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SIFA 2023: An Interview with Festival Director Natalie Hennedige

In 2022, Natalie Hennedige went from artistic director of Cake Theatre, to Festival Director of the annual Singapore International Festival of Arts. Together with her team, the veteran theatremaker programmed a slew of works in her debut year, and established her own spin on the festival by theming each edition around ‘The Anatomy of Performance’, specifically zooming in on the concept of rituals last year.

Now, the festival is back in full swing, and bigger than ever before. This time around, audience members can look forward to four newly commissioned productions, 11 invited international presentations, and other work online, all themed around the concept of ‘Some People’, inviting audiences to come together and find new ways of relating to other people through art. Prior to the festival starting up again next week, we spoke to Natalie to find out more about this year’s programming line-up, and her reflections on her festival director stint thus far. Read the interview in full below:

Speech by SIFA 2023 Festival Director, Natalie Hennedige. Image courtesy of Arts House Limited.

Bakchormeeboy: How does Some People represent an evolution for SIFA from the previous edition you helmed?

Natalie: SIFA 2023’s ‘Some People’ layers upon 2022’s ‘Ritual’ to reflect the spectrum of human experience. ‘Ritual’ encompasses the conditions of time, artefact and gesture permeating in performance to create artistic impressions and narratives in the polydynamic language of art.  The works featured in ‘Some People’ reflect the human experience in its spectrum of hues. We live in this world, but we do not experience the world in the same way, we exist on a spectrum and the lens through which we view the world and navigate life differs based on various circumstances. 

Festival commission and opening performance ANGEL ISLAND by Huang Ruo and Brian Gothong Tan presents historical examples of systemic racism and xenophobia seen through the eyes of immigrants held indiscriminately at Angel Island, a detention facility in the San Francisco Bay area. LOLLING & ROLLING by South Korean Jaha Koo explores linguistic imperialism from the perspective of Korean society. Joanna Dudley’s WE WILL SLAM YOU WITH OUR WINGS replaces 19th Centry imperialistic portraits with young girls taking autonomy over their own voices, projecting a feminist war cry echoing through the ages. LIES by Belgian Company Ontroerend Goed sets the audience in the domain of the few dominating the global economy, MATERIA by Andrea Salustri tries not to force a narrative but rather allow the audience to project their own narrative on the images presented on stage. Other works like Joyce Ho’s A DAY magnifies and transforms certain inconspicuous daily rituals, resonating perhaps more conspicuously with 2022’s ‘Ritual’ as well as this year’s ‘Some People’ especially when we come to the realisation that the work echoes a reality paralleled in everyday life which is the anticipation of, and utter inability to predict the future.

Presentation of POMPEII by Edith Podesta and K. Rajagopal. Image courtesy of Arts House Limited.

Bakchormeeboy: Was it more difficult to programme and decide on the artists involved in this edition of the festival?

Natalie: Not at all. We’re continuing to feature local artists and facilitating strong international collaboration. With festival commission ‘REALM OF SILK’ by Sougwen Chung for instance it was an opportunity to introduce Sougwen to cellist Leslie Tan and a team of Singapore designers and for everyone to encounter Sougwen’s remarkable practice with technology and human and non-human collaboration.

Open borders and international invitations also meant that we could situate Singapore’s artists Brian Gothong Tan, Edith Podesta, K. Rajagopal, Daniel Kok, Jean Ng, Li Xie, Joavien Ng alongside artists such as Botis Seva (UK), Joyce Ho (TW), Tokishi Okada (JP), Jaha Koo and Hyerim Jang (KR), Andrea Salustri (IT), Ontroerend Goed (BE), Muna Tseng (US) which adds to the festival’s dynamic as an international platform embracing a Singapore and Asian identity.

Presentation of POMPEII by Edith Podesta and K. Rajagopal. Image courtesy of Tuckys Photography.

Bakchormeeboy: Beyond having a theme and title as an umbrella for the festival, is there any form of capacity building or community involvement and conversations between the artists involved? 

Natalie: SIFA coming into collaboration with Center 42 to present THERE IS NO FUTURE IN NOSTALGIA brings the theatre community together in support of new writing and performance works-in-process.  From pieces that draw from practitioners’ memories of theatre in the 90s,  to staged readings of new short works by C42’s resident playwrights, and open-format sessions where writers present short dramatic pieces in response to archival headlines, this project also brings together and celebrates such a diverse group of theatre people – Casey Lim, Robin Loon, Joel Tan, Nelson Chia, Oniatta Effendi, Serene Chen, Tan Kheng Hua, Lim Shi An, Ahmad Musta’ain, A Yagyna, Danial Matin, Rachel Chin, Sindhura Kalidas.

SIFA has also come into partnership with Bangkok International Performing Arts Meeting BIPAM and Georgetown Festival in Penang to co-produce INTERMISSION a work by Thai choreographer Thanapol Virulhakul examining Thailand’s socio-political power structure infiltrating all areas of a citizen’s life. Beyond the work itself which we are hugely excited to receive in Singapore is a decision to reach out and build connections between Southeast Asian arts festivals and cultural entities. 

Each step made with the intention to bolster and enhance the visibility of Asian and Southeast Asian artists and collaboration on the international stage is a step towards artistic presence and power emerging from this region which ultimately strengthens our communities across cultural, geographical, social and political conditions.

Bakchormeeboy: With how festival directors change every few years, do you feel like Some People allows you to put a clear stamp on what you stand for as a Festival Director? Do you feel like it is a complete overhaul, or that there remain echoes of what previous directors have done? 

Natalie: The intent is to focus the festival as a platform that propels artists and performance creation coming from Singapore while imagining what an meaningful international dynamic looks like; emphasising an identity for SIFA that reflects our position in Asia; upholding the festival as a space for reflection, openness and nuanced creative articulation to be expressed by inviting diverse and committed practitioners locally and internationally to connect with local audiences offering perspectives and engaging with pertinent issues and the troubling tensions that exist in contemporary life that affect everything on this planet in such a connected world that we occupy. 

Preview of THE SCHOOL by Jean Ng, Joavien Ng and Li Xie, performed by Jean Ng. Image courtesy of Tuckys Photography.

Bakchormeeboy: In a post pandemic world, people’s priorities have shifted, and for the general public, the arts isn’t at the top of their list, preferring to spend time and money on holidays and food. How hopeful is SIFA about audience numbers?

Natalie: We’re making decisions within the festival with a future-facing perspective – making space for progressive creative articulation emerging from Singapore connecting regionally and internationally offering meeting spaces between artists and audiences and enabling an expansion of world views.

The energy that the audience brings to a festival is important, it’s the liveness of the gathering that is the thing – so creating the strongest impression for the audience is primary which is why we have designed the program around artists with works taking us through a spectrum of ideas  – POMPEII draws inspiration from the sudden destruction of the city of Pompeii questioning if the objects and spaces that we leave behind in death represent that which we were, or betray the true nature that we ourselves denied in life, CUCKOO and LOLLING & ROLLING interweave the politics and history of South Korea, piecing together stories about economic and linguistic imperialism.  THE SCHOOL examines notions of learning, healing and emotional growth. HUMANS 2.0 is proof of the mettle that the human frame is capable of, inspiring transcendence over the things we can’t control. ANGEL ISLAND brings history into our current lives reminding us that prejudices and exclusion are so deeply entrenched. REALM OF SILK presents human and robot collaboration meditating on silk as the chrysalis that harbours metamorphosis and the silkworm as a metaphor for transformation. Powerfully personal, ME, YOU, THEN, NOW presents an artist in her 70th year piecing together her family’s experiences of heritage, culture, displacement and identity with a lifetime dedicated to artmaking. 

PR1V4CY curated by MOJOKO is a digital project offering insight to what privacy means to artists from around the world, capturing digital imagination and aesthetic, and LOVE DIVINE plunges into the creative recesses of those who dare featuring performance-installation STILL LIVES as Daniel Kok and Luke George involve as subjects ‘High Net Worth individuals’ and/or ‘Social Influencers’ gradually bound and eventually suspended against a backdrop of Singapore’s glittering cityscape as a statement on our relationship to wealth and CHILDREN OF VENUS curated and directed by SUKKI, Singapore’s celebrated Queen of Burlesque is a jaw-dropping gathering of the best and brightest performers of vaudeville and burlesque. 

Preview of ANGEL ISLAND by Huang Ruo and Brian Gothong Tan, performed by Ma Yanling. Image courtesy of Tuckys Photography.

Bakchormeeboy: This year’s SIFA seems chock-full of programmes, with multiple works only being performed just once. How do you feel audience members will take to such a programme, especially considering how much choice is being given this time around? Could it possibly be interpreted as chaotic rather than a smorgasbord of choice? 

Natalie: We can embrace the idea that festivals are interstitial spaces where for a brief, concentrated period of time we are together taking in works that give us insight into different ways of being and thinking. What endures are the often life-long trajectories that artists commit themselves to. SIFA offers an introduction to these artists and their works, which could inspire a relationship between audience and artist beyond the brief span of the festival. So whether a work is programmed over much of the three-week festival time span or three times or just once, the platform is about careful curation, shining a light on a beautiful and powerful palette of artists for audiences to encounter and for ideas to be exchanged long past the 3-week span of the festival.

Presentation of LOVE DIVINE by Daniel Kok for SIFA X, embracing unusual performance installations. Image courtesy of Tuckys Photography.

Bakchormeeboy: Is accessibility important in the arts, especially when it comes to education and the development of an arts appreciation culture? How do you think SIFA can help with such accessibility and education, or do you think others will see it as too high brow?   

Natalie: prompt:PLAY curated by writer Hong Xinyi gives expansion to the ideas and thoughts emanating from SIFA 2023’s performances. Xinyi has created a brilliant frame to enable responses from an impressive range of contributors including artist Dia Hakim K, theatre director and drama educator Adeeb Fazah, arts writer and researcher Tracey Toh, writer, educator and facilitator Heng Jia Min, writer and performer Azura Farid, composer Jon Lin Chua, poet and essayist Mok Zining, choreographer and researcher Noramin Farid, Adele Wong, a chronicler of her family’s history as circus performers, designer and educator Kelly Cheng and street dancer and producer Nur Arianty as well as Xinyi’s own responses. Located on Life Profusion, SIFA’s digital platform these written perspectives exist far beyond the timeframe of the festival, propelling thought and drawing links between SIFA 2023 performances and the multiple ideas traversing the conversations of the day brought to us by the invaluable perspective of these writers.

SIFA 2023 opened on 22 February 2023 at the Stamford Arts Centre, Black Box. Image courtesy of Tuckys Photography.

Bakchormeeboy: With this being your second year as Festival Director, how would you say the relationships you’ve built and continue to build are helping you with your vision? What do you feel you have learnt as a person and as an artist through your role as Festival Director? 

Natalie: This journey thus far reinforces how essential experimentation, collaboration and process are in the creative endeavour that is festival making.

The 2023 Singapore International Festival of Arts runs from 19th May to 4th June 2023. Tickets and full details of programme available here

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