SIFA On Demand: 7 Festival Commissions To Watch
When Gaurav Kripalani took the helm of the Singapore International Festival of Arts (Sifa) from its 2018 edition, his three-year arc as festival director was inspired by three guiding principles: to present game-changing artists, to provide opportunities for Singapore artists to stage unprecedented work, and to encourage collaboration between local and international artists.
The fruits of this vision came in the form of four commissioned productions: Three Sisters by Nine Years Theatre, Oiwa – The Ghost of Yotsuya by The Finger Players and The Year of No Return by The Necessary Stage, which featured collaborations with international artists, as well as the final instalment of the three-part festival commission, A Dream Under the Southern Bough: Existence by Toy Factory Productions. The works of these homegrown theatre companies were developed and incubated over the period of two to three years, with their world premieres planned for the 2020 edition of the festival.
Unfortunately, the pandemic put a spanner in the works and Sifa 2020 was cancelled. Kripalani’s three-year tenure was extended for another year with the 2021 edition. But two days after Sifa 2021 opened in mid-May this year, Singapore introduced further restrictions under Phase 2 heightened alert to mitigate the spread of Covid-19. Even so, all four festival commissions—along with the others commissioned for Sifa 2021 (excluding The Rhythm of Us by Singapore Dance Theatre and Singapore Symphony Orchestra, which was cancelled)—still made it to the stage, but capacity was capped to 100 audience members for each live show.
If you missed these productions live on stage, you can now watch the recorded performances online from June 5, with video-on-demand access on Sistic Live. Sifa On Demand has also been extended till June 20. With Sifa 2021, Kripalani reimagined a “phygital” festival for the future, and Sifa On Demand only seeks to increase the festival’s reach to both local and international audiences.
Here are seven productions featuring some of Singapore’s best talents to watch.
1/7 A Dream Under the Southern Bough: Existence by Toy Factory Productions
Directed by Toy Factory Productions chief artistic director Goh Boon Teck, this three-part contemporary adaptation of Ming playwright Tang Xianzu’s famous Kun opera, A Dream Under the Southern Bough, culminates in the final act subtitled Existence. Goh continues to build upon the previous acts, presented at the 2018 and 2019 editions of the festival, taking audiences on a fantastical journey through the main character’s dream.
The motif of reflection is incorporated in this final performance mirroring reality setting in. “Existence is a serendipitous mirror that parallels the current reality of our own world. The pandemic invading our lives like a black bad dream—shaking our world of convenient conventions into a world of imposing introspection. It greatly inspired us to become mindful artists who think deeply about our intention, the time and the limited resources we have, before creating art that is sacred to us, for the world,” Goh explains.
Related: Gaurav Kripalani Steers The Singapore International Festival Of Arts In A New Direction
2/7 Oiwa – The Ghost of Yotsuya by The Finger Players
In the retelling of this age-old Japanese ghost story, The Finger Players, led by director and playwright Chong Tze Chien, brings together Singaporean and Japanese actors to play two parts of a whole—a voice emanates from one, while movement arises from the another—culminating in an intimate choreography.
Chong explains, “What intrigued me the most about the story, Oiwa – The Ghost of Yotsuya, is that it is based on real historical events and people, a veritable true ghost story if the legends and urban myths are to be believed. At the heart of the story is a woman scorned; her trauma and grief have reverberated across centuries, so much so that it has to be appeased today in the form of a shrine dedicated to her.”
In his reimagination of the tale, “Oiwa tells her story from her own perspective, along with her husband’s so that the audience can make an objective assessment on both protagonists”.
3/7 The Commission by Singapore Repertory Theatre, Wild Rice and Pangdemonium
Singapore Repertory Theatre’s Gaurav Kripalani, Wild Rice’s Ivan Heng and Pangdemonium’s Adrian Pang collaborated for the first time last year in the short film The Pitch directed by Ken Kwek.
The artistic directors of the three leading theatre companies in Singapore have joined forces once again this year, bringing their sharp wit and explosive chemistry on stage at the Wild Rice @ Funan for The Commission. Written by Kwek and directed by Pangdemonium’s artistic director Tracie Pang, the play within a play takes a tongue-in-cheek look at how theatre companies are managing the fall-out from Covid-19.
Related: 5 Facets Of The New Wild Rice At Funan That Make It Truly A Home For Singapore Theatre
4/7 The Rhythm of Us by Singapore Dance Theatre and Singapore Symphony Orchestra
While the live performance of The Rhythm of Us, the much-anticipated collaboration between the Singapore Dance Theatre (SDT) and the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO), was cancelled due to Covid-19 restrictions, the two renowned cultural institutions will be working on a recording of this three-part production, which will be made available on Sifa On Demand from June 13 to 20.
The performance kicks off with SSO principal cellist Ng Pei Sian and SDT principal dancer Chihiro Uchida performing William Walton’s Passacaglia for Cello, with movement choreographed by SDT artistic director Janek Schergen. Renowned American choreographer Pam Tanowitz takes over with movement set to Henry Cowell’s Variations on Thirds, performed by SDT dancers who are accompanied by an SSO string ensemble. The production wraps up with a new commission by Singaporean jazz pianist, composer and arranger Chok Kerong and Singaporean choreographer Christina Chan featuring 20 musicians and 10 dancers.
Tanowitz, who is presenting her work for the first time to Singapore audiences, choreographed her piece remotely through Zoom. “When Gaurav asked me [to be part of this project], I thought, ‘I don’t know if I could pull it off—I don’t know how’. But it made me want to try. I’ve done a number of things online, but I’ve never made a new piece like this with dancers I’ve never met before. So this is a totally new experience for me—and I’m always up for that. A lot of my work is about dancers in a room—and I get a lot of information from them. While articulating movement over zoom is tedious, the SDT dancers are incredible. Interestingly enough, I feel like I can get to know them, only that it’s just a little bit slower through Zoom.”
Schergen agrees, “It has certainly made us flexible. The ways we always did things before, you have to sort of challenge them. It might have been comfortable before but it’s time to learn something new now.”
5/7 The Year of No Return by The Necessary Stage
Pandemic or not, the issue of climate change should still remain high on everyone’s list. The Necessary Stage is using the stage at its platform to address the global environmental crisis from an Asian perspective, backed by science and statistics, along with conversations with researchers and scientists.
Featuring actors from four Asian countries, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore, The Year of No Return seeks to uncover humanity’s response to climate change and looks at the role of the arts when it comes to the discourse on critical social issues. Are we living in an age of despair? Or can we find light in the dark?
Related: Singapore Theatre Directors Discuss the Changing Face of Live Productions in 2021
6/7 Three Sisters by Nine Years Theatre and Siti Company
Singapore Mandarin theatre company Nine Years Theatre, and New York-based Siti Company, which is founded by theatre luminaries Anne Bogart and Tadashi Suzuki, mark a new milestone in their 15-year relationship—from teacher-student to theatre contemporaries and friends, and now collaborators—with this multilingual adaptation of Russian playwright Anton Chekhov’s seminal play Three Sisters.
Nine Years Theatre’s artistic director Nelson Chia, who helms the Singapore creative team, shares, “I’ve always loved the script for its universality. Chekhov didn’t just write it for Russians, he wrote it for humanity. I wanted to do a Chekhov play but I’m not satisfied with just doing it with my own company because I know how it will be made. I needed something that will force me to rethink the Chekhov that I know—and the opportunity to do this collaboration with Siti Company came along.”
Bogart, the co-artistic director of Siti Company, explains: “I think the secret sauce to good work in the theatre is time. When things marinate over time, such as a relationship between the two companies, you can feel it in the performance, even though we’re doing it in this crazy way [due to Covid-19 restrictions]. The time that we’ve all shared not only training but the development of what it means to be an ensemble.”
Incorporating both the Suzuki method of actor training and the Viewpoints method conceptualised by Bogart into Nine Years Theatre’s training regimen, Three Sisters also represents Chia’s journey as an artist and director coming full circle. For Siti Company, international cultural exchanges and collaborations have been central to its work over the past 30 years. Bogart shares, “I think I share with Siti Company the feeling that I've only grown as an artist by being in other places—and it's only through crossing boundaries that one can develop.”
7/7 _T0701_ by Zeugma
Inspired by modern life, _T0701_ is an experimental theatrical production by Singapore-based artist collective Zeugma that chronicles the everyday struggles of a delivery rider who uses an illegally modified motorised personal mobility device (PMD) to navigate through the real and virtual worlds. Financial incentives and social media ratings give the protagonist hope for the future, even as he is evading the authorities due to his PMD. But what is real and what is not? The lines are not clearly defined anymore.
Related: Meet Asia’s Most Influential: The Culture List 2021
SIFA On Demand runs from June 5 to 20 on Sistic Live. Visit sifa.sg for the latest updates and to purchase tickets.