The Enchanted Journey

Published on 26 July 2017

The 2017 Singapore International Festival of Arts revolves around the theme of  ‘Enchantment’. Singapore artists tell us how they were personally enchanted, preparing for this year’s showcase.

By Pamela Ho

“I lived opposite the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, and there was a statue of a comfort woman facing the Embassy — a reminder of what happened during World War II. Japan and Korea had come to an agreement of a compensation, which many Koreans felt was not enough. I saw many young people camp at the statue. They knitted hats and scarves, laid flowers, and collected signatures to protect her,” recounts Ong Keng Sen, festival director of the Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA), and director of Trojan Women, a commissioned show created in collaboration with the National Theater of Korea. “I told the actresses about this story, and they were very moved.”

How the Korean actresses responded to Ong’s story, in turn, humbled and enchanted him (right). Curated around the theme of ‘Enchantment’, SIFA 2017 carries a Singapore-heavy programme lineup (the festival is designed as a biennale of Singapore expressions) with 16 commissions focusing on Singapore artists, including two Singapore collaborations with international artists, master film-maker Lav Diaz from the Philippines and the National Theater of Korea.

With over a year to work on their commissions, how have our Singapore artists experienced enchantment in their own personal journeys? Because surely, that will rub off on the audiences! Before the fourth and final instalment of SIFA under Ong raises its curtains this month, we go behind-the-scenes to mine their stories and reflections.

ONG KENG SEN

Trojan Women
7 to 9 September, 8pm, Victoria Theatre.

Directed by Cultural Medallion recipient Ong Keng Sen, this performance by the National Theater of Korea fuses pansori — a 400-year-old Korean genre of musical storytelling — with K-Pop, and tells the story of women in war.

“The story of Korean sex slaves during World War II is, of course, not the story of Trojan Women, but it is the landscape of what happens to women in war. When I shared the story of how I saw young people protecting the statue of the comfort woman outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, I could immediately feel the emotions well up in the women. For me, working with these amazing Korean actresses, who were able to tap into this deep pool of emotions, was both humbling and enchanting.

“Also, to use pansori, a 400-year-old Korean form of musical storytelling, was something I found very enchanting. As soon as they sang, it’s this gut-wrenching direct access to their sadness — what they call han, a mixture of sadness and happiness. All the artists strive for it.

“I also worked with Korea’s National Treasure, Anh Sook-Sun, who sang every single line of the musical piece — that’s how she composes; there’s no notation. Once, she vomited blood because her vocal chords ruptured! But every time she sings, it’s like pearls dropping out of her mouth. It was amazing for me to see that way of working.”

Photo: National Theater of Korea
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EDITH PODESTA

Becoming Graphic
17 to 19 August, 8pm; 20 August, 3pm; 72-13 MOHAMED SULTAN ROAD.

Graphic novelist Sonny Liew and theatre-maker Edith Podesta collaborate in a unique production that melds the worlds of comics and theatre, two-dimensional drawings and live performance.

“I spent several hours interviewing Sonny’s parents and grandpa, went through all the interviews he’s given and explored his catalogue of work. Sonny also taught me generously about the art and history of graphic novels — one of my favourite discussions explored the similarities and differences between Sequential Art and Theatre. It gave me the rare opportunity to see theatre in a new light.

“This show is the biggest challenge I’ve faced as a writer and director. I’ve had to learn a different artistic language and try to meld the two art forms. Sonny and I wanted to delve into the challenges the greying population faces, and Sonny has created a new graphic novel for this production, using the superhero genre as a starting point to explore aging and mortality. We agree that no matter how the mediums come together, they will be in service of the subject matter and the story he’s created.

“I think the charm of collaborating with a different artist is the opportunity you’re given to see your work through fresh eyes — you get to fall in love with your own artistic discipline all over again. I agree with what ballerina Gelsey Kirkland said, ‘…the uncertainties of the present always give way to the enchanted possibilities of the future’. I believe that’s why all performing arts are enchanting — the manifold possibilities of the story being told and the experience of witnessing that unfolding.”

Photo: Jeannie Ho (left) Sonny Liew (right)
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STEPHANIE STREET

Dragonflies
24 to 26 August, 8pm, Victoria Theatre.

In this Pangdemonium original written by Singapore-born Britain-based Stephanie Street, we see a post-Brexit world in turmoil. Protagonist Leslie moves his family back to Singapore for their safety.

“These are disenchanting times we live in. Divide and rule has been exercised on an epic scale in recent history and we are now living its legacy. Across the world powerful forces — governments, media, markets — are trying to desensitise us to, and disconnect us from, one another. We have been fed a diet, rich in fear and suspicion.

“My research for Dragonflies led me to an aid worker from a refugee camp in Greece. When we spoke about the displaced people she encounters, and what drove her to leave her home in the United Kingdom to help with the humanitarian crisis in Europe, she reminded me of our basic instincts to feel for, and want to help, our fellow women and men.

“I hope that when watching Dragonflies and the journey of the protagonist, Leslie, as he crosses the globe looking for somewhere to call home, audiences might be reminded of how far their ancestors travelled long ago, seeking a better life for themselves and the people they love.”

DANIEL KOK

MARK
23, 27, 31 August, 2 September, 5.30pm, various locations.

Singapore-born Berlin-based choreographer Daniel K brings independent dance artists in Singapore together in unexpected urban spaces for dance. The audience is invited to join in.

“We need art to go beyond novelty or for art to merely mean something. In this moment of political anti-intellectualism and ultra-conservatism, art presents an opportunity to share something that we cannot easily name or explain. This opportunity to engender a collective sense of wonder is extremely valuable in and of itself.

“Enchantment is hence key to unlocking the political potentiality of art. In MARK, relating and giving attention to each other and the audience already gives us an opportunity to appreciate how to be together. The abstract nature of dance is precisely what renders the space between us visible. My cast of independent artists and I are practising how to dance to the point of enchantment ourselves, to give importance to the ‘stuff’ that binds us together.”

Photo: Bernie Ng
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K RAJAGOPAL

Lizard on the Wall
9 into 10 September, midnight, The Projector.

Adapted from Balli Kaur Jaswal’s novel Inheritance, this film sheds light on a Sikh-Punjabi family’s secrets during a wedding banquet. Film-maker K Rajagopal involves The O.P.E.N.’s audiences as cast.

“This project is extremely precious to me — on a personal level — because Keng Sen asked me to work on this. I learnt how to work with actors from him a long time ago when I acted in many of his plays back in the late 1980s and ’90s. In this project, I’m working with over 25 actors who have to act, sing and dance — all at the same time. It’s really overwhelming but I’ve taken it up as a challenge. The bigger challenge, however, will be working with the unknown! The O.P.E.N. [SIFA’s pre-festival of ideas] audiences will — instead of just watching — have an interactive and immersive experience on set and be the actors themselves, without much prior preparation or rehearsals. This whole process is new for me! I am really excited to see how it will all play out on set, and later on the big screen.”

Photos: Jeannie Ho (left) Shyan Tan (right)

PARTING THOUGHTS

Founding festival director Ong Keng Sen looks back on his five-year SIFA journey.

Looking back, what I’m most proud of is that we have not become gatekeepers to just maintain that Singapore is not ready. One of the biggest surprises for me is that Singaporeans are very game for something new. While we moved away from the formula, our numbers have not fallen. In fact, they have gone from 20,000 in 2014 to 65,000 in 2015 to 155,000 last year. To me, it’s a sign that Singaporeans are hungering for something new — and we are fulfilling that.

“I gave myself five years (four editions, and one year of preparation) of ‘national service’, but I feel now that maybe it was too short, because you need a longer time for ideas to play out. Singaporeans are ready and I would like to continue to provide for that, but my personal energy is not enough to keep going. That is my greatest regret.

“We shouldn’t be afraid of change, but the flip side is that we should also ask ourselves, ‘What should we keep?’ I believe every festival director will bring something of value to the table.

“For my team, I think it’s the idea of The O.P.E.N. as a platform for education and exploration. I’ve travelled to hundreds of festivals in the last five years, so I can say this is definitely unique to SIFA!

“I hope every festival doesn’t rewrite itself and start from zero again. I see the work of SIFA as ‘public service’. We’re a national performance arts festival, and as such, we cover things which are non-commercial. We provide educational projects, take on large risks, and provide for diversity in Singapore — not because it’s desired, but because it’s necessary. Singaporeans have proven they are ready; we now need to take their readiness to the next step.”

SIFA 2017 is on till 9 September. For the full programme, visit www.sifa.sg.

Photo: National Theater of Korea
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