When Gaurav Kripalani was first announced as the new Festival Director of the Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA) four years ago, he had his fair share of skeptics and critics. But under his vision, it seemed pretty clear what he wanted to do with our national arts festival during his stint – cater to the widest number of people as possible through a varied number of shows, and make it as inclusive a festival as possible.
Four years on, and we’ve seen Gaurav tide through those initial doubts and prove the naysayers wrong, with the SIFA team programming stellar festivals. Each one promised to supersede the last, by bringing in the very best of the world’s artists, giving local artists an opportunity to explore and present new work, and of course, provide a spectrum of experiences that would draw in the audiences, both seasoned arts attendees, and curious new onlookers dazzled by the spectacle of large-scale outdoor installations.
In fact, the 2020 line-up was already planned to end off Gaurav’s stint with a triumphant final edition, which would have even included not one, not two, but four Singapore commissions that would be making their world premieres. Alas, with the pandemic, all plans fell through, and a complete restructuring and set of measures had to be put in place to deal with the new restrictions on live performances.
That was what resulted in the interim SIFA v2.020, which saw a plethora of online work fill the festival-shaped hole left behind by the pandemic. But never did the festival stop trying to make live events happen again, and as we entered Phase 3 of our Circuit Breaker, we saw the festival tentatively re-introduce in-venue performances and experiences once again, pre-empting the public for the festival’s return in 2021.
Festival Director Gaurav Kripalani
All of those challenges have led up to this point: a hybrid programme of both online and live works that would bring us to the end of Gaurav Kripalani’s extended four-year tenure as Festival Director in 2021. Knowing that a pandemic was still in place, the programme was even calculated to prepare for any unforeseen circumstances, be it international artists unable to attend, or if live performances faced a shutdown again.
And while they were hopeful for a full festival, their predictions proved right, with the return to a pseudo-lockdown via Heightened Alert measures in May, coinciding precisely with SIFA 2021’s run. While it was certainly disappointing that the total number of attendees for live shows faced new limitations, the team was prepared to face these, adapting to all the changes and new measures in place, from implementing pre-event testing at their sites, to shifting certain events exclusively to video-on-demand.
The result was a triumph for arts festivals, showcasing that it was completely possible to hold a working, inclusive, all-encompassing programme safely, even in the midst of a pandemic. Everything kicked off with the unprecedented three-way collaboration between Singapore Repertory Theatre, Pangdemonium and Wild Rice, as the three artistic directors came together for The Commission, a live theatre follow-up to 2020 short film The Pitch. Each sharing their stories about how they came to become artistic director of their respective companies, The Commission was a sobering but inspiring look at theatremaking, and a reminder about how art perseveres even in the toughest of times.
Above all, the four local commissions programmed for the 2020 edition saw their time in the spotlight at last. Even more impressive – in spite of being unable to produce the shows in 2020, the team were paid their dues, and SIFA continued to support them throughout this entire period to make sure that all the effort going into producing each show did not go to waste.
Three Sisters, Nine Years Theatre’s (NYT) highly anticipated collaboration with New York’s SITI company, was one of this year’s most ambitious projects, in part as it would have marked the latter’s final production as a company. Alas, with SITI unable to fly over, the companies adapted by presenting them onscreen as part of a ‘memoryscape’ instead. While the final adaptation proved somewhat unwieldy, one could see how much effort the cast from NYT exerted onstage, with the final production an interesting first step for NYT experimenting with technology.
The Necessary Stage’s (TNS) The Year of No Return, on the other hand, had a similar issue with NYT, where their varied international cast were unable to be physically present for the performance. To circumvent the issue, TNS utilised an ensemble to fill the space, while their international cast also proved that just because one pre-records a segment, doesn’t mean it has to sound like a dramatised reading, with creative use of video and multimedia projection.
Toy Factory’s Dream Under The Southern Bough came to its visually spectacular finale with Existence, presenting a whopping 18 cast members onstage at the Drama Centre Theatre, a rare sight in these pandemic times, and made good on the company’s promise to adapt the classic work in its entirety for a modern audience with the strongest showing amidst the trilogy.
But it was The Finger Players’ OIWA – The Ghost of Yotsuya that left us floored by how they outdid themselves yet again, elevating their puppetry and artistry yet again in a five star adaptation of the classic ghost story in all its glory.
Even amidst the more fringe-style works, several stood out as innovative pieces that struck us with their creativity and the imagination that went into them. Tania El Khoury’s Gardens Speak sound installation was a chance to hear the last vestiges of the dead in Syria, while The Observatory crafted an entire trippy VR installation for their album Demon States.
Ambulatory experience En Route may have taken place in the tourist district of Singapore, but led us to new paths and looking beyond the surface, thanks to a well-curated route and soundtrack specifically created for Singapore.
Meanwhile, 600 Highwaymen’s A Thousand Ways trilogy may have been cut short by the pandemic, but in the two works we experienced, we left re-learning how to connect with a complete stranger, after a year of social distancing.
While not as large scale as the other local commissions, Zeugma emerged with one of our favourite works of the festival, and took us into a dystopian near future with _T0701_, effectively combining technophobia and superstition into a short, sharp production that put a distinctly Malay spin on speculative fiction.
It would be all too easy to feel fatigued by the plethora of online work over the last year, but The Journey had Scott Silven work his magic and helped us feel we were transported to the moors of the Scottish highlands, and almost like we were with our fellow audience members in the same room. Even with a work like Basel Zaara’s As Far As Isolation Goes, for those 15 minutes on Zoom, we felt momentarily connected with the struggles of refugees adapting to life in a new country, made even more significant by our own experiences of isolation during lockdown.
And finally, even the culinary arts weren’t forgotten, where the SIFA team made it feel like we were together sharing a meal as we prepared and ate mee siam at home, while enjoying an afternoon chat between Gaurav and chef Justin Quek during From Mee To You.
When SIFA 2021 reached its end on 30th May, those who hadn’t managed to get tickets to the live experiences could still watch almost the entire suite of programmes via VOD. SIFA’s Singular Screens film programme, with its eclectic line-up of art and indie films was made available to watch from the comfort of home. Operatic performances and concerts did not have to go gently into the darkness, but found new life, with well-recorded videos of their performances, with clear audio and crisp image quality. Even stage performances benefited from the close-ups of actors, with The Finger Players’ OIWA – The Ghost of Yotsuya, offering three different camera angles that they could toggle between during the performance, adding a layer of interactivity and choice beyond passive viewing.
And just looking at the sheer diversity of shows alone, whether dealing with climate change, war, mindfulness, existence or human vice, it was clear that the SIFA team had done their best to tackle a range of issues, topics, mediums, artists and audience appeal in this year’s edition. Even with one challenge after another thrown at the team, they were determined to steer this ship through the storm, and reached the end of this long journey under Gaurav’s directorship.
From 2018 to 2021, SIFA became the people’s arts festival, where some of the most innovative performances, creative artists and groundbreaking work was brought to our little red dot. Whatever lies ahead for 2022 and beyond, we’ll have to wait and see what incoming Festival Director Natalie Hennedige has to bring. But for now at least, it’s time to close this chapter in SIFA’s history, and be so proud of our country for having put up an arts festival of such quality and scale in the midst of a global pandemic.
The 2021 Singapore International Festival of Arts ran from 14th to 30th May 2021, with shows available as video on demand from 5th to 20th June 2021. More information available here