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An arts bonanza!
IF you're a well-heeled arts aficionado, there's little fear of missing out on a performance due to scheduling conflicts in August.
The month brings three arts festivals to Asia - in Singapore, Taipei and Penang, with some shows set to travel across cities.
So, say you wanted to catch Japan's Robot Theatre Project's The Metamorphosis, you could do so in Penang or Taipei; Australian aboriginal group Black Arm Band is bringing dirtsong to Singapore and to Taipei.
Or, how about zooming in on shows that give you an insight into each of the three cities, which all happen to be situated on islands?
For this, one could catch George Town Festival's (GTF) 100% Penang, featuring 100 Penangites on stage in a show devised by Germany's Rimini Protokoll, or Taipei's The Delusion of Home, a performance based on photography of derelict houses; in Singapore, one could wander with comedian Kumar through five public housing estates to celebrate heartland living.
Besides spelling good news for an arts-focused traveller, just what does it mean that three major arts festivals have their events in August? How have they positioned themselves this year? Can one discover a city better through its arts festival?
Ong Keng Sen, Singapore International Festival of the Arts (Sifa) creative director, said: "The arts festival has to look at itself in relation to the city. It all depends on what stage the city is at. In the case of Sifa, the festival is 38 years old and there's a need for specialisation within the context of Singapore, which has many cultural players."
The six-year-old Penang festival, for example, is more similar to Singapore's arts festival in the 1980s, he said, but with Singapore having so many festivals, Sifa has to be specialised and to offer a different perspective as a festival.
The Taipei Arts Festival (TAF) is a strong counterpoint to the Taiwan International Festival of Arts in March, so TAF focuses on young, emerging artists, he said. "It tries to be more diverse in its coverage of Taiwan, as it looks at the up-and coming artists and takes a more quirky approach."
The George Town Festival (GTF), on the other hand, leverages on Penang's World Heritage status.
Meanwhile, Sifa has become a "destination" festival, with specific points of interests rather than being a programme one could just walk into. "It's a festival for serious hobbyists or professional interests," said Mr Ong.
Singapore works together with festivals in the region, for example, by bringing in the Black Arm Band show which it picked from the programme of the Taiwan International Festival of Arts; but Sifa also curates shows specific to its own criteria.
Its approach is to latch onto the latest emerging topic or artform in the contemporary art scene. Mr Ong said: "As a once-a-year event, we need to present the unexpected, unique art events so that it's not just repertory work."
The arts festival is a time to push those creative boundaries, and Sifa's approach is to look at cross-genre works which are on trend. "I ask companies to do things which they wouldn't do in their regular seasons," he added.
Festivals join hands
And because the arts can build bridges, international collaboration is important to both the Taipei and George Town festivals.
The TAF is into its 17th annual edition, but it was only in 2012 that the city, which funds the festival, appointed an artistic director, Yi-Wei Keng.
"This was an important change to the festival," he said, adding that he has curated the festival with the aim of giving a platform to the city to interact and have a dialogue with the outside world.
International collaborations and co-creations are important for Taipei because it encourages cultural diversity. "Diversity has always been Singapore's strong point, because of its multiracial roots and position as a trading centre, for example, but for Taiwan, we have to make an effort to facilitate different kinds of collaborations," he said. In encouraging this diversity, friendships are forged, and the Taipei festival is meant to represent Taipei's open spirit.
"We invite people to come to the city," he said, adding that even though international collaborations may not result in great artistic work, it is still about gaining experience and making friends.
"The links are made for future collaborations. It's not about buying programmes, but creating a dialogue. Trust is also important and that takes a while to build," said Mr Keng.
Even as he is building links with other festivals, he recognises that it is still important for each festival to forge and retain a strong sense of personality. Echoing Sifa Mr Ong's sentiment, he said: "We have to present programmes which are bigger and more unusual than everyday life."
The three festivals reflect the spirit of their cities; GTF is working at making itself more international, and Sifa is finding its Singaporean identity, he noted. But Mr Keng lamented that while the festival aims to give artists the space to create and experiment, this has created a problem for local arts companies in the area of getting private-sector funding: commercial companies do not want their names tied to "artistic creations".
The GTF could perhaps be considered a small rising star in Asia, but it is, ironically, staged in a country where the contemporary arts are not often appreciated or supported officially.
GTF artistic director Joe Sidek said he believes good can come out of Malaysia working a lot more closely with its Asean neighbours in the arts.
"We need to work or function as a collective. Except for Singapore, it's hard for the rest of us to match the likes of Japan, Korea, China and Taiwan, but perhaps as an Asean collective, we can share the journey and resources," he notes.
For this year's edition of GTF, he has trained his attention on the meaning and importance of humanity; the people of Penang influenced his curating of this year's festival.
He said he has turned down major shows which he believed that Penangites were not ready for, given that GTF is a small-scale festival.
GTF is largely financed by the state government, to the tune of RM4 million (S$1.43 million) a year; the festival gets no federal funds, in part because the Penang state government is run by a political party in opposition to the one in the federal government. And with little private-sector support, the GTF's budget is smaller than that for the Taipei and Singapore festivals.
Mr Sidek said: "Private sector support has not been so forthcoming, and that's what's needed to keep the GTF going." He has been told it generally takes five to seven years for a festival to be anchored; it is GTF's sixth year.
But the festival has nonetheless shot George Town and Penang straight onto the global art map, with its commissioned street art in the festival's second year. "We cannot compare or match Singapore or Taiwan, which had major head starts and better strategy and planning for the arts, but it's great to be able to learn from the two festivals," he said.
Without a doubt, the sheer number of art shows being presented in the three cities in the coming weeks - 65 ticketed and free shows in Sifa, 11 ticketed shows in TAF plus free forums and talks, and close to 100 festival and affiliated shows in GTF, 80 per cent of it free - means there is pretty much something going on every night of the week in the three cities.
An arty buzz is definitely in the air in the region in August, for anyone who looks closely at the arts calendar.
The main Singapore International Festival of Arts (Sifa) runs from Aug 6 to Sept 19. For more information, visit http://sifa.sg.
George Town Festival (GTF) runs from Aug 1 to 31. More info at http://georgetownfestival.com.
Taipei Arts Festival (TAF) runs from July 31 to Sept 6. More info at http://eng.taipeifestival.org.tw.