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Each audience member gets into bed with a strange woman who will tell a story relating to the former's own past.

Antonio Vargas, a world-famous flamenco dancer living in Singapore, has worked with the Beatles, John Woo and others.

Expect sensory overload as actors perform against giant cylindrical screens with images of flora and fauna.



Challenges and provocations

The Singapore International Festival of Arts 2016 returns this week with 20 boundary-pushing works. In this curtain-raiser for our festival coverage, we look at some Singapore productions and collaborations in the line-up.
Aug 12, 2016 5:50 AM

Being intimate with strangers

Aug 12-14

Sept 7-11

WOULD you get into bed with a strange woman who tells you something intimate about your life? Would you spend five days with a strange man who really just wants to be alone?

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Two of the most intriguing productions of Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA) 2016 are conceived by celebrated Argentinian director Fernando Rubio. And both involve the audience getting very up close and personal with the performers.

In Everything By My Side, which starts on Aug 12 at the National Gallery Singapore, 10 actresses lie in 10 beds as they wait for the audience. One by one, each member of the audience take turns to get into bed with an actress who then tells him something about his life.

How long is the experience? Just 10 minutes. But director Rubio is convinced that the memory of this experience would last a lifetime.

He says: "The play doesn't begin when the audience member gets into bed with the actress. The play has already begun with the life the audience member has lived long before getting into bed with the actress. The actress merely talks to the audience member and reminds him of a memory of a moment in time. And after that, she proceeds to help him construct a story, based on his own memories. In this regard, the play doesn't feel like 10 minutes - but much longer than that."

Among the 10 actresses of various ages and nationality receiving strangers in bed is Singaporean Margaret Chan. The veteran actress, who immortalised the role of Emily of Emerald Hill, says: "The brevity of the piece is crucial to its concept. As the actress, I am asked by the script to go through the entire play structure of exposition, climax, tragedy, denouement, all in 10 minutes. Can I?"

"I found in rehearsals I could. This required me to surrender my mind and body to the piece - just as the audience needs to commit, get in right there and surrender. If you go into the moment cynical or anxious or amused, it would take you a while to get out of this frame of pre-judgment, and before you know it, all may be over."

Chan says: "Someone said to me, doesn't it feel like prostitution, all these strange people jumping in and out of your bed? I said, it is not my bed but a performance space ... Even my husband John gets teased by his friends. They ask him if he is going to the show, he says he gets into my bed every night. We've been married 43 years. The husband of an actress has also to sacrifice for art. One of the first plays John watched me in had me kiss six men on stage."

If Everything By My Side is unique by its brevity, Rubio's second work in the festival is distinguished by its temporal length - five days to be exact!

In Time Between Us, actor Oliver Chong inhabits a small wooden house on Marina Bay Sands event plaza. For 108 hours, Chong plays a man who is "taking a vacation from himself. He has packed and left home and forgotten his name. He is trying to be a stranger, to be another person, over a duration of five days".

The audience can come and go as they please, but Chong says: "I have a timetable of activities to follow over the five days, as a structure and unit for measurement of time. This timetable will be published online. An audience member will be able to draw a possible narrative from watching my progress over the five days of living and performing these activities."

Every night at 7pm, Chong will be visited by an appointed person who will present him a gift to fuel his performance. Chong himself does not know what the gift will be - and will respond in character.

Like Everything By My Side, Time Between Us asks the audience member to invest his own experience and imagination to make up for what is not said or seen in the play.

Director Rubio wants the audience not just to be a passive observer but an active participant in the process. He explains: "For me, the play is simply part of the continuum of the real experience of the spectator, which goes on before and after the play. I think a lot about my plays and how they fit within this continuum of real experience."

  • Tickets from Sistic

Memoirs of flamenco legend brought to life

Aug 25-27

WORLD-CLASS Spanish flamenco dancer Antonio Vargas has been based in Singapore since 2008. When he was introduced by a mutual friend to Checkpoint Theatre's artistic directors Huzir Sulaiman and Claire Wong in 2010, the trio thought of collaborating on a work that would incorporate dramatic text and flamenco.

"But as Claire and I got to know more about his astonishing life, we realised that the story was there: in Antonio's own personal journey as a dancer," recalls Huzir.

Vargas, 75, has been an important figure in flamenco for several decades. He worked with the Beatles in the 1960s, film director Baz Luhrmann on his debut film Strictly Ballroom in 1992, and even choreographed a flamenco segment for Tom Cruise in 2000's Mission: Impossible II directed by John Woo.

He has also re-interpreted classic works such as Carl Orff's Carmina Burana and Federico García Lorca's The House of Bernarda Alba as dance.

Huzir conducted 30 hours of initial interviews with Vargas in 2011 and another 30 hours of follow-up conversations. They focused on particular themes such as the mastery of his craft, his movements across the world, his triumphs and sorrows, his relationship with his family and his heritage.

Huzir, a playwright best known for works such as Atomic Jaya and The Weight of Silk On Skin, subsequently distilled their conversations into a play, creating a "performed memoir ... that is poetic, occasionally funny, sometimes heart-breaking", as he describes it.

His wife Wong will be directing the piece that stars Vargas himself as well as eight of the finest young actor-dancers in Singapore theatre such as Seong Hui Xuan, Thomas Pang, Erwin Shah Ismail, Frances Lee, Tan Shou Chen and Amanda Tee. There will also be a flamenco singer and guitarist on stage.

The young cast, however, will not just be playing the characters in Vargas' life. They will at times play themselves as young performers working hard to make it in the industry and struggling with their own doubts and anxieties.

Huzir explains: "One of the most affecting things about Antonio's life is his trajectory as a performer. Anyone who has any kind of investment in the performing arts - as a practitioner or as a faithful audience member - will be affected by the notion of his journey, from a student striking out on his own to become a master, to teaching himself and passing on his wisdom to the next generation.

 "Looking at our ensemble of 10, I found it a great opportunity to bring out in, a very condensed form, some of their stories about their artistic journeys. We get a sense of where people are at different stages in their 20s, in their 30s, 40s and 50s. You can then fast-forward, mentally, to Antonio's level of achievement and accomplishment and where he is at the age of 75.

"You realise that 'Antonio' is all of us, and we are all 'Antonio'."

  • Tickets from Sistic

Exploring the Malay Archipelago in 1800s

Sept 2-4

SOME of the biggest names in contemporary art are showcasing their film and video works at a massive installation in Gardens By The Bay. The cylindrical stage measuring 18 metres in diameter allows you watch the videos from the inside and on the outside - hence its name 720°, twice that of 360°. Designed by Ron Arad, the list of artists showing their works from 7pm to 11pm, Sept 2 to 17, are expected to be sterling. When 720° was staged elsewhere, artists such as Mat Collishaw, Christian Marclay and David Shrigley showcased their works.

The biggest highlight for the show in Singapore, however, is the premiere of acclaimed local artist Brian Gothong Tan's work Tropical Traumas. Showing from Sept 2 to 4, Tan is creating a video work that will also incorporate a cast of live actors that includes Karen Tan, Koh Boon Pin, Edith Podesta and Felipe Cervera.

In the hour-long show, the actors will re-enact the expeditions carried by explorers in the wild jungles of the Malay Archipelago in the 1800s. The stories are based on the journals of Stamford Raffles' wife Sophia Hull and the great British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace.

Tan says: "I was interested in the stories of the explorers who came to this part of the world. There is so little information that is available publicly. Most of the letters written by Sophia Hull are all stored in the British Library, so I had to buy obscure out-of-print books."

Tan says he selected Hull and Wallace because "they aren't very well known, at least not in the public imagination."

"Hull, for instance, was quite a character, leaving England behind for love. It's quite romantic and silly at the same time, because it was almost a death sentence to come to the tropics in those days, with all the tropical diseases and the very difficult journey on ship that sailed by wind.

"But she learnt to speak Malay on the way here and her first daughter had a Malay name. She was also the first Caucasian woman to enter the jungles of Java where the natives thought she was some kind of a goddess."

The other important figure for Tan was Wallace who chronicled his expedition in detail in his 1869 book, The Malay Archipelago, which Tan described as a "fascinating read". Illustrations from the book, as well other images found in movies and YouTube videos, will be spliced together to create a gorgeous and eclectic tropical landscape replete with jungle animals and exotic plants.

Tan explains: "It was very interesting to read about the history of this region from these particular group of people, how they viewed the world and how so much of their views have shaped our present society.

"Yet, even though the piece looks at history for its inspiration, the performance is very contemporary, eccentric and slightly chaotic - kind of like Singapore as a tiny nation."

  • Admission is free

Also worth catching ...

Sept 8-10

ONG Keng Sen, the festival director of Singapore International Festival of Arts, always has a work of his own in the festival line-up. This year, it is Sandaime Richard (or Richard The Third in Japanese).

This cerebral comedy, written by Hideki Noda, is loosely based on William Shakespeare's historical play about the villainous King Richard III of England.

However, the original story has been completely upended and relocated to Japan's competitive world of ikebana (traditional flower-arrangement) where Richard has been accused of killing a rival.

Expect black humour, sophisticated references - Richard's own defence counsel is Shylock from The Merchant of Venice - as well as a sterling cast that includes Janice Koh.

Aug 18-20

Ray Langenbach is an American conceptual artist and academic who was based in Singapore and Malaysia from the early 1990s to 2011. Among his best known works is his artistic documentation of the 1993/94 Josef Ng saga in which artist Ng was persecuted for snipping his pubic hair in a performance art piece.

I Am LGB is a high-concept experiment co-created by acclaimed artist Loo Zihan and inspired by Dr Langenbach's complex practice. It deals with a broad array of issues such as art, identity, censorship, politics and propaganda. The work involves audience participation and interaction.

  • Tickets from Sistic