Cutting-edge festival

Cutting-edge festival

After a year on vacation, the grande dame of Singapore arts festivals has gone from paunchy to punchy - with a third of its shows sold out and praise from audience members bolstering its return.

While the line-up appeared to favour the cutting edge and avant garde over mainstream blockbusters, avid artsgoers and new audience members who attended the renamed and rebranded Singapore International Festival of Arts told Life! it was far from esoteric, even if some productions were more difficult to appreciate in terms of presentation.

The event came to a close on Sunday after an expanded six-week run and a leaner but focused menu of 12 international productions. This was akin to a selective multi-course degustation compared to the usual buffet of 25 to 40 events compressed into two weeks.

The nearly $7-million festival drew 22,000 people, including audiences at its pre-festival programme, The O.P.E.N., and sold 86 per cent of tickets in total.

The last time the festival was held in 2012, it had gross sales of 72 per cent. Its ticketed performances drew 16,000 and its free events, 220,000.

The reduction in scale is largely due to a shift in identity for the festival.

There were no concurrent free fringe-type events or a Festival Village this year, and productions were held in more boutique-type venues, such as the Victoria Theatre and the School of the Arts Studio Theatre.

The Esplanade Theatre, which seats 2,000, is closed for upgrading.

Prior to a review of the festival last year, which turned it into an independent entity, the former state-run Singapore Arts Festival had come under criticism for its lack of identity and how it seemed to have become increasingly irrelevant in a burgeoning scene of arts and cultural activities here.

There are now more than 3,000 performing arts productions a year and at least 80 festivals organised by independent presenters and groups, such as the Esplanade's Huayi - Chinese Festival of Arts and The Necessary Stage's M1 Singapore Fringe Festival.

Festival director Ong Keng Sen's stance was that the festival could not and should not replicate the work of others.

He believed the experimental and the crowd-pleasing could mix, and hoped to cater to an expanding group of arts lovers hungry for something beyond the mainstream.

The theatre director and Cultural Medallion recipient, 51, tells Life!: "I think it was a festival in which we had to pluck up our courage and jump into the unknown.

"I do feel gratified that there is an audience out there who really were engaged... That's where I'm taking heart, that we've managed to smoke these people out to come to the festival and that their curiosity and hunger for something different was satisifed."

Ong had selected a palette of classics-inspired but also spikily avant garde works for his first year at the helm of the 37-year-old festival, giving it the overarching theme of Legacy And The Expanded Classic to give it a certain cohesion.

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