Tight squeeze at Night Festival shows

Feet flexed, toes pointed, head held high, I tried to steady my breath as hundreds of eyes settled on me.

I had planned on being a spectator, not a performer, when I attended the opening of the Singapore Night Festival recently.

But there, under the stars and on the front lawn of the National Museum of Singapore, I found myself swaying to the movements of others onstage.

I was trying to catch glimpses of fiery orbs licking the sultry darkness; artists from the performance group Starlight Alchemy were tossing and twirling fire-lit wands on a makeshift platform metres away.

Most times, however, my eyes met the backs of the heads of festivalgoers crowded in front. It was likely the same view for the multitude behind me.

I kept up my performance for a while but it takes skill, not determination, or the distressing prospect of brushing against the skin of a swarm of clammy strangers, to hold the pose of a lemur on its hind legs.

As I peeled away from the moist mass, apologising to those I writhed around, the pardon I muttered gradually became a mix of self-pity and reproach. I was in a sorry state. I was sorry I tried to catch the performance in front of the museum.

This was not my first time at the festival, which is into its sixth year. I had been to past editions and watched performances in front of the museum with crowds. I was willing to embrace the crush of people for art but, this time, I was crushed and left without a view of the spectacle.

It was not always this way.

In previous years when I attended the nocturnal event, the stretch of Stamford Road outside the museum was closed to traffic and the festival was allowed to spill onto the street. This made it easier to view performances.

At the inaugural festival, for example, the road was the stage for the aerial extravaganza by Italy's Studio Festi. It was a tight squeeze to catch the show, but visibility was not an issue. In some years, festivalgoers were even allowed onto the tarmac and some people seized the opportunity to picnic in the middle of the road.

This year - as with last year's festival, which I missed - barricades were raised to keep pedestrians off Stamford Road.

Such a move is curious since this is the largest edition of the festival and the organiser, the National Heritage Board, expected a bumper attendance of more than 400,000 people. Also, festivalgoers easily outnumbered vehicles in Stamford Road the evening I was there.

Had the road been closed, artists of the home- grown Starlight Alchemy could have had a larger stage, a bigger audience and more applause, which they deserved.

Fewer members in the audience would have been disappointed too. I was not the only or first person who gave up trying to watch the show; at least five other people around me wriggled out of the crowd after muttering complaints under their breaths about not being able to see what was happening onstage.

The Singapore Night Festival bills itself in its programme booklet as an event where "art and culture spill onto the streets". But this year, it was mostly hemmed in and restricted to the sidewalks, which is a pity.

The festival has so much potential to inspire visitors through an intimate experience of art and culture, if only it were allowed to occupy the streets. A taste of this promise was offered in Armenian Street, which was closed to traffic for the festival.

A green carpet of astro turf rolled out across a section of the road was the harbinger of a relaxed encounter with art, one that did not feel like a frenzied shopping spree for entertainment.

The inviting stretch meant families, couples and groups of friends could catch their breaths, drop their pace and enter a headspace that allowed them to engage in meaningful ways with the art and artists.

For one thing, a small crowd formed around a paint-splattered sheet, several metres long and laid in the middle of the road next to trays of bright paint and brushes. The curious gathering tiptoed around the stained white sheet, peering and pondering its meaning - is it art or an accident? - and puzzling over how they should react.

Seize the brush and do a Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell or Mark Rothko? A group of young adults were daring one another to muster up courage and become artists on the spot.

Not far away, visitors assembling for a show by home-grown performance group Singapierrot had the luxury of space to rest their bums on the pavement next to the patch of green where the performance was to take place. As the crew pottered about putting finishing touches to the set, anticipation for the show built up among the audience.

A short way along, some festivalgoers stopped in their tracks in the middle of the road to imbibe the upbeat tunes of a live band playing outside The Substation arts centre.

The sheer spectacle of the festival, which has grown every year, ought to be matched in scale to allow the audience to fully appreciate its grandeur. For this, the authorities should allow the festival to spill out of the sidewalks and onto the streets.

A fair amount of logistics will be required to close busy streets in the Bras Basah precinct. But if vehicular traffic can bow out from the roads for the Formula One Singapore Grand Prix night race, how much more a festival that celebrates home-grown artistic talent and has a willing audience of Singaporeans hungry for art and culture?

Unlike Formula One, the cost of closing the roads for the festival may not reap benefits in dollars and cents. But you cannot put a value on turning Singaporeans into art lovers through the festival or bringing people from all walks of life together through art and culture. It is priceless.


Did you find it hard to catch the performances at the Night Festival? Write to stlife@sph.com.sg

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