Can smaller be better?

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 May, 2012, 12:00am


Not too long ago, the Singapore Arts Festival pulled in record-busting audience numbers with big-budget, high-profile foreign acts. Over the past decade, its roster boasted names such as Chinese composer Tan Dun, British pianist-composer Michael Nyman, Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato and Compania Nacional de Danza, and France-based theatre force Peter Brook.

Prestigious inter-festival co-productions also seemed the way to go, and mammoth productions - a Mahler symphony in 2004, for instance, involved more than 500 performers from Singapore, Beijing and Latvia - packed the houses and intoxicated the pragmatic masses of the Lion City.

But in its 35th year, the festival is a different animal - less that flamboyant, shimmering creature, more of an experimental yet down-to-earth being. This year's S$8 million (about HK$50 million) edition, organised by the National Arts Council (NAC), runs until June 2 - just 16 days, down from three weeks last year. Of the 80 productions this year, 66 are free, non-ticketed events, a sizing down from last year's 36 ticketed shows.

With the theme of 'Our Lost Poems', it is a carefully curated crop of mostly quirky, intimate shows, and just a few international big names - choreographer Akram Khan; director Stephen Earnhart adapting Japanese author Haruki Murakami - to hook your attention.

'These quirky projects do open up different doors for people to come and engage with the projects,' says Low Kee Hong, the festival's general manager since 2009, and the man mostly responsible for its changing focus in the past three years.

'We have very large projects, but we also have a lot more one-on-one experiential type things, because it just gives audiences a very different perspective on how they approach art and the festival. Gone are the days when you solely think of the usual festival-goer who goes to sit down in a concert hall. You're talking now about a whole range of individuals, whose daily existences are very different.'

So there's Ciudades Paralelas (Parallel Cities), a series of collaborations between Argentinian and Singaporean artists that play out as encounters in unexpected places: a blind musician on a rooftop; the channelled stories of chamber maids in a hotel room; and a glimpse into the mundanity of life on a factory production line. There's the Bridge Cafe Project, essentially a functioning pop-up cafe with an all-singing, all-dancing cast of waiters, a spin-off from Tokyo's popular Oyaji Cafe by choreographer Kim Itoh. The Best Sex I've Ever Had by Toronto-based Mammalian Diving Reflex is a 'party-performance' featuring only women performers and audience members, talking about, well, sex.

And to get people's blood pumping (literally), They Only Come At Night: Pandemic, British theatre company Slung Low's site-specific work, will have audience members role-playing as survivors trudging through an apocalyptic wasteland, as vampires close in on them.

The festival's back-to-Asia, back-to-basics approach is in part a response to the changing arts landscape in the republic. It was the only large-scale national arts showcase in the 1970s, but is now just one of a fast-increasing number of performance arts festivals in the Lion City, such as arts venue Esplanade's popular Huayi and Mosaic festivals, theatre company Wild Rice's Man Singapore Theatre Festival, and The Necessary Stage's M1 Singapore Fringe Festival.

'I tend to see all this less as competition, but more as an interesting change,' says Low, 41, who was an actor-director and general manager of the Singapore Biennale visual arts exhibition before helming the arts festival.

'We have to understand the stuff that all these other festivals are doing, so that we complement rather than compete.

'People still insist on a certain kind of content and programming, which is not commensurate for me with what is already in the landscape,' he says, in the NAC's offices housed in a former arts college building, 'I can't reconcile the logic; this is taxpayers' money, so why do you want to duplicate?'

The festival receives about 40 per cent of its funding from the government and 35 per cent from corporate sponsorship, with the remaining 25 per cent coming from ticketing and other income.

Still, the transition from blockbuster gala-circus to the staging of less obvious, riskier works has encountered various speed bumps and road blocks.

Local arts lovers and critics lobbed criticism at last year's festival, citing unfamiliar names, poor marketing and even a clash in timing with the general elections. Attendance bottomed out at 49,000, down from 80,000 in 2010 - with ticket sales for 35 productions standing at 50 per cent. In 2004, the event had a record audience of 900,000.

Critics say the festival might need to strike a balance between bold works that push the envelope and broaden minds, and populist offerings that put bums on seats. Even the festival website came in for a drubbing, with its categorising of offerings - under 'Sites', 'Sights', 'Sounds', 'Lost Languages' and 'Memories' - seen as confusing, as opposed to the more straightforward categories of music, theatre and dance in previous years.

The organisers have taken some of the feedback on board, and marketing material this year, while still whimsical and slightly enigmatic, is more to the point (members of its Arts Festival Club received a pamphlet mocked up to look like a newspaper, complete with fake news items related to the shows). A 30 per cent early bird discount for packages of two shows or more was dangled to help ticket sales along. And a lucky draw winner will get to watch all the shows in next year's festival for free (last year's winner was a 31-year-old teacher).

Yet, in conversation, Low's conviction in what he programmes comes through. The son of a wealthy orange importer, he was headed for medical school before his participation in a church musical steered him towards the arts.

He subsequently majored in sociology and social work at the National University of Singapore - a move, he says, which stands him in good stead with his present task of connecting with ordinary people, and quantifying the unquantifiable effect of the arts on their lives.

'We're talking about public good that needs to look at a certain advancement and development for Singaporeans. Making art integral in the life of every single Singaporean. Consumption [of the arts] has gone up over the years. But we are looking at participation, and how to sustain that,' he says.

Community has therefore become a buzzword: the Bridge Cafe will become a permanent outfit after the festival is over, and Advanced Studies in (Ten Lessons for Life), a series of one-on-one lessons taught by students aged 13 to 18, may continue after the festival, too.

'The festival needs to think of new approaches to engage community,' Low says. 'Continuing to do huge operas, flying them in ... I don't know how to spend that kind of money. You know what I mean?'