From Further Afield

Published on 2 August 2016

See how international artists adapt to local settings and styles at the 2016 Singapore International Festival of Arts.

BY JOEL TAN

Its eye set firmly on the future, this year’s Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA) embraces a heady theme: ‘Potentialities’. Much of that potential lies in the spark created by international artists coming into conversation with Singapore spaces and contexts.

With this year’s iteration of the Festival, some very big names are coming to town. The roster includes revered Canadian theatre director Robert Lepage; American dancer and choreographer Bill T Jones; Indonesian dancer and painter Sardono Kusomo; Argentinian performance-maker Fernando Rubio; and Israeli architect and artist Ron Arad, among others.

BEDS & SOLITUDE

Creating conversations between his art and local realities is key for Rubio, who’s presenting two performance pieces, Everything By My Side and Time Between Us.

Both works are immersive performance pieces set in city spaces. Both have also travelled the world, incorporating local performers with each destination. Singapore is no different. Installed at the National Gallery Singapore, Everything By My Side sees 10 actresses (among them home-grown actress Margaret Chan) each in a bed, delivering text centred around childhood memories to spectators who crawl into bed with the performers.

Time Between Us, a meditation on solitude, places an actor, Singapore’s Oliver Chong, in a temporary wooden house (above) erected at the Marina Bay Sands Event Plaza for five full days. Each day, there will be scheduled performances of text. Audiences are free to interact freely with Chong, transforming his daily habits into performance.

For Rubio, both pieces grow and accrete meaning with each city they travel to. The actresses in Everything By My Side, for instance, each hail from the previous nine countries to which the show has toured: a diverse mix including Argentina, Brazil, Greece, and the United States.

According to Rubio, travel is the show’s lifeblood. “We do not modify the content or the form, or the total aesthetics,” he says, when asked how the work will be adapted for Singapore. “You change your surroundings, you change the experience of the artwork. The change in space offers us another story, another layer, because that place has never been inhabited by the artwork.”

SUPERSIZE ME 720° by Ron Arad is a massive outdoor video installation designed to wow and impress. PHOTO Marino Balbuena

BEDTIME STORIES Fernando Rubio’s Everything By My Side is a performance piece featuring 10 actresses from around the world. PHOTO Conrado Krivochein

PROVOCATIVE, EXPRESSIVE

Also working with local artists is renowned American choreographer Jones, who premieres A Letter/Singapore with his company, the Bill T Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company alongside dance students from LASALLE College of the Arts.

A major figure in America’s experimental 1970s dance scene, Jones is well known for creating provocative, socially conscious work with a commitment to diversity — of race, bodies and styles.

The show is built on an earlier work, Letter for My Nephew, that premiered in France and drawn from contexts like the European refugee crisis and racialised violence in the US.

The SIFA commission, which incorporates his trademark borrowing from different musical and dance styles, “will be informed by my imperfect understanding of Asia in general and Singapore in particular; a culture dealing with diversity in its own way” says Jones.

“My company will come curious, open and ready to learn from the city-state itself and from the LASALLE dance students, the vulnerability of young Asian bodies, desiring to be expressive and very conscious of how they do and do not relate to global conversations.”

PAINTING SPELL

A lot closer to home is Sardono, the acclaimed Indonesian dancer, painter and film-maker, whose work has won him acclaim across the globe.

Known for his experimental productions that merge classical Javanese dance with contemporary styles, Sardono’s work comes to the Festival in the form of The Sardono Retrospective, a series of iconic performances and previously un-exhibited experimental films.

One thread running through the work places the body into dialogue with the traditions of Sardono’s homeland and the natural world. For instance, Black Sun, a new contemporary dance piece created for the Festival, explores Man’s destruction of the natural world and is inspired by the catastrophic Indonesian forest fires that plague the region.

The 71-year-old Sardono, who counts diving around the Indonesian archipelago part of his artistic process, shows no signs of slowing down. Audiences can look forward to the intense physicality of his Solo Live Painting, where the lines between painting and dance blur as the artist creates a large-scale painting from scratch at the Malay Heritage Centre.

BOLD MOVES Indonesian artist Sardono presents contemporary dance performance Black Sun as part of The Sardono Retrospective. PHOTO Aka Kurnia

FRESH TAKES & HYBRIDS

Equally absorbing is Canadian stage director Lepage’s Hamlet I Collage, a one-man Hamlet starring Russian actor Evgeny Mironov playing all the roles. The production by Moscow’s Theatre of Nations is famed for the visual spectacle created by Mironov’s co-star of sorts: a suspended, constantly morphing mechanised cube on which images are projected.

“It’s an endeavour to create an entirely new type of theatre space,” says Mironov of his mechanised partner. “I can tell you that we didn’t get to find common ground right away but now I believe we’ve formed a proper duet,” he quips.

Beyond creating beautiful new stage textures, the production also aims to tease out new layers in the centuries-old Shakespeare classic.

Says Mironov of the production, “It begins and ends in the same room that looks like either a prison cell or a hospital ward. It might just be taking place inside a madman’s head in his last glimpse of life.”

For Mironov, there will always be fresh takes on Hamlet as long as there are people left to do it. “People spend their entire lives with this play and still don’t find answers to their questions,” he observes.

Joining these international acts in conversation are new works by some of Singapore’s top artists. Checkpoint Theatre presents The Last Bull: A Life in Flamenco by playwright Huzir Sulaiman, a theatrical memoir of flamenco master, Antonio Vargas. Also, celebrated multimedia artist, Brian Gothong Tan presents his myth-bending Tropical Traumas: A Series of Cinematographic Choreographies, a hybrid of cinema and theatre that takes place at Ron Arad’s gargantuan installation, 720°, in Gardens by the Bay.

Foreign or otherwise, the one thing all the works in SIFA 2016 seem to have in common is a sense of the world-making possibilities of art. As dance veteran Jones, speaking about his troupe, puts it, “The company looks and behaves not as the world actually is, but as the world we wish to live in.”

The 2016 Singapore International Festival of Arts is on from 11 August till 17 September. See www.sifa.sg for details.

DIRECTOR’S TAKE :  Festival director Ong Keng Sen wants to take audiences on a “big artistic journey” at this year’s Singapore International Festival of Arts

BY PAMELA HO

PHOTO Jeannie Ho

Into its third edition, the Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA) has somehow found ways to reinvent itself every year. How will this year’s festival — themed ‘Potentialities’ — be different? We chat with festival director Ong Keng Sen to find out how his learnings have translated into key directions for this highly anticipated annual event on Singapore’s arts calendar.

WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNT SO FAR ABOUT SIFA’S AUDIENCES?

SIFA audiences want to be challenged. Last year, Dementia and Six Characters in Search of an Author — which are basically surreal, absurdist and hard-hitting theatrical works — fared better at the box office than, for example, Daniel Buren’s circus [Cabanons]. It’s almost like audiences expect this of SIFA: that we challenge them, provoke them, and give them a strong experience. To me, it says we’re filling a very different niche in Singapore’s arts calendar. The overall realisation is that we have to reinvent the wheel every year, so that we don’t get into a formula.

WHAT ARE SOME OF THIS YEAR’S REINVENTIONS?

We need to get into a frame where we’re not just commissioning Singapore artists but approaching world artists and offering them commissions. Even as we do that, how do we find a connection with Singapore? Like this year, even with our international focus, we’re asking, can we get a situation where Brian Gothong Tan works in the installation of Ron Arad? We try to find these open spaces where Singaporeans can collaborate with international masters. The whole idea of ‘commissions’ is also changing. When you say ‘commissions’, there is a strong sense that you’re the patron, the one just paying for it, like the Church in the past commissioning art. But SIFA is involved in the whole creation stage in a very direct and strong way. So we’re moving away from ‘commissions’ to being a ‘creations’ festival. This year, out of 20 shows, 15 are creations.

YOUR PERSONAL PICKS FOR SIFA 2016?

Hamlet I Collage
12-13 August, Drama Centre Theatre, 8pm

Many elements come together in this Robert Lepage work: Russia as a Mother Culture, Hamlet as an institution, and technology as the potentiality. It’s epic! It’s like a rotating Rubik’s Cube where all the scenes of Hamlet are mapped onto it, and featuring one actor only.

PHOTO Sergey Petrov

The Sardono Retrospective: Solo Live Painting
20-21 August, Malay Heritage Centre, 5pm

Sardono is an Indonesian dancer, but he also paints and makes films. Experience him creating a live painting on the grounds of the Malay Heritage Centre — amidst Arab Street — at sunset.

PHOTO Sardono W Kusumo

Bill T Jones: Making and Doing
14 September, 72-13, 8pm

There’s something amazing about listening to a master artist! And because Bill (who has achieved so much as a Black-American in dance and contemporary art) is so intelligent and articulate, it’s a treat to hear how he unpacks his work and puts it forward in a way that is understandable by a lay person.

PHOTO Ian Douglas

WHAT WOULD YOU WANT TO HAVE ACHIEVED WHEN SIFA 2016 ENDS?

I want audiences to feel like they’ve gone through a big artistic journey. It’s like the special kind of glow at the end of a nice sunset.

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