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Way off the beaten track
Publication Date : 19-04-2012
Since 2010 the Singapore Arts Festival has come up with an annual theme first and then searched the globe for shows to match it, even commissioning artists to create new shows to fit. The first year it was "Between You and Me" and then last year "I Want to Remember".
The 2012 theme is "Our Lost Poems". General manager Low Kee Hong elaborates: "A discovery of tales and aspirations that need to be told and retold."
Giving each festival a theme, he tells me, "is really in response to the changing landscapes of festivals and productions in Singapore". The Esplanade and many private firms play prominent roles year-round.
Much of the festival's line-up was previously based on the availability of shows and the organisers' interest, Low says. "To move forward, we'd like to think about discourse and how to encourage people to go beyond simply watching the show."
Low says the three festivals he's been in charge of - in 2010, 2011 and 2012 - were all planned at the same time, with connecting themes "inspired by conversations with the artists, local and international, right from the start".
Low travels to many festivals around the world and has noticed that, while a lot of art exhibitions have curators' themes, it's rare for a performing-arts event to follow suit. Festival/Tokyo is one of the few exceptions.
"It works differently for different festivals and audiences. For some the theme functions as a marketing tool, while for others it's squarely academic."
The ticket-buying audience didn't respond well overall to the change in direction at last year's Singapore festival. But Low points out that, thanks in part to some shows being geared to specific interest groups, 60 per cent of the spectators were attending the festival for the first time, "and that's very encouraging".
"That's why we've decided that all the shows at Festival Village in Esplanade Park need to be free. Our approach in communications is also more straightforward this year." Low is hoping, of course, that the unifying theme will encourage even busy Singaporeans to attend more than one event, "maybe a combination of ticketed and free ones".
"The media are more important than ever because they can create a public sphere of discussion, creating a frame of discourse, rather than simply reviewing each show," Low says.
"In Southeast Asia we have a long history of legends and folktales that guided the formation of our societies, and these are as relevant to a Thai as they are to a Singaporean or a Filipino."
Looking at this year's programme, two productions catch our attention - the Akram Khan Company's "Vertical Road" and ex-Miramax Films producer Stephen Earnhart's adaptation of Murakami's novel "The Wind-up Bird Chronicle".
The names and stars of other shows aren't so familiar, but they sound tantalising just the same. British-based Slung Low's "They Only Come at Night" is a horror-theme performance. No Theatre and the Young@Heart Chorus from the US are presenting "End of the Road", a rock concert starring senior citizens.
Several foreign artists are also creating fresh works with their local counterparts specifically for the festival. Among the more intriguing offerings is a show called "The Best Sex I've Ever Had" by Canada's Mammalian Diving Reflex, featuring Singaporean seniors.
Low says Thai visitors will have a ball.
"Festival Village provides a unique experience that you can't get anywhere else, with centaurs running around, for example," Low says. "I recommend seeing 'A Chorus Line' one evening, and then come to the festival the following evening and discover arts and stories from this part of the world that will enrich your holiday."
Along with the theme, the festival has a crucial keyword: experiential. "It's not like going to a conventional theatre, sitting down and watching a show," Low says. "You're moving around, there are things coming at you, and you experience them with all your senses. You're completely immersed - it's a 4D experience!"
The Singapore Arts Festival runs from May 18 to June 2 at various venues.
There are many free events. For the rest, book seats at www.Sistic.com.sg.
Find out more at www.SingaporeArtsFest.com.
For discounts and other privileges, sign up for a free ArtsFest Club membership.