A festive future

By Chen Jie ( China Daily ) Updated: 2012-06-01 09:07:33
A festive future

The Singapore Arts Festival attracts people from all walks of society. Photos Provided to China Daily

A festive future

The ongoing Singapore Arts Festival is full of surprises and suggests arts festivals can be inclusive and fun rather than exclusive and dull. Chen Jie feels the vibe.

Frankly, I wasn't expecting much from the Singapore Arts Festival. And when I told my colleagues about the invitation, their recommendation was to visit Night Safari, which features encounters with wild animals in the dark. However, the 35th Singapore Arts Festival was so full of pleasant surprises that I didn't have the time or inclination for the Night Safari experience. Another invitation, to interview the event's general manager, didn't appeal to me either, since I generally find talking to artistic directors more useful. But as soon as I saw Low Kee Hong at the Festival Village in Esplanade Park, I revised my opinion. He was nothing like the usual government official (even though the arts festival is organized by the government's National Arts Council), or promoter, who only cares about sponsorship and the number of tickets sold.

Instead of a black suit and somber appearance the 41-year-old had a Mohawk haircut, wore trendy, baggy jodhpurs and basketball sneakers without socks.

He sweated in the summer sun, introduced passersby to free events and hung around in the Esplanade Theatre lobby.

More like an artist than a "big boss", Low was a trained ballet dancer, an actor and set designer, before becoming artistic director of a theater company in 2002. He has a master's degree in sociology from the National University of Singapore and his thesis was on cultural policy.

In 2005, he became the first general manager of the Singapore Biennale and assumed his present position at Singapore Arts Festival in 2009.

But what impressed me most was his understanding of arts in general and arts festivals in particular.

"Singapore is very much a futurist nation. We are obsessed with progress and development. Our memories are often just 5 years old. Young people are not interested in tradition. Old buildings are torn down quickly every day," he says.

"My job is to make people discover and rethink our history and identity. When you become a cosmopolitan city, if you only talk about Starbucks, Gucci, Prada or Facebook, you are no different from any other cosmopolitan city."

That's why he envisioned Singapore Arts Festival 2010-12 as a trilogy, with three themes: "Between You and Me", "I Want to Remember" and "Our Lost Poems".

It sounded quite romantic to me, but Low responded: "This is not about nostalgia or about remembering the past in a romantic sense. It is all about excavating memories, histories and cultures that provide us with a reference point so that we anchor ourselves before moving on.

"We already have many big names and famous productions in Singapore. People go to the theater, watch the show, clap and go home. Nothing changes. For me, art is about illuminating perspectives - changing the way people think."

I understood what he meant when I hung out at the Festival Village, watching free shows by both professional and amateur performers and meeting friends.

On my second afternoon at the Festival Village, a grandmother in a pink T-shirt with the festival's logo came up to me and asked if I needed any help. It took me a while to realize she was a volunteer.

In Beijing, senior citizens put on red armbands and help out with traffic issues or community security. Helping out at an arts festival instead seems like a great idea.

"I come here every afternoon as a volunteer. I introduce the arts festival to visitors so I can enjoy performances myself," says Khoo Chee Nee, 66, a retired primary school teacher, who is part of the amateur Glowers Drama Group.

The group members are aged between 50 and 80 and gather once a week to dance and perform.

Glowers Drama Group was not the only group of seniors I met at the Festival. At Bridge Cafe, in Festival Village, 69-year-old Chow Choon Chong invited me to dance with him to Queen hits like We Are the Champion and We will Rock You.

I haven't danced in public for 12 years, since my graduation party. But I couldn't resist. It was hilarious.

At Bridge Cafe, old servers not only attended to tables but also danced every two hours. The idea is to create a platform for people to get connected.

"I love dancing. When my daughter heard of this project, she took me to the audition," Chow tells me. "We received training for 10 weeks. At first, some of the movements were difficult for people my age, though I go to the gym and jog every day. The most important thing is to enjoy it."

The Internet and social media have reduced direct interactions among individuals, comments Japanese choreographer Kim Itoh, who originally initiated this project at In Festival Tokyo in 2009 and has reprised it in Singapore.

"What is it for waiters to meet and dance with customers and support the project? There is a particular significance to encountering people with diverse interests and backgrounds, people you don't normally meet," Itoh says.

The Kids Arts Village is the heartbeat of the festival. There is even an advisory panel of seven under-12s, selected during 2011's festival. They curate the programs from singing to dancing, painting to installation.

All the programs at the Festival Village are free. Low says they did a survey in 2011 and it revealed 60 percent of the festival's audience members were first-timers, and a major motivation to attend was the "free" performances.

"But free does not mean low-quality," he emphasizes.

In addition to dancing with the wait staff, I got involved in another project, called An Umbrella For 2.

A girl and I shared a large umbrella and had an MP3 player and a set of headphones each. Then we set off for a walk downtown following the custom-made signs.

The sun was beating down. It was humid, and it was rush hour, between 5 pm to 6 pm. Even so, we held our umbrella and walked through the city to the Esplanade Theatre area, looking really silly.

In the headphones, I heard contextual music and talks blending real ambient sounds and acoustic changes of perspective.

The Singaporean girl I was walking with told me that even she had never been to some of the places along the "sound-walk" route we took.

While some people looked at us with curiosity, most did not notice and were clearly used to all kinds of bizarre behavior in this lively metropolitan setting.

Though I enjoyed the free projects, I should add that the ticketed drama A Language of Their Own was the best show I've seen in at least six months.

Four actors, in white shirts, white pants and bare feet, just walked and talked while crossing the stage. There were no physical interactions between them. Instead, they told stories to the audience, suggestive of relationships between men - which further suggested love between all couples and even a clash of cultures between East and West.

And so, I must say to Singapore - "between you and me" - I will remember with great affection everything that happened over those three days in May 2012.

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