Singapore International Festival of Arts 2021: A 'Phygital' Festival Reimagined for the Future
Update: Based on the latest advisories, the Singapore International Festival of Arts (Sifa) has made adjustments to some programmes in its opening weekend line-up by capping capacity at 100 for selected shows and reducing capacity to 50 at the Oldham Theatre. A refund exercise based on the date of purchase has also been implemented due to the reduced capacity, and patrons affected by the reductions have been contacted by Sifa’s ticketing agent, Sistic. There will also be a venue change for Cosmogony, which will now be taking place indoors at the Esplanade Theatre, from May 14 to 16. The programme is free with registration.
When the Singapore International Festival of Arts (Sifa) was forced to take a hiatus last year in light of Covid-19, the organisers wasted no time in programming Sifa v2.020. Not only did the series of curated virtual events comprising talks, workshops and performances engaged and entertained audiences during the pandemic, but it also provided valuable lessons for when it came time to reimagine an arts festival for the future.
“One of the things that this pandemic has brought on is it has shown the resilience and creativity that is possible within the arts,” says Gaurav Kripalani, whose three-year tenure as festival director was extended for another year. “When some of the best artists around the world found that they could not present their work physically in a theatre, they were able to adapt and present their work online and in a hybrid manner.”
Featuring a line-up of 60 shows and 300 performances, including a bumper crop of eight festival commissions, presented over 16 days, from May 14 to 30, Sifa 2021 returns with a hybrid format, comprising live and digital programmes and, at times, a blend of both. Many of these programmes showcase works created in response to the here and now. Kripalani cites Scottish illusionist and mentalist Scott Silven’s The Journey. When it no longer became possible to perform the original show with 30 people sitting at a long dining table during a three-course meal, the performance artist created a new show for the digital stage. The 30 people are now invited to travel virtually across the globe to his home in rural Scotland while exploring the transformative power of place.
Besides presenting a spectrum of works for diverse audiences, Kripalani has also stayed true to the vision he shaped from his first edition of the festival in 2018 by providing opportunities for Singapore artists to produce original works as well as encouraging collaborations between local and international artists.
One such collaboration at Sifa 2021 is the festival commission between Singapore’s Nine Years Theatre, and New York-based Siti Company, which is co-founded by theatre luminaries Anne Bogart and Tadashi Suzuki. Transcending language, cultures, geographical space and generations, the two companies—which have developed a close relationship of over 15 years—will present a Chinese-English adaptation of Russian playwright Anton Chekov’s Three Sisters, while utilising digital technology to create a part-live-part-digital performance.
Kripalani explains, “Both companies are masters at using Suzuki’s method of acting to stage their works. Sifa presented Suzuki’s Dionysus in 2019, so audiences will get to see a continuation of the programming arcs, where one of the best companies in the US and in Singapore [will both] utilise his technique.” In fact, international cultural exchanges and collaborations have been part of the Siti Company’s DNA, and this production marks its return to the stage during the pandemic as well as its 30th and final season before taking a final bow in 2022. Even so, its teaching and training work will still continue.
When Artistic Minds Connect
And then there is the collaboration between two cultural gems: the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) and the Singapore Dance Theatre (SDT) in their first live collaboration—at least in a while no thanks to their packed performing calendars. The Rhythm of Us is a three-part production featuring new choreography by SDT artistic director Janek Schergen, homegrown choreographer Christina Chan and special guest choreographer Pam Tanowitz, along with a new commission by Singaporean jazz pianist, composer and arranger Chok Kerong.
Tanowitz has had to create the work through Zoom video sessions, which was unprecedented even for the famed US choreographer. Schergen enthuses, “Pam Tanowitz has managed to do a great deal without being physically present with us. Digital [technology] gave us an option to explore this possibility, but it will never replace one-on-one, in-person communication between a dancer and a choreographer. Movement, at its most physical, is about energy and space and those things are muted in digital communication. That said, the dancers with their abilities, and Pam’s choreographic craft, have made a one-of-a-kind new work.”
For SSO director of artistic planning, Hans Sorensen, such cross-disciplinary collaborations delight more than just the audiences. “Putting music together with other art forms brings new experiences, not only for the audience but also for the SSO musicians.”
One production that will surely find favour with Sifa audiences this year is The Commission, a sharp satire on theatre-making in a pandemic by the three leading theatre companies here: Pangdemonium, Wild Rice and Singapore Repertory Theatre—cheekily dubbed Singapore Ricepertory Pangedewildium. Their artistic directors Adrian Pang, Ivan Heng and Kripalani, respectively, star in this sequel to the short film The Pitch, which saw them collaborate for the first time last year.
Sifa 2021 also sees the world premieres of works—all festival commissions—by other homegrown companies such as The Necessary Stage’s The Year of No Return, Toy Factory Productions’ A Dream Under the Southern Bough: Existence, and The Finger Players’ Oiwa – The Ghost of Yotsuya. The retelling of the famous ghostly legend of Oiwa features both Singaporean and Japanese actors, and director and playwright Chong Tze Chien has never been more ready to stage a show. “For such a complex intercultural work, we require time and thankfully we were given three years (or four due to the postponement of Sifa last year) to mount this play. And here we are with [a production featuring] refined and intricate design elements that our designers and artisans have devoted to making and constructing over the past two years.”
With travel restrictions still very much in place in Singapore and around the world, Sifa 2021 seeks to bring the world to Singapore and vice versa through artistic encounters such as Lebanese-British artist Tania El Khoury’s Gardens Speak, an immersive sound installation on stories from the 2011 Syrian uprising; Australian performance artist Sophia Brous’ The Invisible Opera, which invites participants to see the city in a new light; and Swiss contemporary dance group Cie Gilles Jobin presents a large-scale live dance work onto the façade of the Victoria Theatre and Victoria Concert Hall with Cosmogony.
In a 2018 interview with Tatler Singapore for his first edition of Sifa, Kripalani highlighted how he hoped the festival can play a big part in Singapore’s growth as a cosmopolitan city: “Wouldn’t it be great if people said, ‘I go to Singapore every year because they have some of the best art in the world’. While such a dream might be put on hold for now, Sifa On Demand, the post-festival programme with video-on-demand access, from June 5 to 12, seeks to increase the festival’s reach to both local and international audiences.
Pandemic aside, how close are we to achieving this dream? “I think we are a generation away,” says Kripalani. “But I hope in the next 10 to 20 years, we would have grown Singapore into the cultural capital of Asia. If you look at the exponential growth of the arts scene over the past 20 years, we’re definitely heading in the right direction to achieve this goal. I’m very excited to see what the next 20 years will bring.” And so are we.