Singapore Arts Festival Blog

SAF 2011 (and beyond!!!) by Ng Yi-Sheng
June 19, 2010, 4:02 am
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It occurs to me that this blog is also a very good platform for voicing what we’d like to see of the Singapore Arts Festival in years to come. After all, the Festival staff do actually read it for shits and giggles.

So I’ll tell ya what I want, what I really really want:

New Commissions

You know we want Singapore artists to show off their skillz, so I recommend calling up:

1) Kumar. I’m serious. I want to show him off to the world a little more. And of course, he sells tickets. It’d be great to have him jam with a more avant-garde performer – keep his classic brand of comedy, but allow it to riff with a contrasting sensibility.

2) Wang Meiyin. This Singaporean theatre director has her own New York-based theatre company: Quality Meats. They do intriguing, intense, manic stuff – we should get t see it first-hand. Invite Alec Tok back too, sometime. (You don’t have to get Chay Yew back for a while.)

3) Ramesh Meyyappan. This mime actor was the cornerstone of HI! Theatre back in the day, and now he’s an acclaimed international artist and former winner of the Life! Theatre Awards 2008 for Best Actor. A real inspiration to the deaf community. He’s a hell of a nice guy, too.

4) Margaret Leng Tan vs. John Sharpley. That’s right: an internationally renowned Singaporean-turned-American avant garde composer, versus an internationally renowned American-turned-Singaporean avant garde composer.

Seriously, just more avant-garde music. The Singapore Symphony Orchestra is just not cutting it with their 18th century dead white men. We need a whole “appreciating contemporary music” learning series…

5) There is a Hong Kong-based Singaporean singer and composer named Mark Chan, a New York-based pianist and contemporary composer named Marc Chan, and a Singapore-based percussionist for SiXX named Mark Chan.

Therefore, I propose Mark Chan vs Marc Chan vs Marc Chan.

Actually, I’m just being nuts. But Marc number two is really cool. He once played an entire Bach concerto in alphabetical order.

Re/visit/create/ imagine/mix

1) Ovidia Yu’s “A Woman on a Tree on a Hill”, the W!ld Rice version. It was a universally acclaimed version of a Singapore classic, and a rare instance of this populist company venturing into experimental staging. And it’ll have been ten years. Why not?

2) Alfian Sa’at’s “The Optic Trilogy” – also first staged in 2001 by STAGES, and since then staged in Zurich, Berlin and Stockholm. It’s also just been published as part of “Alfian Sa’at: Collected Plays One”. If you wanna score extra wow-points, get one of the Teutonic troupes to perform it in Singapore.

(Yeah, of course I’d like “sex.violence.blood.gore” and “Asian Boys Vol 1” as well, but I’m not gonna push too hard yet.)

3) Chong Tze Chien/The Finger Players’s “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea”. I’ve heard so much about this small-scale Life! Theatre Best Play awardee and it drives me nuts that I’ve never seen it.

4) Natalie Hennedige/Cake Theatre’s “Nothing”. Ditto from above.

5) Li Xie’s “VaginaLogue”, which is way better than Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues” and also bears the distinction of having been censored through funding withdrawals. Her House of Sins is also awesome. DramaBox’s rendition of Caryl Churchill’s “Cloud Nine”, translated by Quah Sy Ren, would also be brilliant.

6) A scaled-down sit-and-sing version of “Chang and Eng” by Ekachai Uekrongtham and Ming Wong. Not because it was fantastic, but because I want people to remember.  The Victoria Theatre ushers loved this one, remember.

7) Huzir Sulaiman’s “Atomic Jaya”.  He counts as Singaporean by now, doesn’t he?  But is it okay if we make fun of Malaysia in this incredibly funny play?

… I’m not sure what other concrete suggestions I’ve got, other than the fact that I’d love to see a Young-Jean Lee production performed here. But I’m sure you guys have ideas – including lineups that aren’t so heavy on queer themes.


Ng Yi-Sheng


Cool / 酷 by Bryan Tan
June 17, 2010, 11:55 pm
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By Beijing Paper Tiger Theater Studio

Cool War?

For the youth of today’s China, the English word “cool” is used to denote an attractive, stylish or innovative quality, whether it is in a person, a product or a way of life. In this performance, Beijing Paper Tiger Theater Studio sought to examine that culture of “cool” by exploring the connotations of its Chinese equivalent, “酷” (kù) – which also means “cruel”. Thus the question arises: is it cool to be cruel?

In response, the performance delivered an unrelenting barrage of visual imagery, conveyed primarily through intense physical theatre. The audience was continually confronted with the cruelty and violence, in its myriad forms, found in modern society. The harsh symbolism employed in its vignettes invoked the spectres of decadent excess and waste, societal one-upmanship and hypocrisy, commodification of art and culture, political persecution and terrorism – all of which were presented in extreme, expressionistic mise-en-scène.

The characters in the performance had no real identities. They were reduced to mere digits, trapped in the ritualistic routines of their daily lives, and endlessly complying with the demands of their society. Indeed, they appeared to be no better than inmates in a prison: repeatedly responding to the call of their respective numbers, unquestioningly carrying out their scheduled tasks, and frantically scrubbing themselves clean of all traces of abuse and torture.

In this way, the performance sought to re-sensitise the audience to the inherent ruthlessness and brutality which constantly simmers, near boiling point, beneath the surface of civilisation. However, there was also a codified and choreographic sensibility in the performers’ movements and gestures, which was often accompanied by a soundtrack of chilled, ambient electronica. The crux of the performance’s inquiry lay in that juxtaposition: why is cruelty cool? What human quality causes us to accept and adopt violence in our everyday existence?

Such an inquiry has a particular resonance in the context of contemporary Chinese society, in view of its dialectical contradictions and tensions, and its history of political oppression and violence. There is also growing concern and unrest in China over the social, economic and political problems which have arisen as a result of the country’s head-long rush into capitalism, and its rising prominence as a superpower on the global stage.

In that regard, one of the most poignant images in the performance was the hammer, which was used as a prop by the performers. Once a Communist symbol of proletariat power, it was wielded in this case as an instrument of pain. Another unsettling image was that of raw vegetables, the agricultural produce of the peasantry, being forcefully shredded, grated and chopped to pieces by the performers. Within a single generation, the ideological shift in China has been so dramatic – and so violent – that many of its people are struggling to understand and keep up with the resultant changes; and those images reflect their anxieties and distress.

During the post-show dialogue on 13 June 2010, certain members of the audience sought clarification from the director, Tian Gebing, as to the meaning of the performance. Each time, he essentially took the position that it was for the audience to arrive at its own interpretation. Tellingly, one of his final responses was that even if the audience did not comprehend the performance (“看懂”), it was nevertheless important for them to witness it (“看到”).

So observe and draw your own conclusions; do not succumb to apathy.

Bryan Tan

Singapore Arts Festival 2010 as a whole. by Ng Yi-Sheng
June 17, 2010, 7:26 am
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You know, I’m not really ready to make a coherent judgment about this.  And I’d hate my voice to seem like it’s speaking for the opinions of everyone on the blog.

So this will be an open thread for now.  What was the best and worst of the festival?  What was its personality like?  What do we want next year?

Ng Yi-Sheng

a bell in the fields by pahlawanputih
June 16, 2010, 10:39 pm
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Academy of St. Martin in the Fields & Joshua Bell

12 June:

Let me start by saying that Joshua Bell has really nice hair; soft and bouncy, like that of a child. It moved ever so delicately with each passionate tug of his 300-year old Stradivarius, the Gibson ex Huberman.

This observation, more or less describes my experience of being in the Esplanade Concert Hall on the 12th of June 2010, listening to the talented violinist cum director, together with the equally astounding orchestra. The set for the night included;

Beethoven Coriolan Overture, Op 62
Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor, Op 64
Beethoven Symphony No 7 in A, Op 92

Casting aside the rather flat stage, lit with general overhead wash – that did no justice to the splendour of the performance (and was only a subject of interest to one who is accustomed to visual insinuation), the humbly house chamber-sized ensemble provided a graceful delivery, providing dimension to the intricacies of each movement. One could tell that each verse was cautiously executed, but at the same time suggested effortlessness.

Academy of St Martin in the fields, sounded like a play to me. Now, it is but an exquisite orchestration by skilful individuals. I particularly enjoyed their pizzicatos. Light as day.

Throughout the one and a half hour performance, I found myself frozen, afraid to disrupt the seemingly fragile line of music flowing through my ears. “Surreal” the lady beside me said as she stood up after the second piece. I could agree more.

Bell then graced us with, what I thought was a classier version of the theme song for Barney, the (now extinct) purple Dinosaur, a cheeky encore, just before the intermission. I was later told that it was actually the Yankee Doodle.

The second half was no less impressive and intense. So much so Bell jolted passionately on his concert master’s chair- almost trance like, what I thought was a physical aide memoire to the marvel that is Beethoven’s. Melody easing into another, notes hitting where it matters, lingering like butterflies in the fields proving that he is simply awesome, like his hair.

I end this review with a video of how I first heard of Joshua Bell.

PS: Thank you Jeremy

Irfan Kasban

On Eonnagata, and perhaps some editing by Ng Yi-Sheng
June 16, 2010, 12:01 am
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This one was a festival highlight. The star-studded crowd puller. Superstar ballerina Sylvie Guillem, celebrated choreographer Russell Malliphant (in his first appearance in Singapore) and just-as-famous theatre artist (acts, writes, directs et al) Robert Lepage. On the back end of this production, there were equally accomplished designers: the late Alexander McQueen on costumes & fabric, Michael Hull on lights & luminosity and Jean-Sébastien Côté on sound & music.

And it was lovely. About 90 minutes of wizardry and wit. Eonnagata wowed me thoroughly but also left me confused; more about the artists’ intentions than the Chevalier’s gender. They used the Chevalier d’Eon as a central point of reference to perform, as it were, gender and identity. But too often they found themselves tangled up trying to tell the Chevalier’s story, managing only anecdotes here and there. There was a wrestle between segments that tried to deliver (reconstructed) facts about the protagonist and the much more affective segments that managed to locate and exploit theatricality in the protagonists life. Ultimately, the wrestle left me tired; well entertained but unmoved.

I would not wish for any fewer collaborators on Eonnagata, only perhaps one (or one more) who could provide it a little more direction, some dramaturgy or even editing. That said, I cannot rant enough about the wonderfully creative products of the collaborations. Here are just a few.

– An evocative scene between Lepage and Guillem that transitioned from a spoken enactment (with a hilariously mis-timed laugh track) to a stylistic dance-theatre interpretation of the same(this time with beautiful music and dramatic gesture).

– A solo fencing scene where Malliphant takes on none less than the air around him, which in turn responded in flashes (Hull) and echoes (Côté).

– The poetic trio between Lepage, Guillem and Malliphant as they weild a massive table that has had its surface transform into a mirror to reflect one performer in the  other, to embed one gender in another. A scintillating play of images and their people.

– Malliphant’s emergence from a giagantic Kabuki costume; at first being it (the female) and slightly later in duet (or bed) with it. McQueen’s vision in creating a counterpoint to the fluidity and muscularity of Malliphant’s frame was remarkable. The costume soothed as much with its colour and texture as it did intimidate with its size and sheer volume.

– McQueen worked a completely different magic with Guillem’s body. In a delicious play between being flamboyantly clothed and utterly exposed at the same time, a layered open robe was clung on her shoulders as he battled herself (the Chevalier of course). I wouldn’t think its easy to clothe the limbs of a Sylvie Guillem, only leotards could be least accused of being reductive/intrusive to an unadulterated experience of her movement. But McQueen manages to create echoes of her fluid lethal movements in the traces of fabric that linger on in the spaces that her hands and legs have just annihilated. Fabric of the colour and quality of desaturated, suspended streaks of blood.

With little knowledge of the story of the Chevalier d’Eon, I was intrigued simply by the artistry of the dead male fashion designer playing itself out through the limbs and body of this very alive ballerina. There was a duet, a ghost and some definite ambiguity on gender. So Eon or not, this rapidfire tag game of high quality artistic collaborations most certainly got on with the Onnagata. And may I also share a particularly awkward moment where I found myself staring ever so intently at Guillem’s crotch (I could swear that McQueen had stuck a sock in her leotard). But no sooner had I lodged my eyes on the area that it turned out to be the private property of Malliphant or Lepage. Hull’s lighting teased me more with its enhanced shadows and quick concealments, and Côté’s music just made me look silly doing this. So, I still don’t know.


Random photos of the Esplanade, Part 3 by Ng Yi-Sheng
June 15, 2010, 8:59 pm
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I’ve been postponing this post (HAH!) about the rest of the visual arts displays at the Esplanade.

Look! It’s the rest of Moe Kasim’s costume exhibit at Library@Esplanade! These are costumes from Royston Tan’s “881”.

As I said before, it’s classier to use mannequins that don’t have painted eyes. Painted eyes look either tacky or unheimlich.

Continue reading

On Pichet Klunchun by Ng Yi-Sheng
June 15, 2010, 4:38 pm
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His name is Pichet Klunchun.
He is a master of Khon.

He says was intrigued by Vaslav Nijinsky’s take on Thai dance in the scarcely documented Danse Siamoise of 1910.

So he made Nijinsky Siam which premiered at the Singapore Arts Festival of 2010.

He was awesome.

He first showed us many old photographs. They didn’t have any colour, but were laden with stories. The first ‘company’ of dancers and musicians who took traditional Thai dance to Europe. Cut to photos of Nijinsky, the legendary dancer of Ballet Russes in an ornate costume and a presumably Thai hand gesture. A possible connection through Diaghlev, the founder of Ballet Russes who saw the Thai company perform in Europe. More of Nijinsky’s images. This time not just on photographs but also on shadow puppets (nang yai). The photographs were old, blurred, of poor resolution, limited by the technology available then. The puppets were crisp, intricate and alarming in detail, created by the craft that is still alive today. The puppets were ferryed on the shoulders of three dancers Phadung, Sunon and Pichet, while the fourth lay still in the photograph, Nijinsky. The four kindly introduced themselves by their first names. Then together they began suggesting, what would soon become a poignant story.

The three men began locating within their tradition, the images of Nijinsky’s interpretation of their tradition. An exercise in imaginative reverse engineering. Why couldn’t Pichet have taken on this task as a solo, since this is afterall his dialogue with Nijinsky? The question lingered even as the man exited the stage, leaving behind Sunon, Phadung and Nijinsky ofcourse, this time in a new photograph where he is captured in air, leaping. Sunon and Phadung sat cross legged facing eachother while Nijinsky faced us, frozen in his mid air accomplishment. The two other men decided to have a go at it too. What ensued was a stiff competition of alternate leaps, challenging eachother with height, effortlessness and some comedy while at it. The question of why Pichet couldn’t have done this by himself answered itself. Apart from the fact that the man might just look silly jumping up and down on stage by himself, he had summoned Nijinsky as a fourth dancer therby completing the set of four characters danced in Khon: the man, the woman, the demon and the monkey.

He was smart, and just as I realized this, as if patiently waiting for my personal ephiphany, Sunon and Phandung excused themselves from stage, Nijinsky’s screen was dramatically pulled away. And behind it, there he was again. Pichet Klunchun. He was beautiful. Framing himself in a captivating set of painting and residues of Nijinsky’s images, he danced a dance in resplendent garb and music. Not much lucid memory of that dance remains. I only recall a faint numbing feeling of awe. And then in the most humble and refined manner, he reminded us that his name is Pichet Klunchun.


[Ed: This review is up late due to uploading problems.]