Photo/Regina Brocke
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LEV Dance Company’s “OCD Love” : Photo/Regina Brocke
Photo/Regina Brocke 4 LEV Dance Company’s “OCD Love” : Photo/Regina Brocke

A festival re-formatted

Art April 16, 2018 01:00

By Pawit Mahasarinand
Special to The Nation

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There’s something for everyone at this year’s Singapore International Festival of Arts - plus Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit’s film



IN THE island state where many seem to hold to their heart what Heraclitus said millennia ago that everything changes and nothing stands still, the Singapore International Festival of Arts (Sifa) has just been reformatted again. This is notwithstanding the fond, and still fresh, memories of the four annual editions curated by former festival director Ong Keng Sen.

Part of the reason for this change is the new festival director Gaurav Kripalani who has brought with him many years of experience and international connections as the artistic director of Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT). It’s because of his vision that we Southeast Asian theatregoers had a chance to watch, without any jetlag, such internationally acclaimed productions as Royal Shakespeare Company’s (RSC) “King Lear”, with Sir Ian MacKellen in the title role, as well as Sam Mendes’ “The Bridge Project”.

Ballet Prelcocaj’s “Playlist #1” : Photo/JeanClaude Carbonne

Kripalani explains: “I’ve been privileged to have travelled to several international arts festivals over the years where I have witnessed some of the best music, theatre and dance. This gave me a good foundation to begin programming Sifa over the next three years. The conversations and idea exchanges with the directors of these festivals has been a great resource and inspiration for me.”

In a city that hosts events and festivals all year round, Kripalani confirms that Sifa still stands out from the rest, saying: “Our goal is to excite audiences about new art forms, as well as how work is interpreted so that it is relevant today. Sifa reaches out to multiple audiences, art-heeled or otherwise. Audiences know that they can look forward to quality works from Singapore and around the world that they don’t normally see here. They can make their choices from the multiple genres and different art forms offered.”

Parable of the Sower : Photo/Paul Marotta 

As engaging and thought-provoking as they were, many works in the previous editions of Sifa have been criticised for being “too niche”. Kripalani has a totally different approach. 

“I grew up looking forward to the Singapore Arts Festival every year. Watching shows across different genres from around the world played a big part in shaping my artistic sensibilities. In the 1992 Festival, [late Japanese director Yukio] Ninagawa’s ‘Macbeth’ changed my perception of how Shakespeare could be performed. I was blown away. It is this emphasis on great artistic experiences from the best in the world that is core to the festival, and will be familiar to those who have followed it over the years,” he explains. 

Singular Screens “A Man of Integrity” : Photo courtesy SIFA

“What I’d experienced years ago with the arts festivals is the very same experience I want audiences to walk away with. Sifa will be festival for the people, and everyone who comes should feel there is something in it that speaks to them personally.”

Instead of one major theme for each edition in the recent past, this festival has multiple themes.

“We want to grow audiences, to include new and occasional theatre-goers, and with the multiple themes, we hope to reach out to a more diverse audience with which these various themes might resonate. The multiple themes allow us to explore, and have discourse on the many different aspects of life that we face today. Many of the topics presented through our shows confront audiences with the current issues of the day. The world we live in does not just have one theme; daily, we face universal issues, and we believe by offering multiple themes, the mind and heart of audiences can be expanded, and in the process, lives enriched.”

Jacob Collier: Photo/Betsy Newman

And while the previous editions of Sifa have been accompanied by pre-festival “OPEN”, and the total combined period of the two was a few months, this year’s Sifa will last only 17 days. 

“The shorter timeframe aims to offer a more intense three-week experience that comprises multiple shows over the opening weekend, both indoors and free outdoor performances [like aerial circus “Sodade” by French collective Cirque Rouages and Korean indie band Sultan of the Disco at the Empress Lawn], as well as a closing concert by the legendary Duke Ellington Orchestra at the Singapore Botanical Gardens,” 

Sultan of the Disco : Photo courtesy of SIFA

 Kripalani explains. 

“I want people to look forward to the festival and plan with their friends and loved ones what they want to catch.”

The historic building that once housed the parliament became the Arts House years ago and during Sifa this will become the Festival House. 

“It will be the hub and pulse of discourse, conversations, discussions, book and poetry readings and master classes. Within its intimate spaces, audiences can engage in deeper discussion on the different subjects and themes that they have watched on stage. For example, [in the same weekend as its new theatre adaptation from the UK is staged at the nearby Esplanade Theatre] literary critic Dr Gwee Li Sui will lecture on how many of the themes in George Orwell’s dystopian classic “1984”– like surveillance, fake news and strongmen politicians – remain as relevant today.”

LEV Dance Company’s “OCD Love” : Photo/Regina Brocke

Also at the Festival House is “Singular Screens”, a mini festival showing 13 independent films. The opening film on April 28 is “A Man of Integrity” the Iranian movie that won Un Certain Regard recognition at Cannes Film Festival last year. Thailand’s sole representative in this year’s Sifa, multi-award winning director and screenwriter Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit, will see his “Die Tomorrow” screened on April 30 and May 1.

“Many of these films centre on issues that we face in our everyday lives –love, grief, suffering, mental health, social and political injustice, religion and, of course, death, as seen through the eyes of Nawapol, one of Thailand’s most promising young directors. In ‘Die Tomorrow’, I like his combination of documentary-style interview footage, news reports, sound recordings, statistics and archive materials in presenting the subject of death. There is blurring of the divide between art and reality, and this resonates with many of the underlying themes in some of our Sifa shows – where the topics dealt with are often too uncomfortably close to reality. In fact, death and mortality is something everyone will experience, but they are topics a lot of us would rather avoid.”

Schaubuhne Berlin’s “Enemy of the People” : Photo/Arno Declair

Kripalani finishes our interview with a personal invitation, saying: “We welcome visitors from Thailand to fly down to join us at Sifa 2018. There are some unique performances for both English and non-English speaking audiences. Besides the English-language theatre productions, dance, music and lovers of innovative and funky art are also in for a treat.” 

To illustrate his point, he describes Israeli dance company L-E-V’s “OCD Love” as “compulsive and contemporary”; French choreographer Angelin Preljocaj’s “Playlist #1” as “a sublime ballet repertoire of ten beautiful solos, duos and emsembles”; and “The Blues Project” as “an emotive evening of tap dancing set to emotive blues music by the [American] powerhouse team of Michelle Dorrance, Derick K. Grant, Toshi Reagon and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards”. 

And so, it’s time to plan our trip to Singapore again. See you there!

The writer wishes to thank Christina Stanley Lee and Willy Beh for all kind assistance.

MULTIPLE LAYERS IN 17 DAYS

Sifa 2018 runs from April 26 to May 12 at the Arts House, a short walk from MRT City Hall station, and other nearby venues. There are both free-admission and ticketed events. 

For the complete line-up, visit www.SIFA.sg, and www.facebook.com/SIFA.sg.