Sunday, 21 September, 2014

Published July 18, 2014
Festival's finest fare
The Singapore Arts Festival has been rebooted and renamed the Singapore International Festival of Arts (Sifa). Starting next month, across six weeks, you'll be treated to an array of music, opera, dance and theatre treats. We pick out the three must-watch shows, and the best of the rest. By HELMI YUSOF
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Surreal vision: Robert Wilson's 'Peter Pan' (above) will captivate you with its stunning imagery, unusual choreography, atypical characterisations and the odd music of indie band CocoRosie

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Turning Peter Pan inside out

WITH chalk-white faces and black-rimmed eyes, the characters of Robert Wilson's plays appear like gothic, macabre corpses who have just stepped out of a Tim Burton animated feature.

But like Burton, Wilson has a way of making the macabre entertaining. And his hypnotic, avant garde interpretation of the children's book Peter Pan will likely be one of the most surreal experiences you'll have at the theatre this year.

Make no mistake: Wilson's version of Peter Pan would give Walt Disney the chills. But for adventurous theatre-goers, Wilson's version offers a darker perspective on the popular tale, one that exposes the murkier side to the boy who never grows up. Here, the happy innocence of childhood is upended while the stark realities of youthful desires and disappointments come to the fore.

Speaking from Romania where he's opening a show, Wilson says: "I was familiar with the Walt Disney version of Peter Pan, and didn't like it. I was somewhat familiar with the Broadway production too. And I was asked to direct it many years ago and chose not to do it."

"But a few years ago I read the original story from the 19th century and was surprised to see that it was so different from the Disney version. I was intrigued by the darkness and the light of the story so I decided to make my own production based more on the text."

Wilson says that the original story portrays Peter Pan as a "prism of many personas" - there are both light and dark sides to his character. The original story is also more cruel than what the cartoon and film versions made it out to be.

Indeed, you can expect less of a linear narrative than a multi-faceted story that will captivate you with its stunning imagery, unusual choreography, atypical characterisations and the odd music of indie band CocoRosie.

Peter Pan is both dashing and doubt-ridden. Captain is quietly dangerous. And Tinkerbell takes pleasure is giving children electric shocks with her wand.

Wilson made his name in the 1970s with the ground-breaking Einstein On The Beach, a musical collaboration with Philip Glass that is still raved about 38 years after its debut.

He went on create many acclaimed works, such as the CIVIL warS (1984), Alice (1992), and, most recently, The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic (2013).

He has frequently worked with the Berliner Ensemble, the renowned German theatre group founded by Bertolt Brecht, and Peter Pan marks their fourth collaboration.

Wilson has nothing but raves for his collaborators.

He says: "The Berliner Ensemble actors have an amazing range and they can speak verse as well as prose with a beautiful command of language. They're able to render intelligently a dark tale with light."

'Peter Pan' plays at the Drama Centre from Sept 11 to 13 at 8pm. Tickets from S$40 available at Sistic


Calling out to the gods in 'Sambaso'

IT may be unlike anything you've ever seen. But it promises to be spellbinding.

Sambaso is an ancient dance from Japan that depicts how the gods descended to earth, according to Japanese beliefs. Sambaso is an important ritual in Shinto, the indigenous religion of Japan, and it is carried out with utmost respect.

A Japanese spokesman for the production describes it as having "strong aspects of supernatural power, rather like a benediction ... Even before the programme starts, as the players prepare themselves in the dressing room, the ritual is begun. And this ritual of prayers continues until all the performers exit onto the stage."

When Sambaso was performed at the Guggenheim Museum in New York last year, it received nothing but raves - even though several in the audience admitted they did not fully understand the intricate language of the dance.

The dance is made even more spectacular by the fact that it's performed by the great actor Mansaku Nomura, who has been awarded the Japanese government's title of Living National Treasure of Japan for his contributions to the performing arts. Mansaku and his very talented son, Mansai, will be performing the central role on different nights.

Further lending artistic heft to this production is acclaimed artist Hiroshi Sugimoto, perhaps better known to the wider public as the designer of Hermes limited edition scarves last year. Sugimoto is considered one of the most important photographers in the world, and he has designed Sambaso's stage curtains and costumes, using the lightning motifs from his famous Lightning Fields series of photographs.

Says the spokesman: "The curtains and costumes designed by Sugimoto, along with his stage direction, play an important part in invoking the deities." She adds: "When the sambaso is performed, it releases the energy of humans. The energy that is emitted is felt by the audience - the more the performer concentrates, the more the audience is influenced and their imaginations are aroused. When this multiplier effect reaches its height, time and space become one and the divine spirit descends."

The dance, however, is only part of the show. It is followed by a kyogen, which is a comic story told using exaggerated, slapstick movements. Though it is narrated in Japanese, the skill and precision with which the actors play their roles ensure you don't need surtitles to enjoy it.

For lovers of world cultures, Sambaso is the one you shouldn't miss.

'Sambaso' will be performed at the Victoria Theatre on Aug 28 and 29 at 8pm. Tickets from S$40 on sale at Sistic


Disabled dancers set to move you

IT may be hard to watch at first, but it could well be the most satisfying production in the entire festival.

Disabled Theater by Jerome Bel and Theater Hora puts performers with mental disabilities on stage and asks them to express themselves through music. While some people might be appalled at the thought of such a show, the work has turned out to be very well-received by most critics and audiences. Rather than appearing exploitative or distasteful, it has achieved the impossible - creating an instant bridge of understanding between ordinary people and people with disabilities.

At first, the sight of mentally disabled dancers standing on stage might upset some folks who are not used to be seeing the disabled put in the spotlight. But when these dancers allow their bodies to sway naturally to their favourite music, unencumbered by notions of how dancers typically move on stage or TV, the audience quickly sees the raw and honest connection these dancers make with the music.

The audience gains a rare and moving insight into the hitherto unexplored world of music as experienced by the mentally disabled.

Bel, the production's choreographer, has been challenging the traditional vocabulary of dance for more than a decade. Speaking from Paris, he says: "I have hesitated a lot to make this piece. I realised it was a real issue to work and put on stage mentally disabled people. The representation of disability is still a problem and that is why I decided to do it."

Acknowledging the mixed emotions it typically elicits from audiences, Bel explains: "I think our relationship with disability is quite complex. For most of us, it is a relationship which has not been taught or thought about. We have to question ourselves why we get so emotional watching it. It takes time, and the confrontation is needed. It's not easy because it touches very deep things in each one of us."

In 2004, Bel premiered the poignant Veronique Doisneau, in which a retiring ballet dancer stands before a packed audience at the Paris Opera and recounts the physical and emotional sacrifices she has made in her career as a dancer. In similar fashion, the mentally disabled dancers in Disabled Theater begin by telling the audiences about themselves before they start dancing.

What's unique, though, about this work is that Bel resisted giving directions to his performers: "I wanted to find a way where they could be as free as possible on stage because I wanted to show who they were. I directed them as little as possible ... Society wants everybody to obey the same rules. But some cannot; they resist this majority. And I wanted for once to give this freedom to these performers."

'Disabled Theater' by Jerome Bel and Theater Hora plays at Sota Drama Centre from Sept 3 to 6 at 8pm. Tickets from S$30 at Sistic

The best of the rest...


SINGAPORE'S most renowned director Ong Keng Sen, who is also the festival director of Sifa, will raise the curtain next month with the opera Facing Goya.

Composed by Michael Nyman and directed by Ong himself, with a libretto written by Victoria Hardie, the modern opera examines the debate on social engineering, centred on attempts to clone legendary painter Francisco Goya.

Ong says he has always been drawn to "new opera and new interpretations" such as those by Tandun and John Adams. He says: "My entry into music is really the 1960s avant garde. Even though I enjoy the grand and emotional sweep of traditional opera, there's something old-fashioned there that needs to break through."

Facing Goya received mixed reviews when it premiered in Spain in 2000, and again for its latest revival which opened in the United States two months ago. Though a portion of the American audience gave it a standing ovation, The New York Times called the vocals "terrific" but the music "taxing".

The Singapore show will feature the same cast of singers, including soprano Anne-Carolyn Bird, a regular with the Metropolitan Opera.

'Facing Goya' plays at the Victoria Theatre on Aug 12, 14 and 16 at 8pm. Tickets from S$40 at Sistic


FOR classical music lovers - a veritable buffet of four acclaimed concerts covering the span of music from the 20th century.

The London Sinfonietta will collaborate with the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra to present a condensed version of a 12 concert-series called The Rest Is Noise, performed last year at London's Southbank Centre.

Gillian Moore, Southbank Centre's head of classical music, describes the London Sinfonietta as "an ensemble of soloists, all of whom play music from all periods, but have a special affinity for 20th century and contemporary music. Some of the musicians hold principal positions in leading UK symphony orchestras, but they come to the London Sinfonietta to satisfy their craving for new and adventurous music. Some of the older Sinfonietta musicians worked extensively with the giants of 20th century music: Stockhausen, Cage, Boulez, and others."

The four concerts will take the audiences through a rich odyssey of music in the 20th century, beginning with early modernists such as Schoenberg, Debussy and Stravinsky in the first concert, then Russian maestros Shostakovich and Prokofiev in the second concert. They will be followed by post-World War II composers such as Stockhausen, Boulez and Ligeti in the third, and finally the more radical Ades, McMillan, Toru Takemitsu and Unsuk Chin in the fourth.

'Listen To The 20th Century' plays at the Sota Concert Hall on Sept 3, 5, 6 and 7 at different times.

Each concert has a different programme.

Tickets from S$40 at Sistic


FOR sheer stamina, Nikhil Chopra is hard to beat. The Indian artist will be performing and creating a large painting for 50 hours. The audience can come and go as they please during the two days - though it's recommended that they don't miss the last hours of the show.

The work owes its title to Subhas Chandra Bose (1897-1945). Bose was the charismatic Indian leader who fought to rid India of British rule. In a speech to rally the Indian National Army on July 4, 1944, Bose cried: "Give me blood, and I shall give you freedom!" Responding to his call, a group of women formed the all-female combat army called Rani of Jhansi regiment.

In his performance, Chopra will assume the character of a female warrior, Jhansi, who must shed her skin and spill her blood. Chopra will simultaneously play the role and paint scenes of a battleground on a massive white canvas. It is no coincidence that the performance will begin on Aug 15, which is India's Independence Day.

Chopra is an internationally acclaimed artist known for collapsing the boundary between visual arts and live performance. He typically draws on India's complex colonial history and his personal history to create fictional characters, whom he inhabits for as long as three days. His works have been featured at various galleries, festivals and biennales.

'Give Me Your Blood And I Will Give You Freedom' will unfold at the 72-13, Mohamed Sultan Road, on Aug 15, 7pm, and end on Aug 17, 9pm. Standard priced tickets at S$35 from Sistic


HUMAN migration is one of the pressing issues of our time. With an estimated 45 million refugees worldwide fleeing their countries and caught in migratory limbos, this poignant and powerful play puts a human face on the bare statistics.

Amid The Clouds centres on two refugees hoping to find a safer, more prosperous country than the one they left behind. Imour (played by Hassan Madjooni) is an illegal immigrant working in a cafe on the Croatian-Slovenian border. Zina (played by Baran Kosari) is an unmarried, pregnant woman escaping persecution in Iran.

Dreaming of a better life in the United Kingdom, they travel across the Balkans towards the English Channel, which they must risk their lives to cross.

The play is written and directed by Amir Reza Koohestani, one of the leading lights of cutting-edge Iranian theatre. Koohestani says he is interested in showing "the situation of today's human being, notwithstanding borders and nationalities, to stage brief moments of his desires and his regrets while coming to a dead end".

"With Amid The Clouds, I got pretty close to my idealistic form of theatre ... the stillness, the directness and the use of lengthy monologue ... The dialogue parts, too, are stripped of any decoration; thus, the unfolding of the story becomes the exclusive focus."


'Amid The Clouds' plays at Sota Theatre Studio from Sept 11 to 13 at 8pm. Standard priced tickets at S$35 from Sistic


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