SINGAPORE: From a free jazz concert at the Botanic Gardens, to site-specific shows at the Armenian Church grounds and the National Gallery Singapore, to even more events held at the Civic District – this year’s Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA) promises to be an intense 17-day experience when it kicks off earlier than usual in April.
The 41st edition of the national performing arts festival will run from April 26 to May 12. While SIFA was previously held around August, organisers decided to bring it forward to avoid the crowded events calendar during the latter part of the year.
Commissioned by the National Arts Council and organised by Arts House Limited, the festival will feature around 46 shows from 15 countries, including Singapore.
Highlights include acclaimed productions of George Orwell’s 1984 and Henrik Ibsen’s Enemy Of The People; and performances by YouTube sensation and two-time Grammy winner Jacob Collier, and India’s arts power couple, poet Javed Akhtar and actress Shabana Azmi.
Closing the festival will be the renowned Duke Ellington Orchestra, which will be performing with local jazz singers, at the Botanic Gardens.
This year marks the first festival helmed by new director Gaurav Kripalani, who will be helming three editions until 2020.
The artistic director of the Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT) takes over from theatre director Ong Keng Sen, who had given the festival a distinctly cutting-edge and avant-garde identity during his four-year tenure since 2014, when the old Singapore Arts Festival was relaunched as SIFA.
For the next three editions, Kripalani said the festival will be presenting shows that will appeal to a wide range of audiences.
“We wanted to make sure there were shows that would appeal to your first-time festival goer, shows that would cater to your seasoned arts lover, and make sure there’s a spectrum. There are different audiences who will want different things,” he said.
He cited as an example of SIFA's new approach the multiple events taking place during the opening weekend. There will be three simultaneous ticketed events to attract audiences of different persuasions: The poetry reading event by Akhtar and Azmi; the concert by 23-year-old Collier, whose music covers have garnered millions of views on social media; and the stage adaptation of Orwell’s 1984.
Of the decision to stage the latter as one of SIFA’s opening shows, Kripalani said: “The themes it deals with are probably among the most burning and pressing in the world today – fake news, state surveillance. There is a reason why it’s back on the bestseller list again.”
Aside from these, there will also be free outdoor performances at the Empress Lawn, such as a circus theatre piece by France’s Cirque Rouages, and music by the likes of Korean band Sultan Of The Disco, and pop-up dance performances.
Meanwhile, The Arts House will also be transformed for the first time into a SIFA hub called the Festival House. “It will be the heartbeat of the festival where masterclasses, workshops, talks, performances and collaborations will take place,” explained Kripalani.
Other SIFA acts include contemporary tap dance artist Michelle Dorrance, French dance company Ballet Preljocaj, and singer-songwriter Toshi Reagon.
Among the Singapore shows are Toy Factory’s reinvention of the Ming opera epic A Dream Under The Southern Bough; and collaborations between SA, NADA and Brandon Tay, among others.
A new Monuments series will see local artists presenting works at some national monuments sites: Zelda Tatiana Ng will present a piece tackling the death penalty at the National Gallery, while Kamini Ramachandran heads to Armenian Church with a storytelling piece.
Meanwhile, the artist collective Inter-Mission will be using virtual reality technology to allow audiences to explore a reimagined Civic District without its familiar landmarks.
And while Kripalani said they are still in talks with various local artists and groups for more Singapore productions for the next two editions, SIFA audiences can get a sneak peek at one of these: Checkpoint Theatre will talk about the process and research behind playwright Huzir Sulaiman’s new play for the 2019 edition.
When Kripalani’s appointment was first announced last year, there was much speculation regarding the direction in which he would be taking SIFA, especially after the experimental vision of the previous director.
At SRT, he had presented mainstream, crowd-pleasing fare such as the Shakespeare In the Park series, and productions like Forbidden City.
Festival organiser Arts House Limited’s chief executive Sarah Martin, who came on board before Kripalani, was also known for her past work as WOMAD music fest director and Singapore Grand Prix’s director of operations.
Both of them do not see the new festival direction as the complete reversal of the past four years.
“I very much see it as an evolution –it’s not pivoting 180 degrees,” said Kripalani.
Martin, who describes this year as the beginning of a “new era” for SIFA, pointed out that every festival director has put a stamp on their respective tenures. “This is a festival that has been evolving for four decades and not just the last four years. That’s the beauty of having different directors and why you have different phases of an arts festival,” she said.
She also pointed out how the new SIFA is building on the strengths of the previous editions, citing the previous pre-festival OPEN series of talks and workshops.
For the next three years, the festival will include a series of free talks, events and workshops that spin off from the festival line-up. For instance, a “book club” and a lecture will supplement the production of 1984, while there will be masterclasses based on the different dance productions.
One main issue that had cropped up during the previous SIFA editions was that of arts licensing. Former director Ong Keng Sen had raised concerns regarding the festival’s independence, and had clashed with authorities regarding a few shows.
The festival was not exempted from arts licensing during the past three years, but last year, NAC had announced the possibility of exemption from this year onwards.
But Martin clarified that this year’s SIFA will still have to apply for arts licensing for its shows.
She said that Arts House Limited, which runs the festival, will be looking to apply for a collective exemption across all its centres and programmes later this year.
It also manages other venues such as The Arts House, Aliwal Arts Centre, Goodman Arts Centre, the Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall, Drama Centre and the upcoming revamped Stamford Arts Centre.