Stepping out to woo festival audiences

Stepping out to woo festival audiences
Julia Hausermann (in red) in her solo dance performance which was part of Disabled Theater's production.

When I first thumbed through the austere maroon programme guide to the ongoing Singapore International Festival of Arts, let's just say I did not have the urge to rush out and buy tickets.

A talky opera about a dead artist and profiteering scientists. A performance art piece spread out over 50 continuous hours. An avant-garde take on Peter Pan from sought-after director Robert Wilson, whose works have previously left me cold. These were some of the headline acts.

And then there was the pretentious-sounding festival theme, Legacy And The Expanded Classic.

Nonetheless, I had some faith in new festival director Ong Keng Sen's artistic choices.

At the helm of home-grown group TheatreWorks, he was behind some of the earliest independent showcases of a wide spectrum of Singapore plays. These included 1992's Theatre Carnival On The Hill, and he has been a globe-trotting director whose collaborators included major artists such as Chinese-American composer Bright Sheng, and Australian composer and outgoing Edinburgh International Festival director Jonathan Mills.

Wherever one stands on the subject of his cerebral and frequently contentious theatre productions, few arts insiders would deny that he has the vision, risk-taking appetite and contact book to programme a major festival of both international standing and local relevance.

And the stakes are high - what was previously known as the Singapore Arts Festival had suffered from dwindling attendances in an increasingly saturated arts landscape.

The National Arts Council-run festival went on hiatus for a year before re-emerging as the Singapore International Festival of Arts this year under an independent company. Ong was appointed festival director for a four-year term, an arrangement similar to arts festivals elsewhere which rotate the artist at the helm to ensure fresh ideas.

Seeing as I want the 37-year-old festival to grow rather than tank, I took the plunge and have seen three productions. Comparing notes with other arts journalists who saw other shows, I have to say that the festival has on balance lived up to Ong's promise of "a three-star Michelin meal". A meal with strange, exotic and sometimes bizarre ingredients, artfully plated and producing an explosion of tastes and textures in your mouth.

Ritualistic Japanese kyogen dance drama, ancient Greek tragedy seen through a Korean lens and Middle Eastern drama may be alien to most Singaporeans, but through good word-of-mouth, they made up three of the four sold-out shows so far.

The festival comprises 12 productions spread out over six weeks, closing on Sept 21. Reviews have generally been positive, though opening act Facing Goya - the contemporary opera pitting art against science by major British composer Michael Nyman and directed by Ong - divided the critics.

The festival team, which includes actress and theatre educator Noorlinah Mohamed, has been canny enough to organise public talks and film screenings ahead of and alongside the main festival programme, to unspool for a general audience the lofty-sounding ideas in the festival guide.

Still, more can be done to promote the event and nurture awareness of the various nuances in artistic creation.

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