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Preview: In New Light – A Season of Commissions by Esplanade – Theatres by the Bay

Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay is reaching a grand milestone of 20 years this October. While the full line-up of celebratory events is still to be revealed, one of the biggest reveals to happen is the long-awaited opening of the brand new Singtel Waterfront Theatre.

First announced in 2018 and beginning works in 2019, the Singtel Waterfront Theatre is intended as a way to fill the gap between Esplanade’s large venues and smaller studio spaces, and enable the national arts centre to further support future generations of artists and arts groups to create new works that tell Singapore and Asian stories and widen its engagement with various communities. After several building delays, much of which was due to the pandemic, the theatre is finally set to open in October, with a line-up of shows to show off its technical capabilities and welcome audiences into the space, as part of a new programme titled In New Light.

“Since we opened in October 2002, Esplanade’s iconic domes have glowed like lanterns in the Marina Bay. In October 2022, we open a new Waterfront Theatre with a façade that reflects daylight and glows at night,” says Yvonne Tham, CEO, The Esplanade Co Ltd. “Both then and now, the steadfast support of artists, crew, staff, audiences, as well as our partners, sponsors, donors and funders has helped us to not only keep the lights on, but to entertain, move, inspire and transform lives through the arts.”

“”We look forward to the future, and we have a vision as an inclusive centre, to welcome people of all financial and cultural backgrounds, and want to push further – to include people of different abilities as well and become even more accessible, from offering discounts to being a dementia-friendly cultural venue. And as we look beyond to the future, we welcome everyone to experience In New Light.”

Designed by Architects 61 in collaboration with Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay, and receiving consultation from Charcoal Blue (the same company behind Wild Rice’s Funan Theatre), the Singtel Waterfront Theatre is a completely new building separate from the Esplanade’s two domes, located just behind Makansutra – Gluttons Bay, and overlooking the bay. Intended to seat around 500-600 audience members or so, from the outside, the theatre adopts a distinctly brutalist, concrete facade, while wave-like lights adorn the sides, along with benches and seating for admiring the Bay. The Esplanade hopes that such features encourages passers-by or visitors to the Esplanade to take a walk along the Bay and admire the building on evening strolls, especially when it lights up from 7pm onwards.

Within the theatre, audience members will notice the concrete/construction motif continuing into the building, with the floors remaining concrete, while the hand-painted salmon walls are fitted with zinc tile-like panels that assist with acoustics. The space itself is reminiscent of a much larger Esplanade Theatre Studio, and has the capability to be configured beyond standard settings, such as theatre-in-the-round, or completely flat, with inspiration taken from venues such as the Young Vic in London, where each time one steps into the theatre, it feels like a transformed space. The idea is not simply to use it as a space for venue hire, but to encourage the act of co-creation between programmers, producers and creatives, harnessing latent ideas and turning them into reality with all the possibilities the space offers.

As such, In New Light is anchored by five commissions that will launch the multi-format Singtel Waterfront Theatre, bringing together arts practitioners and collaborators from Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Macau, South Korea, Japan and Australia to present work at the new venue. “We were very keen not to look just at Singaporean artists but also regional artists from around Asia,” says Yvonne. “The Esplanade started out as part of a global city rhetoric, and with the opening of the Singtel Waterfront Theatre, we want to make work with both Singaporean and regional artists as we think and explore the possibilities of what the region can be.”

The first of these performances is Kuik Swee Boon & The Human Expression (T.H.E) Dance Company, with their new work Infinitely Closer. Conceptualised by Kuik, the productions marks his artistic response to the impact that apathy and increasingly complex and opaque systems have on human expression and freedoms. Featuring 3D sound and 3D mapping on dancers bodies, the production also marks the 7th commission with Kuik by the Esplanade, who has over the years, watched him grow as an artist as they continue to support his work.

Audience members will also get an opportunity to experience the work up close as they interact with the set, be dazzled by holographic projections, and admire the stellar work of art made possible by his collaborators from around the region, including Malaysian sound artist Kent Lee, Macau-based projection artist SEESAW, Korean costume designer Choi In Sook, Singaporean lighting designer Adrian Tan, Singaporean dramaturg Kok Heng Leun, Australian-Laotian guest performer Billy Keohavong and six dance artists from T.H.E Dance Company.

With a heavier focus on dance and theatre at the space, the next work to be presented is Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep, by New York-based Singaporean musician Margaret Leng Tan. A co-production by Chamber Made and CultureLink Singapore, and co-commissioned by Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay and Asia TOPA, Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep was initially meant to have been presented as part of The Studios 2020 season, only to be put on hiatus due to the pandemic. The performance eventually came through in 2021 to an extremely limited, socially-distanced audience, and makes a welcome return to the new space.

Performed by Tan, Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep tells her story of how she became known as an avant garde musician, best known for playing the toy piano, as it explores memory, time, control and loss that sweeps across the senses. An autobiographical rumination on the renowned pianist’s personal and professional history, the work reveals the inner workings of a spellbinding performer and vital musical interpreter, and presents a riveting collage of the forces that have shaped Tan’s life and how music has been both her passion and her refuge.

In November, local theatremaker Chong Tze Chien will present his new work Kingdoms Apart. Directed and written by Chong, the work is a a contemporary reimagining of the Indian epic tale The Mahabharata that resonates with the current day. Following two groups of cousins, the Pandavas and the Kauravas, the 3-hour work will see the theatre configured as a theatre-in-the-round, as they watch the families feud over the claim to the dynastic succession to the throne of the Hastinapura kingdom, as war breaks out.

Chong expressed his joy over how this has been a dream of his to stage ever since his days as a theatre student at NUS. Considering how even the production process has been a difficult one over the last 2-3 years, creating and producing online with a multicultural ensemble cast and creative team from Singapore, Malaysia and Japan, it feels like a triumph waiting to happen. Look forward to puppetry, multimedia, live camera feeds and an original evocative score that will be performed live.

In December, Indonesia’s Paper Moon Puppet Theatre returns to Singapore with Stream of Memory, a non-verbal puppetry performance for all ages. Configuring the theatre to include both standard theatre seating on chairs or the chance to experience a more intimate performance with floor seating, the performance follows Sang and Jun, as they go on a magical encounter with the majestic giant Kali. Created in response to the disappearing rivers consumed by urbanisation and modern life, especially considering the significance of rivers in Southeast Asian communities, this lyrical non-verbal production promises to rekindle our memories of nature and deepen our connections with each other.

To round off the year and series of commissions for the Singtel Waterfront Theatre, the end of December will see the debut of new collective RATA Orkestra, as they present RATA: new grounds new sounds. Named for the Malay word rata, meaning “flat” or “even’, RATA takeson a flat floor format in the theatre, where audience members can wander and move with the musicians in the space. RATA gathers musicians of different backgrounds to experiment as they explore the new space with new sounds, breaking down boundaries between audience and artist, and breaking new ground with traditional and contemporary music. RATA is directed by Safuan Johari, and features Azrin Abdullah (oud), Andy Chia (dizi, didgeridoo, electronics), Cheryl Ong (percussion), Safuan Johari (electronics), Rizman Putra (vocals), weish (vocals) and visuals by Brandon Tay (Singapore).

Other programmes in the line-up not performed at the new theatre include concerts by two of Singapore’s most renowned musical institutions – the Singapore Chinese Orchestra (SCO) and the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO). The SCO presents Daybreak, an exploration of three Chinese mythological figures—Pan Gu (盘古), who separated heaven and earth; Nu Wa (女媧), who created humankind; and Huang Di (黃帝), who brought the world from savagery to civilisation. Conceptualised and conducted by Maestro Tsung Yeh and directed by Jeremiah Choy, the philosophical narratives of ancient myths unfold through original music composed by Singapore Cultural Medallion recipient Law Wai Lun and leading contemporary composer Chong Kee Yong, and performed by an ensemble of musicians from the Singapore Chinese Orchestra, enhanced by multimedia projections.

Meanwhile, the SSO presents Illuminations, where award-winning Singaporean conductor Lien Boon Hua leads the SSO for the first time at the Esplanade Concert Hall. This concert proudly showcases the leading lights of the new generation of Singaporean classical music talent. Prominent young pianist Abigail Sin and violinist Loh Jun Hong, both chamber music icons, perform Mendelssohn’s Concerto for Violin, Piano and Strings, before the highlight of the evening—Illuminations—an original composition by prolific composer-pianist Jonathan Shin and composer-organist Phoon Yu, who will be playing on the rarely used pipe organ.

For Abigail and Jun Hong, who both began their musical journeys as young musical prodigies at the Esplanade with a series of concerts, this return to the Esplanade Concert Hall allows their journey to come full circle as more experienced musicians. The SSO is also joined by the Singapore Symphony Chorus, Youth Choir, and Children’s Choir in this work specially commissioned for the occasion, and will feature close to 200 performers onstage.

For the first time ever, the Esplanade will also be presenting a projection mapping installation at the Esplanade Courtyard. Titled Dancing with Light, watch as the centre comes alive through dance and multimedia with its first-ever projection mapping show to celebrate its 20th anniversary – appropriately enough opening on the Esplanade’s birthday – 12th October.

Meanwhile, visitors can also look forward to various exhibitions around the centre, including Lights On: The Story of Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay at the Esplanade Concourse. Combining soundbites (accessed via QR code), interviews, artefacts, photos and sketches of some of the cultural workers and artists who have journeyed with Esplanade, hear these first-hand accounts that trace the Esplanade’s history, from the 1980s when the idea for this arts centre was first conceived, to their hard-won opening in 2002, and on to the aspirations for the next chapter as they celebrate our 20th anniversary.

As part of the Esplanade’s PopLore programme, check out Home Grooves: A History of Singapore’s Live Music Venues at the Esplanade Concourse, paying tribute to the country’s iconic live music spaces from the 1960s to the present. Through archival photographs, interviews and physical memorabilia such as musical instruments, albums and costumes, the exhibition documents the evolution of the live music scene and its pivotal role in pop culture as well as the careers of notable bands and musicians.

At the Singtel Waterfront Theatre, visitors will get to see Wax and Wane, a sculptural mural Wax and Wane was created collaboratively by Antz, DEM, TraseOne, SPAZ and ZERO from the urban art collective RSCLS. Taking inspiration from the dynamic and ever-changing transitions of the moon cycle, the work is displayed on the facade wall of the theatre, and signals towards the expressions of movement, imagination and creative activities of Esplanade’s newest venue. Within the space itself, check out Bob Lee’s Building Dreams photography exhibition, which go behind-the-scenes to take a glimpse at the people who built the new theatre amidst the pandemic.

In New Light’s commissions celebrate 20 years of artistry and collaborations that have made Esplanade a home for the arts, and the arts an integral part of Singapore’s cultural identity and diverse communities. In New Light also presents new works and a new venue,” says Yvonne. “In a world still experiencing the aftershocks of the pandemic and existential crises on ecological, technological and other fronts, these commissions hope to provide new lenses through which we can better question, heal, and ultimately, create our future.”

In New Light – A Season of Commissions runs from 13th October to 31st December 2022 at the Esplanade. Full programme and more information available here

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