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ARTISTIC MESHING: Theatre de la Ville's artistic director Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota (above) finds it interesting to look at how tradition and modernity mesh in Asia.

STAGE AFTERLIFE: Ong Keng Sen, the festival director of Sifa says on average, most shows don't have an afterlife. "If you're lucky, it gets picked up after three to five years. In fact, it's five years on average." (Above) Mr Ong's production of The Incredible Adventures of Border Crossers.

Wooing France via the arts

Singapore Festival in France is the largest international showcase of Singapore's arts and culture, with some 70 events taking place over three months across seven French cities. BT Lifestyle speaks to the movers and shakers of this diplomatic outreach.
Apr 3, 2015 5:50 AM

SINGAPORE, and in turn South-east Asia, may be well-entrenched as the economic powerhouse of the region, but it is steadily gaining ground in another unlikely arena - the arts. Just look at the S$6 million, three-month Singapore Festival that kicked off over a week ago in Paris, which puts paid to any misconceptions about the cultural superiority complex of the French. The unprecedented size of this festival - with more than 70 events taking place across seven French cities - shows not just a growing interest in Singapore/Asian art, but a strong commitment to artistic co-operation between the two countries.

The key players of the festival share both their French and Singaporean perspectives on the festival and how it can help break down cultural barriers to foster a truly global approach to the arts:

France: Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota, artistic director, Theatre de la Ville and Theatre des Abbesses;

Singapore: Ong Keng Sen, festival director of Singapore International Festival of Arts

AS one of Paris's iconic arts venues, Theatre de la Ville's programming has had to be very wide-ranging. Since 2008, that job has belonged to artistic director Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota, a theatre director who has made it a point to widen the French theatre-goer's multicultural repertoire.

While the Theatre has long presented performance traditions from around the world, notably Japan, for example, he has started casting a wider net towards Asia. "Before that, we worked a lot in Europe and New York, with Robert Wilson. But I've been wanting more connections with Asia… it's a discovery for me. I know Japanese theatre well, but not the other traditions in Asia," he says.

It's also interesting to look at how tradition and modernity mesh in Asia, he adds.

Theatre de la Ville, which gets about 50 to 60 per cent funding from the City of Paris, has long had a very international programme, with a strong focus on dance and music; and the Parisians are very embracing of arts from Asia, notes Mr Demarcy-Mota. Its ticket sales last year averaged about 85 to 90 per cent for more than 100 events it presented.

But performances from Asia aren't a regular occurrence, which Mr Demarcy-Mota hopes to address. Lear Dreaming by TheatreWorks will be the first time a Singapore play will be presented in the theatre. (Not a small feat, says TheatreWorks' Ong Keng Sen, and it was only by the strength of his reputation in Europe that companies such as Theatre de la Ville would even deign to look at a video of the play first presented in 2012.)

"I'm trying to explore theatre in different languages now," says Mr Demarcy-Mota, who is also the artistic director of Theatre Des Abbesses, located in another part of Paris.

This exploration into other cultural traditions can only enrich French artists' own art-making, he believes. "I'd say that 20 years ago, there was a specific "French form" in the performing arts, but now, it's very different. The influence of American and German dance, for example, is strong.

"Today, French artists - with all their openness and cross-border collaborations - can choose how they want to create and this is very important. For me , I don't know if what I'm doing is 'French theatre' as we're more open to new ways of communicating. We live in a global world," he concludes.

For Singapore, the lesson from French companies is how to find multiple producers to support productions. Local arts companies need to create shows that can travel internationally and be produced by a group of different producers if they want to be sustainable. It means they need to create works which have more universality to them, stresses Ong Keng Sen, the festival director of Singapore International Festival of Arts (Sifa).

"Speaking as a festival director, I've realised that the Singapore commissions have been expensive and it isn't sustainable. It's going to be impossible for us to continue as an independent festival at this rate," he notes.

Most shows in Europe have their production costs spread out among a handful of producers, who share the risk of producing a show. "This way, the company isn't beholden to ticket sales as that risk is borne by the producers." The production then tours to the locations where the producers have planned, and the producers get the box-office takings. "Another reason you rely on producers rather than the box office is so that you're not making entertainment, but art," he adds.

While the Sifa team now acts like a producer, it can't do it all the time and bear the entire cost, says Mr Ong. On an average, most shows don't have an afterlife, he points out. "If you're lucky, it gets picked up after three to five years. In fact, it's five years on average."

TheatreWorks, he cites, has been operating on this model for the past decade, taking their shows abroad; which is why its productions aren't dependent on ticket sales.

To help Sifa move towards that model, it will try to invite 10 to 12 festival directors to Singapore in September, says Mr Ong. "But the problem is that the festival is spread out over six to seven weeks, so it's hard for them to see everything."

Mr Ong's production The Incredible Adventures of Border Crossers premiered at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris last week, as the official opening show of the Singapore Festival. It will be restaged at Sifa in Singapore in September.

He notes, however, that Singapore's standing in the international arts arena however, is limited. Japan is a popular country because of its aesthetics and tradition, while India and China too are countries that have ancient history behind them.

The main problem with Singapore is the perception of censorship, which lowers artistic respect for artists from Singapore. "The idea is that if the country doesn't allow free speech, how can there be art?" he says, adding that those are the first questions French journalists have asked him in Paris and that they first saw him as a "state artist".

"The other feeling is that we're just a marketplace," he adds. Singapore's strength however, believes Ong, is its multicultural society and how it mixes cultures. With something like xenophobia on the rise at home and globally, that's an issue that Singapore theatre can look into, he cites as an example. "There are many issues theatre companies can look at which aren't just Singapore concerns."