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Above: One of the highlights of SIFA 2017 is Trojan Women, directed by Ong Keng Sen in collaboration with the National Theater of Korea. It retells the famous Greek tragedy as a changgeuk (traditional Korean opera) performed against a minimal production design.

"I want to show art - not a cultural programme or a carnival," says Ong.

The precisely- calibrated direction of Art Studio makes it one of the best plays of 2017.

SIFA: Four years of defiantly 'arty' art

As S'pore International Festival of Arts enters the last edition headed by Ong Keng Sen, the outgoing fest director reflects on his tenure.
Aug 18, 2017 5:50 AM

FIVE years ago, when theatre director Ong Keng Sen took over the helm of the national arts festival, he was told that Singapore is not a place for "arty" programming, and that anything "non-mainstream" would fail to find an audience here.

These kinds of challenges are, of course, not new to Ong. As the longtime artistic director of arts company TheatreWorks, he has always thrived on bringing the smartest, chicest, strangest art to his audience. Not surprisingly, TheatreWorks' shows typically divide people, putting them into camps of lovers and loathers.

"But the job of the national arts festival director is different. You have to give yourself over to the public. You have to respond to the city. You are a public functionary," says Ong.

An artist at the helm

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His appointment as festival director marked the first time an artist was given the mantle to run the national arts festival, which was hitherto organised by government body National Arts Council. An independent arts company Arts Festival Ltd was set up to manage the festival. It was renamed Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA) with Lee Chor Lin, ex-director of National Museum of Singapore, as CEO.

Arguably, there was no better person for the festival director's job. Ong has worked with international artists since 1992. He has a direct line to sought-after stars such as Robert Wilson, Jerome Bel, Amir Reza Koohestani and the Wooster Group - all of whom presented works in SIFA's first year, 2014. "I've known all of them for a long time. They're friends," he notes.

The debut festival astounded with shows such as Wilson's grim interpretation of Peter Pan, Nikhil Chopra's 50-hour visual art performance, and Korean director Seo Jae-Hyung's heart-rending staging of Oedipus Rex.

But, true to form, Ong also brought radical works that split opinions, such as Wooster Group's conceptual but alienating Cry, Trojans!, Miet Warlop/Campo's bizarre surrealist work Mystery Magnet, and Ong's own unconventional opera Facing Goya.

Subsequent SIFA editions also divided audiences with certain shows - the re-invented circus Cabanons in 2015, the paedophile drama Five Easy Pieces in 2016, the 10-minute play in a bed Everything By My Side in 2016, and, as always, Ong's own works, The Incredible Adventures of Border Crossers in 2015 and Sandaime Richard in 2016. Despite this, ticket sales stayed above 80 per cent, according to Ong.

"I want to show art - not a cultural programme or a carnival," he says.

But, if there is one thing that Ong does unquestionably well, it is championing artists and giving them space to create their best works. Practically all the commissioned plays by local theatre companies were among the best they've ever produced.

Wi!d Rice mounted the five-hour play Hotel spanning 100 years of Singapore history. Drama Box devised a triple bill in three locations, including Bukit Brown Cemetery. Checkpoint Theatre staged the most rousing play of 2016, The Last Bull, about the life of a flamenco dancer. And Nine Years Theatre has just delivered its most ambitious work yet, a three-hour adaptation of Yeng Pway Ngon's epic novel Art Studio (see review below).

Process of creation

Ong says: "I think the difference between having me and a bureaucrat from the National Arts Council programming the festival is that I am an artist too, so I can say with confidence to the artists why this works or why this part has to be changed. I'm involved in the process of creation and I give very clear notes to the artists about the strengths and potential pitfalls of the works. Then I leave it - I never pursue them to make the changes. I must believe in what they're making.

"You see, I believe what's lacking in this country is trust - the bureaucrats don't believe in the artists and vice versa. And that impacts the art-making because the projects become fraught with misunderstandings."

Ong's strong defence of artists and the integrity of their works has resulted in run-ins with the censors from Infocomm Media Development Authority. In SIFA 2015 and 2016, a few works had to be modified or pulled out altogether. Oddly, in Ong's fourth and final year as the festival director, the censors have allowed all the works to be shown - no request to amend works has been made.

But, asked what he is proudest of, Ong says it is the OPEN, the pre-festival of talks, workshops, films and other art events that lead up to main festival SIFA. Helmed by OPEN director Noorlinah Mohamed, the pre-festival is possibly the only one of its kind in the world.

Ong says: "The purpose of OPEN is to create a broad and general engagement with the public, to build a certain type of consciousness, a certain type of attitude to art. We wanted to create a kind of Camelot where there is a belief system and a space for really asking questions."

This year, the OPEN festival opened with Art As Res Publicae, a two-night civil discourse on so-called taboo topics in Singapore such as LGBTQ issues and euthanasia.

"It is the most distinctive feature of SIFA ... if there's anything I hope they will carry on with after this last edition with me as festival director, it is the OPEN."

After this edition, Gaurav Kripalani, the managing and artistic director of Singapore Repertory Theatre, takes over as festival director.

Faithful adaptation of Art Studio

ART Studio by Nine Years Theatre is the best new play of 2017 so far. It is epic in scope and ambition, translating Yeng Pway Ngon's 584-page novel of the same title into a concise and consistently elegant three-hour stage production. Employing few props and minimal sets, Nelson Chia's intelligent, precise direction lays bare one of the novel's classic themes - that life is short and art is long.

Yeng's novel spans several decades and tells separate stories of various characters. But it begins with a simple figure-drawing class in a studio in Singapore. Here the art teacher Yan Pei (Tay Kong Hui) is supervising a group of aspiring artists that includes Ning Fang (Ellison Tan Yuyang), Si Xian (Timothy Wan), Jian Xiong (Neo Hai Bin) and Su Lan (Yo Chen)(See Amendment note).

From here on, the plot splinters into separate threads: Jian Xiong becomes a leftist and flees into the Malayan jungles to escape arrest. Ning Fang falls for an Indian man and follows him to his homeland, while Si Xian carries a torch for her all his life. At the same time, Yan Pei watches his marriage to Wan Zhen (Mia Chee)(See amendment note)  disintegrate, mostly because he is unable to sustain a living out of making art. Over the years, characters age and die.

There is also a stray and funny storyline narrated by the entire cast about an artist who achieves great international success by kowtowing to politicians and bribing journalists. No prizes for guessing whom Yeng is taking potshots at.

The Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA) could not have picked a better show to open the festival. At its heart, Art Studio is a classic story of struggle - between artistic passion and pragmatism, between integrity and opportunism, between the state and the individual, between the Old World and the New.

We all pay a price for our convictions. And the world of politics and commerce exacts the highest ones.

Yeng himself was imprisoned for four months in 1977 when he was accused of being a leftist. For audiences aware of his story, the story threads involving Jian Xiong the leftist and a Singapore political exile in France are particularly poignant.

The biggest triumph of Chia's adaptation is his extraordinary condensation of Yeng's sprawling novel. He faithfully distils crucial scenes without diminishing their emotional depths. The cast of 12 is skillfully jockeyed to portray some two dozen characters over half a century. Yet each character feels identifiable and fully fleshed-out, even if she or he appears in few scenes.

With the production design team, Chia conjures numerous settings from Singapore and Malaya to Hong Kong and Paris using spare set configurations, modulated lights and well-chosen music and costumes. By adopting elemental mannerisms, the cast of 12 evokes an entire populace. Integrating all aspects of its production into a unified and seamless whole, Art Studio is an immensely satisfying work of art.

  • Art Studio is in Mandarin with English surtitles. It plays at Victoria Theatre from now till Aug 19. Tickets from Sistic. On Aug 20 at 5pm at Centre 42, SIFA will host an intimate post-show dialogue session with director-scriptwriter Nelson Chia and author Yeng Pway Ngon where they will discuss their ideas behind the writing and staging Art Studio. Admission free

5 shows you shouldn't miss

By Pangdemonium, Tracie Pang, Adrian Pang and Stephanie Street
Aug 24 to 26, 8pm, Victoria Theatre

No play in the festival is perhaps more politically relevant than Dragonflies. The Singapore production imagines the world in 2021 when climate change, "Brexit", a re-elected Donald Trump, wars in the Middle East and famine in Africa are causing millions to flee their homelands for greener pastures.

Like dragonflies that migrate halfway across the world for survival, the human race has always moved from place to place in search of a better life. But what happens when governments ban immigration and refuse to accept refugees seeking asylum? This newly commissioned work sees acclaimed theatre company Pangdemonium working with playwright Stephanie Street to address the pressing issues.

Trojan Women
By National Theatre of Korea and Ong Keng Sen
Sept 7 to 9, 8pm, Victoria Theatre

Festival director Ong turns his hand to the ancient Greek tragedy Trojan Women from 415 BC. It tells the story of the women of Troy who are about to be enslaved, after their city is sacked and their husbands killed by the Greeks.

Ong has collaborated with celebrated pansori singer and South Korea's National Treasure, Anh Sook-sun, as well as famous K-pop composer Jung Jae-Il, to reinvent the story as a changgeuk (traditional Korean opera) where each singer is paired with a specific instrument. Staging and costumes are minimalist to retain focus on the music and story. In Korean with English surtitles.

My Lai
By Kronos Quartet, with Rinde Eckert and Van-Anh Vanessa Vo
Aug 31, Sept 1, 8pm, Drama Centre Theatre

One of the most celebrated string quartets in the world, Kronos Quartet returns to Singapore after a 20-year absence to perform a 90-minute operatic monodrama composed by Jonathan Berger and Harriet Scott Chessman in response to the massacre of innocent Vietnamese villagers by American soldiers in My Lai, Vietnam, in 1968. This stirring, poignant piece also features tenor Rinde Eckert and multi-instrumental artist Van-Anh Vanessa Vo.

On Sept 2, the quartet has also programmed a special line-up of its favourite works in a separate concert titled An Evening With Kronos Quartet. (Also on Sept 2, Drew Cameron, who created the paper art works that appear on stage for My Lai, will conduct a free paper art workshop at the Drama Centre Foyer starting from 11am to 530pm. Register on the SIFA website.)

The Nature Museum
By Institute of Critical Zoologists
Aug 31, Sept 1, 2, 5, 6, 7, 8pm, 72-13

One of Singapore's most acclaimed visual artists Robert Zhao (aka Institute of Critical Zoologists) has created an immersive museological exhibition of photographs, artworks and historical documents.

These documents are either found or fabricated, but they combine to tell a historical and fantastical tale of Singapore's natural history.

Although the exhibition runs from Sept 1 to 9 from noon to 11pm, Zhao is also giving a guided tour and lecture performance on the specified dates and time above. It promises to be informative and humorous.

By Halory Goerger, Antoine Defoort
Aug 31, Sept 1 to 2, 8pm, SOTA Drama Theatre

A hit on the international festival circuit, Germinal is performed by four individuals who stand on a bare stage and, like demi-gods in T-shirts and jeans, gradually conjure up a brand-new world from scratch.

Using visual art, theatre, music and sociology, they playfully re-invent the laws of gravity and physics as well as the ideas of philosophy, music and language to reimagine human civilisation as we know it.

Amendment note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Wan Zhen (Mia Chee) is one of the characters in the figure drawing class. It is in fact Su Lan (Yo Chen). The article above has been revised to reflect this.