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The price of passion

School days are long and hard at Sota but its students relish the chance to pursue their artistic loves. -ST

Thu, Jan 28, 2010
The Straits Times

By Sandra Leong

The noise coming from the dance studio is deafening: a thunderous stampede of heels backed by the furious strum of an acoustic guitar.

Inside, a man with greying hair and incongruously quick feet cries to a bevy of young dancers: 'We don't want mechanical dancing. We want dancing with expression.

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'That,' he then says, raising his arms in final flourish, 'is what flamenco is about'.

The maestro is 69-year-old Antonio Vargas, whose quick-fire flamenco moves have featured in films such as Strictly Ballroom and Mission Impossible 3.

The sweat-drenched youths are dance students attempting to grasp the nuances of the passionate Latin dance, albeit a little awkwardly.

Bless their Cuban heels, they are, after all, only 15.

Nearby, an even younger group of 13-year-olds are nervously padding about to jazz beats at a musicianship class.

'Mmm-cha, mmm-cha,' counts their piano-playing instructor Isaiah Koh. 'Learn to bounce,' he urges. 'You don't have to care about what I think, what other people think, just mmm-cha, mmm-cha.'

It is not quite your typical day in a Singapore school. But this is life at the School of The Arts (Sota) which, for the past two years, has pretty much thrown the book out of the window, in terms of education practices.

As Singapore's only specialised pre- tertiary institution for the artistically talented, it combines graded artistic pursuits in music, theatre, visual arts and dance with traditional academic subjects.

The various disciplines lead towards the widely regarded International Baccalaureate diploma.

Earlier this month, the school moved from its interim campus in Goodman Road to a spanking new $145-million complex in Dhoby Ghaut, a mammoth 11-storey building that towers - rather symbolically - over the city's arts precinct.

Swanky facilities aside, this is where amid a burgeoning arts scene, Singapore's next generation of arts practitioners are being groomed for a better future.

From its pioneer batch of 139 students in 2008, who are now in Year 4, the school now has 586 students aged 13 to 16. Girls outnumber boys three to one.

IB studies form the base of their six-year education at Sota but, along the way, there will also be hundreds of hours of rigorous arts specialisation classes delving into practice, theory and history.

It is far from Fame or Glee school, though. 'The mission of the school is not just developing artistic excellence,' Sota principal Rebecca Chew says, when LifeStyle spends a day there to observe the workings of what can be seen as Singapore's pilot project into arts education at a young age.

I'm curious: Will I meet the next Kuo Pao Kun, Tan Swie Hian or Goh Choo San among today's bunch of talented teenagers?

The bubbly woman, who was once a music student herself, sets me straight: 'On the world stage, there are only one or two jobs that are top violinist or top producer. But in the creative industry, there are also other types of supporting jobs - arts management, artistic designer...

'We don't need to ram this (point) down their throats. After six years, the children will know their own capabilities. It's a long-haul process.'

As I learn, Sota days are long and hard. Students assemble at 8am and, on some days, arts practice - part of the curriculum - can last up to 7.30pm with breaks in between.

There are no co-curricular activities here because so much time is already dedicated to students' individual arts specialisations.

But getting students to commit to their gruelling schedules is not a problem, says Mrs Chew. Only those with a real passion for their craft are enrolled through a stringent selection process.

About 1,000 pupils auditioned for 200 first-year places this year, almost double the number of applicants for last year's intake.

Students who want to study at Sota have to do well enough in their Primary School Leaving Examinations to enter the express stream.

Auditions for Year 1 students, which the school calls the Talent Academy, are usually held during the March and June school holidays. Successful applicants are granted provisional acceptance until their PSLE results are released. Both Singaporeans and foreigners are eligible for enrolment.

'The child has selected this school, which means he or she has that deep desire to learn more. That's already half the battle won,' Mrs Chew says.

The other half, it seems, can be conquered with some creativity. As part of the school's Connected Curriculum, diverse disciplines are taught to relate to one another and because of the school's focus, there is a concerted effort to link the subjects at hand to the arts.

In a physics class, Mr Eugene Chan is teaching his second-years about lenses, light and refraction. But rather than textbooks, he has help from Dutch Baroque painter Vermeer, whose art he has displayed on a projector.

'Before cameras were invented,' he asks his students, 'how did artists like Vermeer document the scenes they wanted to paint?'

He says that lenses and their refractive powers could have been used to capture expansive landscapes onto smaller, more manageable canvasses.

'In theatre, you can use lenses to create stage illusions,' he adds, using a laser pointer to bounce light off the walls of a prism.

The idea, he tells me, is to make sense of how physics could matter to, say, an aspiring theatre producer.

This also explains why not far away, two classes of second-years are packing their bags for a mid-day excursion to the Esplanade as part of their mother tongue class.

Today's assignment is to visit two art exhibitions there - one at the Esplanade tunnel and the other at the Jendela Visual Arts Space - that are part of this year's M1 Singapore Fringe Festival.

I tag along, piling into the bus with the kids. Year 4 dance student Clara Pryke, 16, says: 'We'll have to write a letter to our friend in Chinese, reflecting on what we've seen.'

Adds the ballerina sheepishly: 'My Chinese isn't very strong. I feel a bit handicapped when I speak it but this makes it less dull for me.'

Learning made fun

Ms Kong Hwee Ling, head of department for mother tongue languages, concedes that most of her students come from English-speaking backgrounds. 'But it's no problem if they are willing to learn and have the right attitude.'

Getting students to ponder what their last meal would be - a prickly subject tackled in an exhibition by American artist Jonathon Kambouris - sounds a tad macabre. But the Sota and IB experience is also about broadening ways of thinking among students.

'When we teach science, for example, we don't just say 'this is a cell',' says Mrs Chew. 'We go into the Age of Reason - what happened then, what happened to the people, why they were asking about this. We go into the investigative inquiry behind it, not just 'this is a cell'.'

The pay-offs of this freewheeling philosophy are, perhaps, especially significant among creative minds. Back at school after recess, artist and teacher Khiew Huey Chian wants his charges to conceptualise their term projects - with little more than a short brief and art magazines as resources.

'It's more effective than giving them a standard pencil and paper to work on,' he says.

Art student Wong Hui Yu, 16, is happy to let her imagination run wild. 'I'm interested in creating little words on their own, bottling them up to see how I can use materials to create these worlds.

'I just read (the American classic novel) Catcher In The Rye and I want to reflect the theme of the story, leaving childhood and going into adulthood, in painting or 3-D form.'

It all sounds like fun disguised as work but just in case the kids need a breather, another highlight of the day is PE class or Experiential Education as it is called.

Activities are conducted on the school's rooftop, which offers stunning views of the city. Students were initially allowed to use the rooftop on their own but were banned after some were caught hurling items off the balcony onto the lower floors.

Amusingly, I am informed through the school grapevine that a Facebook petition begging the school to lift the rooftop ban has already been started among students - a creative response to a serious offence, I must say.

While discipline is still a priority here, the teachers admit they are a little more lax when it comes to art school kids.

Already, students are allowed to wear any kind of shoes with their Sota uniform and I spot a cool sea of Converse, Nikes and adidas footwear.

The 'alternative' culture here has certainly won students over, many of whom feel they fit in better at Sota than at their previous schools.

As first-year art student Tan Choon Kang, 13, puts it: 'I like to draw 'weird weird' things like semi-abstract shapes. In primary school, the teachers didn't really understand me but here, the teachers do.'

But, despite their artistic temperaments, a very Singaporean pragmatism still exists. The IB curriculum is no walk in the park and, surely, more effort has to be put in to overcome more 'left-brain' subjects such as mathematics and science.

Second-year dance student Faye Tan, 14, loves being on stage but knows her IB studies still come first. 'Even if you're a dancer, you can't be a stupid dancer.'

The day winds down. Some classes, especially dance practice, will go on after dusk.

As I feel slightly sorry for the students and staff who have to put in such long hours, I remember something Mrs Chew said earlier in the day: Being in, and working for, Sota is like 'touching the future'.

'Our work is the seeding but the harvest will be very rich later,' she says.

I will be happy to keep my fingers crossed for them.

This article was first published in The Straits Times.

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