For quite a while, the world seemed to have been quiescent; enclosed and isolated. From afar it was as if nothing was going on, but in fact, important changes were happening within: parts of us were being broken down and made up again. And as if waking up from a prolonged pupal state, we now come out as different beings from what we used to be.
A few days right after the further easing of COVID restrictions in the Lion City, the 2022 Singapore International Festival of Arts opened, warmed by the enthusiasm from people who could not be more eager to gather. But this year’s festival, like our post-COVID society, emerges in a new form.
Starting in 2022 and into 2024, the festival will be under the helm of festival director Natalie Hennedige. The theme for the triennial tenure is “Anatomy of Performance,” which aims to investigate the structure and inner workings of performance itself. This idea for the festival was born two years ago during the height of the pandemic. It was a period that demanded new experimentation from artists who had to adapt to the temperamental pandemic measures and restrictions. This condition was harnessed by Hennedige to produce a fluid festival across physical and virtual realms that dissolved established notions of what a festival is, doing away with categories and labels.
“Two years ago, you didn’t know if this moment was possible,” said Henneige a few moments before the opening show. “But you still made it work.” The team managed uncertainties by distilling the essence of the performance to the energy of the show. “Should the performance not be here in this venue, a piece would be missing, but a robust show will still be able to go on. Creation, still, can happen,” the director said.
In the end, the festival had 430 local and international artists participating, and produced 70 activities in-person and online, including 17 physical programs with a record number of 11 commissioned works.
This year’s edition of the festival is focused on “Ritual.” In the Philippine context, ethnic rituals require a priestess who will “perform the role” of the gods to become objects of prayer and help us navigate through every event of human life: birth, courtship, harvest, marriage, sickness, death. The festival presents the evolution and universality of this ritual, distilling it into the elements of time (duration), artefact (costume, installation, symbolic objects, clothing), and gesture (expressive movement, charged stillness). By gathering creators from a range of artistic disciplines and vivid cultural hues, and having them explore and expand the possibilities of performance, we become able to inspect together what it means to be human during these complicated, uncertain time.
The festival opened with a commissioned performance titled “Mepaan” (meaning “always” in Kayan language). Set in the cavernous steel and concrete hall of Pasir Panjang Power Station, the Singapore Chinese Orchestra and Tuyang Initiative (a Sarawak-based creative agency focused on Borneo indigenous cultural heritage) wove together indigenous music and vocal tradition from Southeast Asian cultures. The transcendent blend of sound was juxtaposed against kaleidoscopic images of flora and fauna by Singaporean photographer Sean Lee and Sarawak-based filmmaker Harry Frederick.
McRae echoes the spirit of the festival, an attempt to manifest the new attitudes needed for a post-COVID world: “I am definitely keen on disrupting disciplines and creating."
The ethereal sense of the performance was made tangible through the textures and colors of the costumes created by Singaporean fashion designer Max Tan; while set designer Wong Chee Wai, lighting designer Andy Lim and multimedia artist Brian Gothong Tan meticulously welded together every single element on stage, binding the audience for an hour and 15 minutes in a sensory spell.
The performance was a testament to the role of cultural heritage as a potent source for creating new and original art. According to Henneige, who was also the director for Mepaan, Tuyang practitioners were not originally performers for the stage and what they shared with us was largely just how they were as a community. Henneige says that sympathetic communication was central to bringing different cultures together in a thriving counterpoint. She sees her role as director as facilitating a sense of respect, allowing two different voices to shine: “For me, it is the act of really listening and understanding each other in order for distinct cultures to find their nuanced space.”
Also set in Pasir Panjang Power Station is “Devil’s Cherry,” a commissioned theatrical performance created by Kaylene Tan and Paul Rae. It is an immersive audio and visual experience narrating the story of Debbie and Mo, a couple pursuing the universal dream of escape. From the small city state of Singapore, they set off on a road trip to Australia only to discover that freedom is more elusive than they thought. Instead, they find themselves contending with the ghosts of the landscape and of their own past.
Inside the expanse of the old Power Station, the characters present a hallucinatory collision of domestic life and the mythical world. The choice of actors provided the show a multilayered representation of the characters: experienced comedy actors Lim Kay Siu, Neo Swee Lim, new-generation actor Elizabeth Sergeant Tan, mohiniyattam-trained Indian-Australian queer dancer Raina Peterson. The experience blends striking visuals by Andy Lim and Wong CHee Wai with immersive spatial audio by Darius Kedros and C.W. Stoneking.
“Delicate Spells of Mind” is one of the works accessible through SIFA’s virtual platform. It is a performance film commissioned from renowned sci-fi artist and body architect Lucy McRae. The project is a personal confession of how the mind operates during the process of becoming: it shows a conflict of two entities, one persona attempting to stay clear from pain and error and the other tugging from the opposite direction. Every second of the film is thoughtfully packed to the brim with imagery, symbols, offering a vast scope for interpretation of what “becoming” is for the viewer. This possibility of multiple meanings implies that the ideas that are conjured by the film — be it humanity, or technology, or ethics, or consciousness — naturally intersect with one another.
Embracing the signs of the times, McRae let precariousness play a seminal role on the day of filming. “We knew we had a building, we knew we had very talented dancers, a very talented choreographer, and a really incredible team and crew — but the art is made on the day (of the shoot) and you hope that, on that day, the spirit of intuition shows up and everybody communes with it and creates something that has transformed from the rehearsals.”
McRae echoes the spirit of the festival, an attempt to manifest the new attitudes needed for a post-COVID world: “I am definitely keen on disrupting disciplines and creating, merging different genres or styles of art to create something new. I particularly feel that our approach to the future needs to be hybrid. It can’t be what we have done before. It needs to really rethink and to pioneer; and that requires risk-taking and not knowing.”