Drawing power from tradition and ceremony to herald the start of SIFA 2022.
Because of their historical and cultural significance, a ritual is often a powerful, sacred act of performance. At times celebratory, and at others a form of salvation, rituals form the heart of the 2022 Singapore International Festival of Arts, and are explicitly given the spotlight in Ceremonial Enactments, drawing strength from movement, staging and intent to produce a ceremony to herald the festival’s opening weekend.
Helmed by Festival Director Natalie Hennedige, Ceremonial Enactments commissions fashion label MAX.TAN, Malay percussion ensemble Nadi Singapura, and Indian classical dance company Bhaskar’s Arts Academy to each present a chosen ritual from various cultures, with a contemporary twist. While the three companies may seem disparate at first, Ceremonial Enactments manages to tie all three of their visions and performances into a mostly cohesive whole that focuses on showcasing how our cultural diversity and rich traditions can still have a place in contemporary Singapore.
Key to any ritual is the environment where it takes place, and the Esplanade Theatre, in all its grandeur, is an ideal location to perform these ceremonies. Beyond the size of the space however, set designer Randy Chan has opted to completely transform the theatre into a hallowed space, extending the stage beyond the confines of the proscenium that allows the performers to break the invisible wall between stage and audience. Flanked by wooden poles that remind us of more rural places and ancient times, this lengthy ‘runway’ stretches out from stage left into the seating area, and provides an opportunity to present processions of performers, like in a parade.
The stage is set, and the ceremony begins with Edith Podesta and Lian Sutton arriving in ceremonial costumes, walking the space and inspecting the audience and surroundings. Watching them watching us, there is an air of anticipation hanging in the atmosphere for what’s to come, as they approve of the conditions, the music begins, and Ceremonial Enactments commences.
Act I – ANG by MAX.TAN
All life begins with birth, and so does the beginning of Ceremonial Enactments. MAX.TAN’s ANG explores Chinese and Southeast Asian birth rituals, melding them with ideas of samsara and rebirth, the act of crafting, destroying and reconstructing fashion, while also being a tribute to Max’s mother.
ANG could be interpreted as an avant-garde fashion show, an opportunity for the label to present a multitude of designs linked by this common theme of birth and rebirth. As a designer, Max specialises in the art of draping, and onstage, demonstrates his unique methodology of cutting open holes in unusual places in the fabric, using the scars and shreds to form the basis of each new, fiercely individual garment. A similar idea is seen as a model, dancing in an inflated garment across the stage, eventually deflates after multiple holes cut into her outfit. The clothes however, are not ruined, but newly draped around her into wearable fashion, representing the cyclical nature of life and the hope of a sustainable fashion industry.
These cuts are also a reference to Cesarean birth, and segue into ANG’s tribute to Max’s mother – Ang Swee Haw. This is presented through documentary form, where we hear an interview between Max and his mother, reflecting on how they would carry on if either of them died. There is a strong narrative through line here that reflects the love Max and his mother share, and we wonder if death is truly the final frontier that severs all bonds. The performance culminates with Ang Swee Haw herself assisted onstage, a tiny, frail figure of a woman in black, standing opposite Max, about an arm’s length away, in white.
As Theresa Teng’s 我只在乎你 plays, a mass of models in red rapidly weave in and out between the two, representing blood ties, the rapid passage of time, and perhaps, the idea that the two are fated to remain in each other’s lives for all time, this life and the next, as long as it lasts. There is tenderness in the way they regard each other, a fear of losing each other, and one wonders if this show was a way for Max to cope with future grief, pre-empting death before it comes, and using fashion to see and understand our place in the great cycle of life.
As a fashion show, ANG is more conceptual in intent than ‘selling’ garments, with so many designs showcased that it is hard to admire the detail or form of any single piece. There are so many ideas and details that are encapsulated in ANG, that it is impossible to perceive them all upon first glance, beyond admiring the way the clothes flow, ethereal and otherworldly as they billow ever so slightly, before the models rush off for yet another costume change. However, where ANG succeeds is in showcasing the dramatic potential of fashion. By imbuing it with both personal history, cultural practices and religious philosophy, ANG shows that clothes are no longer just a way to cover the body, but costumes that hold symbolic significance through its intricate process of creation, weaving a love for design and the love between mother and son into a glorious tapestry onstage.
Act II: 293NW by Nadi Singapura
From the deeper, moodier musings on life and death in ANG, comes a complete tonal shift in Act II, with Nadi Singapura’s 293W, which captures one of the Malay community’s most recognisable ceremonies – the Malay wedding. Presenting it as a musical, Artistic Director Riduan Zalani takes on the role of narrator and sets the scene by poetically describing the significance of the wedding in Malay culture, tying it in with devotion and divinity, before ending with thanks to Allah.
Nadi Singapura has always excelled in their storytelling, using music and choreography to elevate myths, legends and now, rituals into epic events. With 293W, the ceremony kicks off on a high as the entire ensemble gathers for a mass dance. There’s an incredibly high stamina displayed by the ensemble as they maintain their wellspring of energy, through their enthusiastic yells, and smiles never leaving their faces. It is this same energy that allows audience members to feel the significance of such an event unfolding, in awe as we watch them dance in sync and exude pure joy.
293W is essentially a love story between the bride and groom, who take centrestage for the majority of the act. Both performers are given the requisite spotlight, with solo numbers that allow them to sing of their love and dedication to each other. The rest of the ensemble surrounds and celebrates them too, as 293W moves through the meeting of bride and groom on the wedding day, solemnisation process, the bersanding (sitting-in-state ceremony), and of course, a final song and dance number that blesses and celebrates them coming together. as a married couple.
As an ensemble, Nadi Singapura also gives plenty of time to all its members to shine as a large group. Showcasing strong onstage chemistry, the ensemble always feels like a cohesive unit, playing off each other’s energy and fully utilising the main stage and runway, as if the nation itself is celebrating the wedding. What’s more impressive is how amidst the group numbers, each ensemble member still feels distinct in their own way, from the clothing to their characterisation, each with their own individual role and backstory coming into this wedding. You want to know about each and every one of them as you watch them onstage, this group of people from different backgrounds coming together for the sake of one couple’s happiness.
By choosing to put the Malay wedding onstage, Nadi Singapura is making a statement – that the wedding is a ritual and ceremony worth showing people, that it encapsulates the very essence of Malay-ness, from religious devotion to the middle ground between modernity and tradition it finds itself in (evident from the costumes with traditional silhouettes but modern prints). 293W also incorporates elements of syair, pantun, and silat into the text and choreography, alongside traditional Malay instruments, from the kompang to the anklung. In so doing, this performance becomes a celebration of Malay culture as a whole, in all its artistry and its spectrum of people, and in its high energy presentation, the stage is left enlivened and invigorated by this triumph of love.
Act III: Yantra Mantra by Bhaskar’s Arts Academy
Ceremonial Enactments ends off on a more solemn note with Bhaskar’s Arts Academy’s Yantra Mantra, which re-enacts an ancient cleansing ritual performed in Hindu temples. Created by the late Santha Bhaskar, the choreography of the work was taken over by Mrs Bhaskar’s daughter Meenakshy Bhaskar after her mother’s passing. As such, Yantra Mantra takes on emotional significance, as one imagines the performance to not only act as a healing ritual for the tumultuous world we live, but also double as a means to move on from the grief the community feels for the loss of Santha Bhaskar.
The performance of Yantra Mantra is split across 9 segments, each segment dedicated to one of the nine celestial custodians that guard the eight directions and the centre of the earth. Over each segment, the ensemble showcases a different choreography, set to compositions drawn from Indian classical composer Sri Muthuswamy Dhikshitar and poetry by the 18th century Tanjore Quartet, performed by a live band onstage.
The piece begins as the ensemble assembles, lying down in a circle as they prepare to begin, calming their mind before channeling each celestial custodian. Across the nine distinct, demanding segments, the dancers prove themselves resilient with the sheer stamina it takes to maintain their grace, poise and form in executing each piece and landing each step. There is a clear sense of trust between each other, and equal responsibility and opportunity is divided across the dancers to lead different segments throughout. Even after the audience’s energy has already spent on the previous two acts, the dancers still hold our attention, and keep their expressions focused, from smiles to fearsome looks of determination, as they move to the beat, invoking gods, goddesses and guardians in their poses.
Yantra Mantra ends with Meenakshy Bhaskar arriving onstage, dispersing clouds of smoke and incense as it fills the air around her and symbolically purifies it. It is significant that this is the final act of the night – it feels as if all the planets have aligned, converging their energy in this cleansed space. The chants and drumbeats grow louder, the dancing more frenetic, and they almost seem to shine with a celestial aura. By the end, we know that Bhaskar’s Arts Academy has blessed this place with their ritual, leaving the pain and worry of the past behind to usher in better days ahead.
One may not believe in magic, but by bearing witness to the reimagined. elevated rituals presented in Ceremonial Enactments, one feels the energy crackling in the air all around us. Each ceremony holds a power in and of itself, and the act of performing them casts a spell over the entire audience. As the countless performers take a final walk across the runway and gather onstage, one cannot help but be wowed by the sheer magnificence of this sight, with so many people involved in the creation of such a sacred work.
In our act of witnessing this enactment, ideas are given form and an audience learns to believe again in just how much impact theatre can have on the soul. Encapsulating respect for traditions, innovation in reimagination, and above all, the quintessential Singaporean value of unity in diversity, Ceremonial Enactments is a worthy and hopeful start to the new SIFA under Natalie Hennedige, as the SIFA cycle begins anew once more.
Ceremonial Enactments ran from 21st to 22nd May 2022 at the Esplanade Theatre as part of the 2022 Singapore International Festival of Arts. More information available here
SIFA 2022 runs from 20th May to 5th June 2022. Tickets and more information available from sifa.sg.