SINGAPORE: With its jaw-dropping aerial and light spectacles, unusual family-friendly performances, and convivial atmosphere, the annual Singapore Night Festival (SNF) is undoubtedly one of the most highly anticipated events in the local calendar.
And according to festival director Angelita Teo, what really makes the festival tick isn’t the amazing things visitors can see – but the visitors themselves.
“It’s really the people who come back time and again. It takes effort to come to the middle of town and say, ‘I will be a part of this thing’.”
Indeed, the public has embraced the festival through the years. From a crowd of around 60,000 during its inaugural edition in 2008, last year’s SNF drew more than 500,000 people to the National Museum of Singapore (NMS) and its neighbours in the Bras Basah Bugis Precinct.
What started as a means of attracting more audiences to NMS and creating buzz around the area has evolved into something more.
This year, the festival celebrates its 10th edition. Running over two weekends, the first one kicks off on Fri (Aug 18) and will feature its Night Lights, an array of light installations. Starting from Aug 24, there are also performances of all kinds.
“Back then, it was a steep learning curve for all of us. But we saw the potential to have a larger, more mass appeal, right from the beginning,” recalled Teo, who has been involved with the festival from the beginning – first, as a deputy director at NMS and, later, as the museum’s director.
“The audience was easier to wow,” she recalled, with a laugh. “It was a very new concept and people were seeing a lot of things for the first time. Even for ourselves, we had never seen the National Museum as a backdrop for an aerial performance. When (Italian group) Studio Festi started flying across the building (in 2008), everybody was so silent.”
That wasn’t the only main difference, she joked. “People weren’t looking through their phones then! Then in 2012, I remember one performance where all I could see were lights from handphones – a whole sea of handphone screens. It was completely different!”
According to Teo, this year’s edition marks the end of a chapter. And while she’s keeping mum about SNF’s next phase, she revealed that the next editions will all be about “creativity and innovation”.
But the future of SNF can wait. As audiences plan their trips for this weekend and the next, here’s a cheat-sheet looking at some of the most memorable moments from the last 10 editions.
1. THE OUTDOOR SPECTACLE
The Singapore Night Festival wasn’t the first to bring huge spectacles outdoors – Chingay does it, and earlier editions of the Singapore Arts Festival did so, too. What SNF did was make it bigger and better, and gave pedestrians a reason to walk around. Streets were closed off to traffic (so much so that now you even have bicycle trails), glowing art installations were set up everywhere, thanks to Night Lights, and when you’re not looking around you, you’re staring up at the sky. From 2008’s The Dancing Sky with its planets, ships and dancers, to last year’s weird monsters parading down the streets in Invasion, the festival has given us some truly memorable images.
2. FUN WITH FACADES
Nowadays, art projections on the facades of buildings are everywhere – hello, National Gallery Singapore and Civic District Outdoor Festival – but it was SNF that made it de rigueur. Right from the very beginning, NMS and SAM’s facades became a digital canvas. They told stories, melted and morphed into different shapes, and generally mesmerised passers-by. And it has even gone beyond buildings – even trees aren’t safe, such as 2014’s Divine Trees which saw haunting faces looming over everyone.
3. PRO-WRESTLERS AND BOXERS
Witnessing Angela Lee take to the ring in an MMA match out in the streets may still be far-fetched, but that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been any action taking place. In 2010, the festival introduced boxing and muay thai practitioners, while Singaporean pro-wrestlers bodyslammed each other to the crowd’s delight three years ago. The latter will be back next week, on Aug 24 and 25 at the SMU Campus Green.
4. POLE DANCERS
Pole dancing might be a regular hobby these days, but when it first started, it took a while before it caught on with the mainstream. The festival presented performances by enthusiasts from Bobbi’s Pole Studio in 2014 and it returns again over the next couple of weekends at The Brass Barre.
5. INSTANT POETRY
The Proletariat Poetry Factory is known for whipping up instant poems at various events, such as the Singapore Writers Festival. In 2015, they set up camp at Centre 42 and, with their old-school typewriters, wrote verses for audiences who made the detour for their one-of-a-kind memento of the night. They’ll be back again next weekend, at Centre 42’s Late-Night Texting event, which will also include 30 performances by groups such as Dark Matter Theatrics and Main Tulis Group.
6. CIRCUS ACTS
International acrobats, jugglers, contortionists and the like are almost regular performers at the festival. But the third edition, concocted by Singaporean director Ong Keng Sen, had something way different – an actual circus troupe from our part of the world. Cambodia’s Phare Ponleu Selpak featured 13 young circus artists who juggled, balanced, and contorted to the delight of audiences. And that was just one aspect of a Southeast Asian-flavoured edition, which also saw acts from the Philippines, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam. Singapore was represented by Vertical Submarine’s cheeky “Abusement Park”. That edition also saw something special: A performance of the ancient Malay theatre form Mak Yong from practitioners in the neighbouring Riau Islands. Circus performances would later pop up, such as during the 2012 edition, courtesy of the homegrown Circus Swingapore, the country’s only school of circus acts.
7. DRAG QUEENS
That same circus-themed year also saw a performance that totally glammed it up – New Zealand’s The Island Divas performed their brand of drag artistry-meets-traditional island dancing. And performers had names such as Tess Tickle, Buckwheat Von Duckfee and Shanene. Five years later, in 2015, Singapore’s own drag powerhouses took to the stage: Comedy icon Kumar presented House Of Glamour while the feisty-fun Becca D’Bus brought his rebellious show Riot! to a bigger mainstream audience (albeit only at 1am).
8. MANUAL SMS PRE-SOCIAL MEDIA
The past few years have seen the Singapore Night Festival come into its own as an Instagrammer’s paradise. But again, in 2010, an installation predicted all of this social media madness – in a manner of speaking. Thai artist Wit Pimkanchanapong’s tongue-in-cheek World’s Slowest SMS Billboard comprised a huge board on which people’s messages were manually posted for all the world to see – a throwback to the days when people weren’t so caught up in their phone screens and actually stopped to enjoy the sights in front of them.
9. MAGIC BABE NING AND JC SUM
Through the years, the festival’s highlight acts have primarily been aerial spectacles by international artists. That changed in 2013, when Magic Babe Ning Cai and JC Sum, the homegrown duo of illusionists, were given a chance to shine as the closing acts. In front of the National Museum, the couole became the first tandem to do a straitjacket escape high up in the air, while Cai also attempted an underwater escape. “People still remember both so I’m deeply honoured,” recalled Cai. “The crowd was about 16,000, more than the 12,000 I had for a previous public performance where I teleported cross-country with a car. It was wonderful that the organisers wanted local artistes as their closing highlight.”
10. PUNK ROCKERS
The annual festival is perhaps the most mainstream of all of Singapore’s countless festivals, but that doesn’t mean there’s no space for local subcultures. While the main venues regularly open up to local musical acts, including alternative bands, The Substation has gamely provided punks and performance artists, among others, with space for their creative expressions with events such as the Tribal Gathering Of Jaw Benders, which featured the likes of The Observatory, Distrust, The Psalms, and more. In 2015, punk culture was put in the spotlight in Armenian Street. This year, The Substation is also holding a “post-punk” showcase during the second weekend.