The first year of a festival under new directorship can be a daunting one, particularly a national festival with the entire country watching. And taking over the reins from Gaurav Kripalani’s four year stint as the previous director of the Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA), Natalie Hennedige had some big shoes to fill. And with the first run of the festival under her, Natalie has made her mark and established her vision for her version of the festival.
Originally slated to begin her stint in 2021, the pandemic delayed her assumption of the role for a year, giving Natalie additional time to plan and programme her maiden festival, alongside the direction it would take for the next three years. The extra time may seem like a blessing, but was also fraught with uncertainty at whether the festival would premiere in a post-pandemic world, and artists, both local and international, would be able to commit and have enough time to produce quality work that might finally veer away from explicitly mulling over the pandemic and its effects.
In her planning then, Natalie embarked on an ambitious goal and set her vision in place – over the next three years, SIFA would adhere to a series of themes relating to the overarching banner The Anatomy of Performance, as as she put it: “invites the audience to consider the elements that go into the language of art.”
The first of these themes, presented this year, was ‘Ritual’, where works programmed consider the idea of all performance as a form of ritual, a means of organising performance via deliberate decisions made to occupy a stage, in relation to time, artefact, and gesture, all to communicate potent narratives in the universal language of art.
In portraying ritual, Natalie split SIFA across three key tracks to appeal to a broader base of audiences both local and overseas, instead of simply programming performances at venues. Programmes under Creation refer to commissioned contemporary work or modified work that played at live venues; Life Profusion featured a series of digital offerings, ranging from online videos to readings and responses; while SIFA X featured a mini-festival in itself, as artists gathered for an artistic romp of free performances.
As the artistic director of the eclectic, experimental theatre company CAKE, Natalie’s hand in the festival is clear just by seeing the festival’s programme alone. In unpacking the theme of ritual, Natalie’s programme explored ideas of futurism, magic, the natural realm, hallucinogens, escapism and more. In spite of how every single work was crafted by a different company or artist, Natalie has been able to focus her vision so much that SIFA 2022 feels like a well-curated museum of work according to a specific theme, encapsulating a hyperspecific mood that has just enough range of performance styles that allow audiences to tap into and explore the ideas of ritual that the team wants to broadcast.
Looking specifically at the programmes, there was a clear division in terms of accessibility of work, and while all of them were technically strong in different ways, the most successful pieces were those that had a single clear idea, and made full use of their performative medium to espouse it. On opening weekend, from 20th May, SIFA featured MEPAAN at Pasir Panjang Power Station, Holly Herndon: PROTO at the Victoria Theatre, and Ceremonial Enactments at the Esplanade Theatre.
Meenakshy Bhaskar, Co-Creator of Yantra Mantra for Ceremonial Enactments, shared, “The honour of being part of Ceremonial Enactments for all of us at Bhaskar’s Arts Academy, was greater than just the honour of fulfilling my mother’s commitment. Ceremonial Enactments afforded all of us to look deeper within ourselves, heal from the trauma of this year and years past which for us artists is important and to look at our art from a non-traditional perspective. It was truly exciting and exhilarating to be a part of this year’s SIFA in this manner.”
Both MEPAAN and Ceremonial Enactments felt appropriate as the festival’s opening weekend shows, each one carrying a high degree of ritual and grandeur that signified new beginnings and the idea of blending nature or traditions with contemporary sensitivities, and elevating the art to new heights. Each one felt like a means of heralding a new age of SIFA, themselves ritualistic and cleansing, as if to clear the traumas of the past to usher in a more optimistic future. In line with that, Holly Herndon: PROTO imagined a future of heightened artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities, in a world where AI and humans coexist and begin to merge, where lines are blurred and old systems as we know it no longer exist.
Holly Herndon, who held her first concert in Asia at SIFA 2022 with PROTO, shared: “Our ensemble felt warmly welcomed by the SIFA team and audience, and we enjoyed performing at the beautiful Victoria Theatre. It was especially fun to be able to speak directly with the audience afterwards via a live interview and demo on stage. Our excellent interviewers also gave us fun questions which led to a lively discussion.”
In week 2 of SIFA, the festival presented the most anticipated works of the festival, with heavy-hitters such as Drama Box’s ubin, Eleanor Wong’s Remotes X Quantum, Teater Ekamatra’s Bangsawan Gemala Malam and Ong Keng Sen’s project SALOME. Owing to the nature of the work and venue, ubin and Remotes X Quantum sold out quickly, and for the former, a 4 hour experience which literally took place on Pulau Ubin, faced issues with a lack of wet weather programming.
Both Ekamatra and Ong Keng Sen’s work proved to be our favourites of the festival this time around. Bangsawan Gemala Malam’s Malay spin on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream was both true to the original narrative while also incorporating traditional bangsawan-style elements that transformed it into something wholly original. Coupled with a fantastic ensemble of the best of local Malay talent, and you get a five star production.
Meanwhile, project SALOME was an ambitious work that presented the historical and biblical figure of Salome in three parts, unpacking and reinterpreting her for a modern age. One version saw the story of Syrian genderqueer refugee Michael(a) Daoud captured in a documentary form, touching on issues of migration and gender, while another featured Janice Koh in a powerful live performance, a single head in gilded crown as she recited select parts of Oscar Wilde’s Salome. Across the work as a whole, project SALOME was effective at asking audiences to question their own multi-faceted nature, and how we can negotiate and navigate the idea of identity through ritual and deconstruction.
In an already packed week, one more work that was featured was UK Turner Prize-winning artist Tai Shani and her work The Neon Hieroglyph. Originally a series of short films online, this version combined them into a single, hour-long feature while Malaysian actress Jo Kukathas provided narration. While chock-full of incredible, imaginative ideas on mythmaking, community, witchery and hallucinogenic rye, the result was more soporific than mind-opening, overloading audiences with information that shows sometimes, less is more.
Over SIFA’s final weekend, the festival presented Paul Rae and Kaylene Tan’s Devil’s Cherry, and filmmaker Yeo Siew Hua’s The Once and Future. While nowhere near as impressive as the works of the previous week, SIFA 2022 seemed to end on a more contemplative note with these works. Devil’s Cherry suffered similar issues to The Neon Hieroglyph, where there was far too much ground the creators wanted to cover in a single show, boasting beautiful visuals, a strong cast and a poetic but meandering script that ultimately left us frustrated with its refusal to commit to any of its many ideas.
Said creators Paul Rae and Kaylene Tan: “It was a great privilege to be supported by the festival so we could work in a sustained way on bringing Devil’s Cherry to fruition. Creating an intimate show on the epic scale of the Pasir Panjang Power Station was certainly challenging, but it enabled us to explore in a very direct and visceral way the Singapore dream of escape to Australia’s wide open spaces, and the strange things that happen when those dreams come to life.”
The Once and Future was a mash-up of genres – experimental film, live orchestra and singing, and oddly enough, laser show. The contrast between the epic presentation and the film’s intimate content formed an interesting juxtaposition, as we reflected on the circles of life and our common humanity that crosses borders, time and distance. Was it mindblowing? Not entirely, but if anything, was certainly the most commercial piece of SIFA 2022, one that would not feel out of place at an outdoor location for the masses.
Beyond these live experiences, SIFA 2022 attempted to explore the online space with Life Profusion. However, with the focus on marketing primarily relegated to in-venue experiences, and the constant competition with other online media, one wonders how much audiences actually engaged with this segment of the festival, with its niche, abstract creative work. In the commissioned film we watched, Lucy McRae’s Delicate Spells of Mind, while visually interesting, felt like the least connected to ritual out of all the programmes, perhaps tangentially so in inviting viewers to consider the way we think and process our inner selves.
Cherry Chan and Kiat, curators for Life Profusion capsule +EAT, shared, “SYNDICATE had long wanted to explore if and how a performance can be augmented when it begins with a screen-first approach. During the pandemic, we had the experience of live-streaming music performances and running shows on Twitch but often came away feeling there was an opportunity in developing screen-first works that are more exploratory in its form and creation. It was a delightful challenge for the artists to create and reimagine from an alternate space, and they have developed highly original works which are varied and slightly different from their usual outputs. We are very grateful for the opportunity given by Natalie and team to be able to explore the 2022 festival theme The Anatomy of Performance, and to be able to participate in the cultural shift in which technology is playing a role, giving a chance to uncover new ways of experiencing an artist’s work.”
Finally, this year’s SIFA X comprised of a multi-night art extravaganza at Goodman Arts Centre and Aliwal Arts Centre, with SAtheCollective’s oneirism. Free for all to attend with registration, oneirism was an interesting new effort to draw in curious audiences, an attempt to bridge the gap between the general public and eclectic performance art.
Andy Chia, the Artistic Director for SAtheCollective, shared: “SIFA X: oneirism brought together interdisciplinary artforms of Music, Dance, Puppetry, and Arts Installation, into an experience spanning across the physical world and in our dream state that connects Human, Nature, and Technology, in line with the festival theme of Ritual. For many Singapore artists, the iconic landmarks of Goodman Arts Centre and Aliwal Arts Centre are filled with stories. oneirism evokes the feeling of both memories of these spaces and imagined futures, enveloping audiences into worlds within the world that the artists have collectively created. I am honoured to have worked with such a stellar group of artists who have made the state of oneirism possible, and who have brought forth positive energies that are much needed in the world at this time.”
“SIFA engages with the complexities of the moment in the language of art, a vocabulary that triggers the imagination,” says Natalie Hennedige. “The Anatomy of Performance – Ritual has been an invitation to come closer to the rich multiplicity of artistic voices reflecting, projecting and reclaiming what it means to be human and to live in a complicated world in this moment in time, and how our rituals, individually and collectively, defined and redefined, help navigate our pathways that connect lines between the past, present and future.”
Certainly, SIFA 2022 has shown that as Festival Director, Natalie Hennedige came prepared with her clear idea and vision of what her stint would look like, captured in the cohesive programming for this edition. While there are still kinks to work out, particularly when it comes to the online and digital sphere, what Natalie has done with her debut is to sow the first seeds of an even more robust festival that we will very likely see over the next two years. There seems to be an intricate planning process to all three years, deconstructing the anatomy of performance that allows audiences to navigate and understand how the arts can help us cope and live in an increasingly complex world. Regardless of whether the art alienates or endears, there is a statement that Natalie is making here, as she leaves her mark on the festival and ushers in a new age of SIFA.
SIFA 2022 ran from 20th May to 5th June 2022. MEPAAN, Ceremonial Enactments and Bangsawan Gemala Malam will be available as video on demand from 20th June to 10th July 2022. Tickets available here
SIFA 2023, The Anatomy of Performance – Some People, explores a means of sharing each other’s perspectives, and lived or inherited experiences in the open space that art defines. The 2023 edition is currently slated to be held from 19th May to 4th June 2023. More information available from sifa.sg.
SIFA 2024, The Anatomy of Performance – Confession, will explore confessions, or truths, which are embedded at the heart of great art.