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The old, the new and the whacky

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TALENT TO THE FORE Continuum
TALENT TO THE FORE Continuum

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A month-long arts festival took place in Singapore. KAUSALYA SANTHANAM provides some vignettes

Theatre events, dance performances and orchestral music filled the halls with a seemingly unending cascade of ideas, visuals and sound as Singapore celebrated its Arts festival for a month up to June 22. Begun more than three decades ago, the Singapore Arts Festival is a perfectly orchestrated offering of events that showcases local and international talent and ensures that cultural events permeate all available spaces in the city-State. The old, the new, the traditional and the experimental explode across the city in state-of-the-art auditoria, on the riverfront and in open, verdant spaces. Meticulous planning on the part of the National Arts Council and the organisers of the festival characterises the mega event.

Goh Ching Lee, Director of the Singapore Arts Festival, and her team give the overseas media an overview before we are whisked off to watch the second part of the “The King Lear Project: A Trilogy”(Asian premiere), a theatre production spread over three evenings. Conceived by visual artist and film maker Ho Tzu Nyen and directed jointly by him and Fran Borgia, both from Singapore, the trilogy “questions the production of Lear itself”. And the crux: “Is there a proper way to stage Lear?”

In Part 2: “Dover Cliff — The Conditions of Representation”, three scenes — of Lear out in the storm, the blinding of Gloucester and the one where Gloucester is led up the “cliff” — were picked for depiction. Many variations of each scene are attempted in accordance with suggestions from the crew and cast. Threaded with this are the opinions of renowned critics, whose comments decimate the way the scenes are executed.

Though the three segments make up the whole — “of an audition, a rehearsal and a post-show discussion” — each, we are told, is complete in itself. But did the work add up to more than the sum of its parts? There was no way one could guess as one saw only a segment of the whole. Each scene had too many interpretations, superfluous when the point had already been made. The director, despite being a definite figure of authority, seemed unbelievably pliable.

What worked was the synergy of the actors especially of “Lear” in the first scene. Sets, music and sound effects were excellent. Adding a touch of the whacky was the “sausage” that was central to an interpretation by a crew member.

While the production had its high points and brought out the colossal nature of the problems faced by a director who embarks on ‘King Lear”, the second part of the trilogy seemed like a classroom lesson relying on cleverness rather than touching a chord in the viewer. It had a self conscious feel, accentuated by the extension of the last scene, in the foyer.

Narrative of love

It was Shakespeare again who was focussed upon in “awaking”, a theatre music production conceived and directed by Ong Keng Sen/TheatreWorks which had its world premiere. But here Shakespeare’s work was linked with that of his contemporary, the 16th Century Ming dynasty playwright Tang Xian Zu. The project, in which the contribution of composer Qu Xiao Song was brilliant, took up the songs from Shakespeare’s plays juxtaposing them with the moving kunqu opera music in “The Peony Pavilion”. This was a production that worked on many levels. Its stirring music for one, its fabulous sets for another, its skilful welding of time and space for a third, and the luminous presence, singing and performance by the opera star who played the heroine in this narrative of love that transcends time and the temporal. But the basic premise for the work appeared thin and the thread between the Bard and the Chinese playwright, tenuous. The changing landscape of bleak wintry white, autumnal glow and spring renewal was evocatively captured through the sets. The orchestra’s floral costume struck an odd note and the video clips were sometimes too simplistic. It was a rather lopsided production where the powerful pulsating Chinese music and instruments took the shine off the Elizabethan instruments though the singer Joanne Lunne held her own. The evening however belonged to the brilliant composer Qu Xiao Song and the stunning opera artist Wei Chun Rong.

The dance production “Continuum” (Asian premiere) presented by the Singapore Dance Theatre fell neatly into three parts: the first was more conventional and lyrical ballet based on the poems of Tennyson, Blake and Keats; the second and the third were more vigorous and contemporary in feel. “Evening” choreographed by Graham Lustig was all serenity as the twilight shapes and moods took mellow shape. “A Million Kisses to my Skin” choreographed by David Dawson had loads of vitality though the costume of the women was hard on cellulite. But it was the last offering “Glow-Stop” choreographed by Jorma Elo that stole the show. The ballet dancers rose above a technical glitch, giving a bravura performance charged with inner energy, litheness and power.

The festival was organised with clockwork precision and conceptualised with a wide angled lens. The infrastructure built up for the arts in Singapore is truly impressive. But could its very efficiency pose a threat to its spontaneity and spirit? It may be unfair to judge from the little one saw of the festival. But in the fare presented at the main halls is there too much emphasis on the new, the Western and the experimental at the cost of the home grown and the traditional?

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