It's more than just about the arts. A national arts festival, like the one in Singapore recently, is also a way of attracting tourists and corporates to the country and contributes to nation building as well.
It actually goes way beyond even creating and consuming the arts: a national arts festival represents a huge asset to a country, whether offering inspiration to its citizens; or working as a multiplier effect that creates arts jobs; or attracting tourists and top-level corporates to its shores, by building a culturally rich, vibrant environment.
This was the original raison d'être of a festival such as the Singapore Arts Festival (SAF), organised by the city-state's National Arts Council (NAC) as a national celebration of the arts that positions Singapore as a global city for the arts.
City of festivals
Over the years it has succeeded in both endeavours, almost too well. Thanks, in a large part to SAF creating audiences interested in the arts, “Singapore has become a City of Festivals,” says Benson Puah, NAC's Chief Executive Officer. This changing artscape has forced the national arts festival, now in its 34th year, to evolve further.
Its current form is based on two pillars, says Puah. “One, as a popular People's Festival that celebrates with the community all over the nation; and two, as a Creations Festival.” As a Creations Festival, this year saw a record 18 commissions; while a People's Festival entails initiatives such as com.mune, a yearlong participation with the public through education and outreach programmes, dialogue and exhibitions.
SAF General Manager Low Kee Hong says a national festival of the arts will always stay relevant “as a way to galvanise national imagination. Hence the shift to curate the kinds of works that would get people to participate was crucial. I am interested in works created by — or involving — non-performers, in the blurring of art and life.”
Another apposite road chosen to stay relevant is SAF's strongly Asian focus. It takes advantage of the Asian wave sweeping the globe; programmers of Western arts festivals are deeply interested in visiting and programming Asian components for their own festivals, given that all things Asian are seen as the “Next Big Thing”.
In the recently concluded SAF 2011, of the 81 artists and arts companies featured, 64 were Asian (representing 80 per cent) of which 49 were local. “This is a deliberate choice,” agrees Puah that gives SAF a strong identity.
But one result of such choices is that the Festival has moved away from programming the famous arts brands. Tourists are more likely to seek out the “big names”; though you could argue that SAF doesn't need to bring these in.
Whether it is the Royal Shakespeare Company, The Lion King or Eric Clapton, other arts companies are importing them to Singapore anyway. In this context a national arts festival both adds and gives a focus to the range of offerings, which ensures no matter what time of year a tourist visits, there will always be something artistic to enjoy.
The absence of brand names also means that the Festival isn't necessarily an easy sell nationally. Despite such criticism, the Festival needs to be commended for its “no risk, no reward” approach. Puah points out that the contemporary format of SAF “is an investment in the future.
Should SAF establish a reputation for being at the forefront of creativity in Asia — if we can be the place that will bring in artists at that top level of development — then, in time, the audiences and arts tourists will come to a festival like this.”
Thus the Festival's 34th instalment continued to be well supported with a budget of S$8.5 million, raised through 60 per cent state funding, 25 per cent corporate support and 15 per cent ticket sales. On offer were 27 non-ticketed and 35 ticketed performances, with prices ranging from S$10-180; when the Festival ended, ticket sales stood at 50 per cent, with five of the ticketed productions sold out, including A Game of You and SINGAPORE by The Necessary Stage.
A Game of You, by Belgian group Ontroerend Goed, and Inhabitants, created in collaboration by Singaporean and Spanish performers, were fascinating works of interactive theatre, designed for small audience groups. They resonated well with current international trends that, as Low articulates, “move away from passive consumption to a more interactive experience of the arts”.
Another interesting component of any national arts festival is a Festival Village, a space where artists and audiences can meet and mingle. SAF 2011's Festival Village, artistically constructed out of bamboo, drew 20,000 people for its music shows and outdoor theatre.
Also popular — and keeping with global trends of artistically empowering kids — was the inaugural Kids Arts Village, curated entirely by children, which attracted some 2,700 visitors.
SAF 2011 — the middle component of a trilogy of festivals — had the umbrella theme of “I Want to Remember”. While “memory” is a potent theme, it can easily lapse into the sentimental or the nostalgic; a trap that SAF largely avoided based on the works I saw such as 2 by China's TAO Dance Theatre or Radio Muezzin from Germany. “Our Lost Poems” — SAF2012's curatorial theme — will continue these investigations into identity and memory. This way, the festival can be harnessed to give audiences greater insights into personal queries of self as well as help nation building, and cementing Singapore's reputation as “the” venue to enjoy cutting-edge Asian arts.
Solo about stillness
Beautiful Thing 2 (BT2), the only Indian performance and a Festival commission, was by Chennai-based contemporary dancer/choreographer Padmini Chettur. BT2 is Chettur's 11th creation, and marks her return to the solo.
Why Chettur? “Padmini's exploration of the body is very interesting; it is easy to see why she is considered a protégée of Chandralekha,” Low replies. “Padmini's contemporary approach to dance, as well as her tutelage under Chandralekha, makes her a perfect fit for the Festival, which deals with the idea of memory.”
Chettur says, “For me, working in Asia is very particular, as there aren't so many platforms.” She shares that the SAF commission was an opportunity to premiere the work under “very good technical conditions,” with a budget that allowed her to work with her European collaborators.
BT2's premiere in Singapore showed Chettur's minimalist aesthetic strongly in play. If Chettur's last work, Beautiful Thing 1, was a group performance about movement dynamics, her latest work, BT2, was experienced as a solo about stillness. The piece focussed on the body as an object rather than on rhythm and motion.
The piece's movements were small, controlled and repeated through linear trajectories, and presented as nine short studies in space. Chettur seemed to be dealing with the body as a container of energy, and exploring the precise transfers of energy needed, say, from the shoulder to the arm to swing it around, or to propel a rotating body moving across the floor.
An intrinsic part of BT2 was the lighting by Jan Maertens that used some 100 lights to create tangible spaces of darkness and brightness within which the piece unfolded. Also complementing the “silence of the body” as presented by Chettur was the soundscape by Maarten Visser. Motifs such as the sound of whirring fans subtly suggested interiors – such as the studio space where the process of BT2 might have been worked out.
Keywords: Singapore Tourism