I’ll Be Back

Published on 26 June 2017

Why do some international artists revisit Singapore time and time again? Regular returners tell us why working in Singapore just doesn’t get old.

By JO TAN

Singapore is small, but we sure must be sexy. Why else would so many visiting foreign artists keep returning to our shores? We talk to some creative professionals who contribute regularly to the Singapore scene, despite not being born or based here.

DARREN YAP, DAVID SHRUBSOLE, IX WONG

AUSTRALASIAN COLLABORATION Malaysian dancer/choreographer Ix Wong (far left) and Australian director Darren Yap (left) work together to bring the legend of The Great Wall to life. PHOTO Crispian Chan
A BRIT OF IMAGINATION David Shrubsole has come to Singapore to make music for the past two decades, and continues to do so in The Great Wall: One Woman’s Journey. PHOTO Crispian Chan

DARREN YAP Director (Australia)
DAVID SHRUBSOLE Composer (United Kingdom)
IX WONG Choreographer (Malaysia)

The Great Wall: One Woman’s Journey boasts Darren Yap, David Shrubsole and Ix Wong as part of its creative team. Director Yap first visited in 1989 as an actor to shoot an Australian series on location. He returned soon after as resident director of Mamma Mia! the musical, and to direct local projects ranging from the Desmond Sim play Hubbies for Hire to the opening festival for the National Gallery Singapore in 2016.

“For many years, I had been serving as associate or resident director for international touring productions of mega-musicals like Miss Saigon, which is wonderful but doesn’t allow you to input creativity from scratch. Singapore has always given me opportunities to do so with original work like Man of Letters, The Admiral’s Odyssey and now, The Great Wall.”

Wong, who co-choreographs The Great Wall and has presented Singaporean explorations in everything from tai chi to the head-to-toe bodysuit genre of zentai, agrees. “Graduating as a scholar from the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts, I had many opportunities to work in Europe. However, after years training in Western ideas of contemporary dance, I decided I needed time closer to home to develop something I could call my own. So I came here, where my first project was with The Arts Fission Company in 2000: a site-specific work on the rooftop of the Centennial Tower. There was this great sense of adventure and cross-disciplinary collaboration then, and I think the Singapore audience is now ready for even more adventurous work.”

Says award-winning composer/arranger Shrubsole, “What’s joyous about the scene in Singapore is that there is so much of it. People are always trying to find stories that sing and put them onstage.” The Briton first came to Singapore to arrange Dick Lee’s tunes for the premiere of the musical A Twist of Fate in 1997. Since then, he’s had diversiform art experiences here, including writing a children’s musical that premiered in Singapore. “My experiences here have all been memorable in different ways. Staging A Twist of Fate amidst the fading elegance of Jubilee Hall; creating a new Asian telling of European classic Pinocchio, and the scale and responsibility linked with composing the opening of National Gallery Singapore.”

Yap adds, “We’ve participated in such diverse work! I think Singaporean theatre-makers are raring to take chances, because like Australia, the theatre industry is young. We’re happy to continue finding and redefining ourselves, as compared to the more established scenes in England and America. Yes, when David and I first came here, there were fewer professionals — everybody rushed down to rehearsals from their day jobs, and some of the young performers I worked with were very raw and untrained. But everybody was passionate, and we were all trying things and growing together.

“Today, there is wonderful performance training — many of the raw young actors I worked with are now fantastic full-time practitioners. We’re continuing this spirit of growth with our years of developing The Great Wall here. From my experience directing touring work, I absolutely believe it is a Singaporean musical that could travel abroad, and I certainly hope to be able to bring it there.”

OLE KHAMCHANLA

HANDS-ON APPROACH French-Laotian dancer/choreographer Ole Khamchanla has not only choreographed and performed in collaborations with Singaporean creatives but also given workshops to budding talents.

OLE KHAMCHANLA Dancer/Choreographer (Laos/France)

Known for his adventurous works with influences from hip-hop, capoeira, contemporary dance and Japanese dance form Butoh, Ole Khamchanla, the founder of French dance company, Kham, has continued exploring fusions of dance with different art forms all over the world.

“My first visit to Singapore was in May 2011, prospecting for a dance production. My impression was that there was such a diversity of people that I could easily find inspiration, and the great support and infrastructure for promoting culture and creating art would allow me to realise this inspiration in a production.”

Since then, Khamchanla has returned every year, both to share his skills and perspectives with young budding artists during workshops, as well as to present his company’s work, collaborate with local dance companies, and even perform in Ghost Writer, a play by The Necessary Stage. “I feel good working in Singapore. Every artist I’ve met here has left me with a favourite memory.”

NAOYA AOKI

TAKING A SPIN Japanese juggler Naoya Aoki has performed and shared his skills on the diabolo in Singapore numerous times over the past five years. Credit: Rogan Yeoh

NAOYA AOKI Circus Artist (Japan)

This juggler extraordinaire and editor of Ponte Juggling Magazine has plied his trade for the past 11 years across various continents, often representing his country in international juggling competitions such as the Diabolo Cup. Singapore, in particular, is one country Naoya Aoki looks forward to visiting.

“I first came to Singapore in 2013 to take part in the circus arts festival, Bornfire Festival. Honestly, the circus arts scene here was not so developed, with few participants. But I felt the community’s warmth, especially since Singaporean jugglers are full of energy, not afraid to shout and clap and enjoy themselves, whereas Japanese jugglers are not good at just being crazy for a moment. My juggler friends and I agreed it was among the best festivals we had ever attended.

“Now, I return annually for at least two weeks each time to perform, give workshops to budding jugglers or do juggling research. I see more young people organising and performing circus arts, which is so important for a community to grow. I’d love to see Singaporean artists creating something really surprising that challenges the traditions of circus arts. I think it is possible.”

JACOB SAM-LA ROSE

PHOTO Amaal Said

JACOB SAM-LA ROSE Poet/Educator (United Kingdom)

Award-winning poet Jacob Sam-La Rose (above) has been dubbed a “one-man literary industry” for how he tirelessly spreads the love of literature from London to Latvia and beyond with his writing, spoken word performances, workshops, and creation of literary communities internationally. He and Singapore’s literary scene have certainly had an effect on each other, to the extent of him writing the article, ‘Why I Love Singapore’.

“After I first visited in 2007, I came to appreciate certain similarities between the Singapore literary scene and the situation back in London. I recognised the struggles of young and emerging poets trying to find ways to gain respect for their work amidst the literary sector’s more established mechanisms or manifestations.”

In support of these young artists, he’s returned almost annually to perform, meet writers, and give workshops to pupils that he finds quite different from elsewhere. “So many of my Singaporean students have been terribly well behaved! I’ve had to make a point of creating space for them to speak freely, and not consider my workshop to be a lecture or seminar with me talking at them,” he says. His communicative approach paid off. “After a workshop at a junior college, the students told me I was cooler than Justin Bieber, at a time when Bieber was still considered pretty cool.”

Rose has helped grow the community indirectly even when not physically here. “I loved meeting with some of the young poets who constituted the Singaporean branch of Burn After Reading — a poetry community I’d established with Jasmine Cooray back in London. Generally, I’m excited [about Singaporean writers] and look forward to even more diversity in terms of the range of voices and experiences represented. I think the future’s in safe hands.”

STEVEN DEXTER, SHEILA FRANCISCO

SINGAPORE CALLING Filipina singer/actress Sheila Francisco (left) and British director Steven Dexter (right) have both played major roles in the musical Forbidden City.

STEVEN DEXTER Director (United Kingdom)
SHEILA FRANCISCO Actress/Singer (Philippines)

The Singapore Repertory Theatre musical, Forbidden City — Portrait of an Empress, enjoys a restaging in August. Its director Steven Dexter first visited Singapore 22 years ago to direct Little Shop of Horrors for the theatre company. “I fell in love with the country the minute I arrived. The weather was warm and so were the people.”

Sheila Francisco, one of three actresses playing Forbidden City’s main character, the empress Yehenara, first arrived in 2001. “Playing the midwife in Chang & Eng was my first theatre experience outside of the Philippines. I will always be grateful for that break because that’s where John Robertson, then with Cameron Mackintosh Australia, spotted me. A few months later, he called me because the Royal National Theatre was doing a revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific and they were having problems casting the role of Bloody Mary.”

Dexter has directed acclaimed musicals all over the world, including five proudly Singaporean Dick Lee originals right here in Singapore. Meanwhile, Francisco has performed in Brunei, Amsterdam, Japan, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore, where she’s stolen the show in A Twist of Fate, The Full Monty and Into the Woods, just to name a few.

Says Dexter, “Singapore is like a second home, giving me opportunities to do incredible new work — some of the work we did on The LKY Musical, I don’t think I would have had the opportunity to do elsewhere. Of course, it was hugely stressful as a foreigner, coming in to direct a musical about Singapore’s founding father, but I put everything I had into justifying the trust placed in me. Reading the good reviews in the departure lounge as I prepared to return to England, I remember bursting into tears of pride and relief.”

Francisco says, “I have a special fondness for working in Singapore, especially with its artists. There is nothing more fulfilling than to see someone excel in their field and know that at some point you shared your heart, knowledge and experience with that person.”

Dexter agrees. “The scene has transformed. When I first came, it was mainly just Singapore Repertory Theatre and TheatreWorks doing large-scale English productions. Now there are so many wonderful companies, and a huge talent pool. In The LKY Musical, the set designer and I were the only foreigners in the building. That made me proud, to have always encouraged Singapore’s industry to use as many local people as possible.”

The Great Wall: One Woman’s Journey opens 14 July at the Drama Centre Theatre. Forbidden City — Portrait of an Empress opens 8 August at The Esplanade Theatre.

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