SINGAPORE MANAGEMENT UNIVERSITY (SMU)
End of Semester 1
Starry Nite is SMU’s signature biannual event, an evening of free outdoor performances. Soak up music under the stars, courtesy of SMU’s own talented bands.
SMU Arts Festival 2016
Second half of 2016
This much-anticipated annual arts festival showcases the craft of SMU’s various arts and cultural clubs. The multidisciplinary event also features hands-on workshops and guest performances by local artists and groups.