Arts fest to break new ground

Arts fest to break new ground
An opening scene from The Incredible Adventures Of Border Crossers at Palais de Tokyo (in Paris).

The Singapore International Festival of Arts is moving beyond traditional theatre spaces this year.

Performances will also be held in places such as the old Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, Bukit Brown Cemetery, Bayfront Avenue and open spaces in the heartland.

"As a national festival, we want to be all around the island," said festival director Ong Keng Sen yesterday at The Arts House, during a media preview of the festival, which will be held from Aug 6 to Sept 19.

This year's theme is Post-Empires, from postcolonialism to post-communism to post-capitalism, looking at life in today's world, where people may eschew traditional dress for universal designer brands and live in various countries.

These themes are explored in productions at traditional arts venues such as Victoria Theatre.

It hosts dirtsong, an Aboriginal jazz concert by Australian group Black Arm Band; Hotel, a Wild Rice play about the evolution of a colonial-style hotel over 100 years; and Smriti Padha (Memory Route), an epic Kathakali show by Bhaskar's Arts Academy and Kerala Kalamandalam, which recreates a performance first staged in Singapore at the same venue in 1954.

Then there is Cabanons by French installation artist Daniel Buren, featuring three small tents on Bayfront Avenue, visited in turn by circus performers showing the physical challenges of walking the tightrope, for example.

Another unusually sited work is festival director Ong's The Incredible Adventures Of Border Crossers, which opened the Singapore In France Festival in Paris last month and features 22 new Singaporeans and permanent residents sharing their tales of migration and trans-nationalism.

Described as "installation, karaoke and fashion runway", the 310-minute performance will be staged at the old Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, barring the challenge of a ban on making loud noise after 10pm, which will be hard to adhere to with a production over five hours long.

The station also hosts Dance Marathon - Open With A Punk Spirit!, featuring the works of 14 choreographers from countries such as Japan, India, Cambodia and Sweden, with performances held almost daily from Aug 21 to Sept 5.

Audiences are also invited to take guided tours of the station using the 15 Stations app during the pre-festival public engagement initiative O.P.E.N. This starts the discussion on the theme of "augmented reality" and a world where people see social media and things online as more relevant than what is physically around them, says Ong.

Another theme explored in the pre-festival series of talks and performances from June 16 to July 4 is "the young and restless" or the work of those who butt against the establishment. These include Lu Guang, who photographs pollution in China, and Iranian film-maker Jafar Panahi, who attempts to resist censorship in Iran.

There will also be, for the first time, a keynote lecture on the main theme, O.P.E.N. Keynote Insight, which will this year be delivered by Pritzker Prize-winning Japanese architect Toyo Ito. He will speak on the role of tomorrow's architects and his reconstruction work after the earthquake and tsunami in East Japan in 2011.

There are 65 events in O.P.E.N. and the main festival. Of the 19 main productions anchoring the festival in August and September, 12 are commissions from home-grown art groups and cost on average $400,000 each - the total festival budget is $7 million.

"I said we want to commission works that you can't do in your normal season and they came back with all these difficult works," Ong says with a laugh, referring to the multi-part, multi-site nature of the two plays from Chinese theatre troupe Drama Box.

Both look at the fight for space in land-scarce Singapore. First, from Sept 9 to 12, is It Won't Be Too Long: The Lesson. It will take place at Toa Payoh Central, outside Toa Payoh Public Library, with members of the public invited to discuss what should be demolished to make way for a fictional MRT station.

The theatre group also looks at the development of Bukit Brown Cemetery in It Won't Be Too Long: The Cemetery, a two-part play performed at the cemetery itself and at the School of the Arts Studio Theatre.

On the same theme, a comic take on living cheek by jowl is offered in the stand-up comedy routine Kumar's Living Together, performed in amphitheatres and multipurpose halls in Serangoon, Tampines, Marsiling and Jurong East by Kumar, Koh Chieng Mun, Zaliha Hamid, Sharul Channa and Shane Mardjuki.

Meanwhile, 25 families across Singapore are throwing open their living rooms and allowing them to be transformed into theatres in the Open Homes project.

It all feeds into the focus on human beings and humanity when examining the theme of post-Empires.

Ong talks about South Africa after the lifting of apartheid, Chile after the end of the Pinochet regime and even Singapore re-examining itself after its first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew died last month.

He says: "What remains after empires? We have to look at the human beings. You have to have empathy. How do you engage with the empire, rewrite the empire? You can destroy it like ISIS blowing up pre-Christian civilisation or you can subvert ideology.

"Or you have empathy towards the empire and then move to a more human perspective because not everything about the empire was bad. The first builders left us at this point, we have this infrastructure, how should we rebuild?

"What's valuable, what should we hold on to as a society?"

For more details on the Singapore International Festival of Arts and O.P.E.N., go to

Must-watch shows

Catch these highlights of the Singapore International Festival of Arts from Aug 6 to Sept 19 and the pre-festival O.P.E.N. series from June 16 to July 4.

Tickets are on sale now at Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to

The Role Of Tomorrow's Architects: O.P.E.N. Keynote Insight

What: Japanese architect Toyo Ito (right), winner of the 2013 Pritzker Prize, will speak about his reconstruction activity after the 2011 tsunami and earthquake in East Japan. His project, Home-for-all, creating communal huts for survivors, won a Golden Lion at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale.

Where: School of the Arts Studio Theatre

When: June 27, 5pm

Admission: Free with $45 O.P.E.N. pass which grants entry to all concerts, films, salons and exhibitions that are part of the pre-festival series.


What: A dance duet by male artists Navtej Johar and Lokesh Bharadwaj which explores classical Indian bharatanatyam dance as among the courtesans and temple dancers of India.

Where: 72-13 Mohamed Sultan Road

When: July 2 to 4, 8pm

Admission: $35

Nanyang, The Musical

What: A musical inspired by the lives of pioneer artists who united Chinese painting, European Impressionism and South-east Asian aesthetics to create a new style in Singapore. Directed by Alec Tok (December Rains, 1996) and performed in Mandarin with English surtitles.

Where: Drama Centre Theatre

When: Aug 6 and 7, 8pm, Aug 8, 3 and 8pm

Admission: $25, $40, $60 and $75


What: Australian collective Black Arm Band performs a concert of songs in 11 different Aboriginal languages.

Where: Victoria Theatre

When: Aug 20 to 22, 8pm

Admission: $40, $60 and $80


What: Three small circus tents on Bayfront

Avenue designed by French installation artist Daniel Buren will host a rotating cast of tightrope-walkers and other performers, who will show off their art and the challenges involved in these feats.

Where: Bayfront Avenue

When: Sept 2 to 6, 8pm

Admission: $80

This article was first published on Apr 9, 2015.
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