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Pushing boundaries

Oct 09. 2015
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By Pawit Mahasarinand
Special to

Singapore International Festival of Arts proves that its curatorial scheme is daring artistically as well as politically
The recipient of the Cultural Medallion – Singapore’s highest distinction in arts – in 1990, Santha Bhaskar, founder and artistic director of Bhaskar Arts Academy, had long wanted to work with Kerala’s classical arts institute Kerala Kalamandalam and this year, thanks to the support of the Singapore International Festival of Arts (Sifa), she was able to realise her wish.
“Smriti Padha”, presented at the Victoria Theatre as part of the recently ended event, demonstrated how millennia-old tradition can keep evolving while retaining relevancy with the contemporary audience, thanks to a different point of view from an outsider who’s not completely on the outside.
I’m sure both Bhaskar herself and the masters and the students at Kerala Kalamandalam learned a lot from this intercultural exchange.
However, for the audience the three-part programme, which saw the prologue and epilogue performed by students, both parts with more of Bhaskar’s experimentation than in the core – the slaying of Dussasana – the production wasn’t well balanced. In addition, the use of live and pre-recorded music made parts of the performance somewhat dry. 
A week later, the blackbox studio at 72-13 was set up as a traverse stage for Taiwan’s Creative Theatre Group, who staged “Taiwan Dreams Episode I: Dream Hotel”. This is playwright, director and photographer Wei Ying-Chuan’s magical realism stage adaptation of the epic novel “Xixia Hotel” by award-winning writer Luo Yi-Chun who told stories of second generation mainland migrants in Taiwan.
A 170-minute international touring version edited down from the much-longer original, “Dream Hotel” put many members of the audience – especially those who needed help from the English surtitles – into an occasional dream state and this despite the production’s quick pace.
Thanks to the keen and innovative direction and the strong performance by the acting ensemble, the theme of the search for identity rang loud and clear in a 50-year-young country like Singapore. And with many parts satirising inevitable Chinese and Taiwanese political figures in a way Singaporeans are not allowed to do, the audience could also relate to it. 
Over the course of several years, the Singapore Arts Festival, which was run by National Arts Council, became the region’s leading performing arts festival. Now the annual festival has turned independent and changed its name, albeit with continued strong support from the government, and it’s taking more artistic and cultural risks.
This is a small country where performing arts from all over the world can be enjoyed all year round. With Sifa’s strong and unique curatorial scheme promising locals something they cannot see at other times of the year, audiences are already looking forward to what the festival will bring next summer, and in the years to come.
The writer’s trip was supported by Sifa. He wishes to thank Tay Tong and Eileen Chua for all assistance.
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