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SIFA 2021: how to get the best out of the festival, despite Covid restrictions

This year's Singapore International Festival of the Arts is diminished but not defeated.

The first show of the Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA) already struck an ominous note. Joanna Dong and Rahimah Rahim – two members of the all-star cast of jazz concert A Song For Louis – were making jokes about “dressing to dazzle” and “going all out with our performance tonight” because “we don’t know when we’ll be allowed to sing again”.

As it turned out, the first day of the festival was also the last day any singer could take to the stage during the festival’s 17-day-run. The next day, the government issued an advisory stating that every performer on stage had to be masked. That meant an instant cancellation of any concert involving singers or wind players who obviously cannot perform with masks over their mouths.

Actors must now express themselves with half of their faces covered. Dancers must also be masked as they vigorously pirouette and leap through the air – leading the festival to cancel all performances of the much-anticipated first-time collaboration between Singapore Dance Theatre and Singapore Symphony Orchestra, The Rhythm Of Us.

SIFA is now making up for it by filming many of the shows to screen them later in a video-on-demand service from May 31 to June 12. But, because of the sudden surge in demand for government-approved Covid-safe studios, it has to joust with other organisations for filming slots.

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    The audience at Cosmogony sat a distance apart from each other. The show was supposed to be an open-air event. But due to new restrictions, it was shown inside the Esplanade Theatre for a pre-registered audience only. 

Pianist Jonathan Shin, who was scheduled to perform with soprano Felicia Teo Kaixin and tenor Jonathan Charles Tay, says philosophically: “Our programme is a selection of songs themed around the idea of loss and commemoration, composed by Poulenc, Ravel, Britten and others. So it is apt – pertinent even – that we’ve lost the opportunity to perform before a live audience.”

Other artists whose shows are allowed to be staged albeit to a smaller audience are grateful for silver linings. Melissa Lim, dramaturg for The Necessary Stage’s The Year Of No Return, says: “The play was supposed to debut in last year’s festival which got cancelled. So we’re desperate to finally perform it, even if it means our actors have to be masked and our audience size has to be reduced… We’ve been working on this play (on the climate crisis) since 2018. And it’s gotten even more relevant now under the circumstances.”

Still other artists are trying to find levity in the situation. Writer-director Chong Tze Chien, for instance, is staging his first live horror play OIWA: The Ghost of Yotsuya. Because the source material is a Japanese folk story believed to carry a curse, anyone hoping to stage it must first visit the Oiwa-Inari Tamiya shrine in Shinjuku to obtain “permission”.

He says: “I would not say we’re ‘cursed’ because of these new Covid measures. We’ve already gotten the requisite blessings from the shrine and many well wishes from the Japanese . . . So I think we are ‘protected’ because we can still open the show despite the new restrictions.”

(Related: 6 long-underrated artists get the spotlight)

Although several performances have been cancelled, some good titles survived the cull. Here are our seven recommendations:

1. en route

By one step at a time like this

en route is a work that’s deemed completely “Covid-safe”. Audience members have to undertake a 90-minute-long solo journey on the streets of Singapore based on the mysterious instructions given to them via an electronic device. Occasionally they’ll also find slips of paper carrying further instructions and cues for personal contemplation.

The beauty of the work is this: Singapore’s back alleys, tunnels and hidden nooks become the backdrop of a strange and meandering physical exploration that can also elicit a lot of self-examination.

This is a work that gives you as much as you’re willing to give it. You can either use its cues to think about yourself and your life – or simply dismiss them as idle provocations. Either way, there are parts of the city that you’ll never see in the same way again.

Tickets are still available.

2. Gardens Speak

By Tania El Khoury

Here’s another work that’s eluded the new restrictions because of its unusual format: Gardens Speak is an interactive work that takes a tiny audience of 10 at a time and puts them in a room that resembles a graveyard.

They are then asked to wear a plastic coat and gloves, and dig into the graves to uncover the stories of people who died in the 2011 Syrian uprising against the Assad regime. Under the soil are stories of the deceased, as reconstructed by those who loved and lost them.

Creator Tania El Khoury says: “When we staged the show in other countries before the pandemic, the audience had to dig into soil with their bare hands. There are symbolic reasons for this, of course, such as the idea that one often has to get one’s hands dirty in order to uncover certain truths . . . But beyond that, there is a multi-sensory experience of touching, seeing and smelling the soil that engages one on a deeper level.”

Covid-19 precautions require the Singapore audience to wear gloves for the digging – but that shouldn’t substantially diminish the elegiac power of this work.

Tickets are still available.

3. The Year Of No Return

By The Necessary Stage

The Year Of No Return was supposed to have been staged in SIFA 2020, with a stellar pan-Asian cast that comprises Singapore, Malaysian, Filipino and Japanese talents. But the pandemic and travel restrictions have prevented the foreign actors from flying to Singapore.

So the play will instead be a cool hybrid work with live and virtual performances merging into one feverish whole, as it looks – most aptly and timely – at the climate emergency the world faces.

Dramaturg Melissa Lim says: “In the space of a year when the Circuit Breaker was called all the way till now, there have been quite a number of climate events that have taken place alongside the pandemic . . . And, now in the light of these new restrictions, the play feels even more prescient because it explores the many ways that people are responding – or not responding sufficiently – to our pressing global challenges.”

Tickets are sold out. But you can watch it on SIFA On Demand video service after the festival.

4. As Far As Isolation Goes

By Tania El Khoury and Basel Zaraa

The works least impacted by the new restrictions are the ones taking place online, with the audience engaging with the artists through a screen.

One such work is As Far As Isolation Goes which looks at the struggles of refugees and asylum seekers around the world.

As an audience member, you will interact with an artist one-on-one for 20 minutes. You will need a black marker pen and paintbrush, with which you will draw images on your arm as per the artist’s instructions.

Through these images, you will hopefully gain a deeper understanding of the pain and anguish asylum seekers go through when they’re forced to leave their homes and try to settle in a foreign country.

Creator Tania El Khoury says: “Although it’s a 20-minute work, many people say it kept them thinking for three to four days afterwards. Some people don’t even want to wash their arms, so the drawings stay on them for as long as two weeks, to serve as a reminder of the plight asylum seekers go through.”

Tickets are still available.

5. The Journey

By Scott Silven

Another online show that’s gotten good reviews is The Journey by Scott Silven, who combines art, science and mentalist techniques to create the illusion of reading your thoughts and knowing your secrets.

Through your screen, he takes you into his childhood home in Glasgow to tell the time-bending tale of a Rip Van Winkle-like character. But the story eventually loops back to you and the other audience members, to show how we’re all connected to one another.

Silven invites the audience to share objects and stories from their past – only to reveal that he’s telepathic and knows their choices even before they made them.

Most of the Singapore audiences have given this show the thumbs up, even if the more discerning types are saying: “This isn’t art – this is entertainment.” Why not see it and decide for yourself? Tickets are still available.

(Related: Concert review: May Mahler’s Fourth be with you)

6. OIWA — The Ghost of Yotsuya

By The Finger Players

It’s an ancient horror story every Japanese knows: Set during the Edo period, the beautiful Oiwa is courted by a samurai named Tamiya. But soon after they marry, Tamiya falls for the daughter of a nobleman instead. He hatches a plan to murder Oiwa and throw her body into the river. But Oiwa returns from the dead to exact revenge.

Adapted and directed by Chong Tze Chien, this version will be told with puppets using a combination of Bunraku and Ningyo Buri techniques. Human actors will play life-size puppets creepily manipulated by a group of human puppeteers. Chong says: “Although it is a ghost story, it essentially centres on a man and a woman who are trying to get along in a marriage. It is a story of dreams thwarted and desires unfulfilled . . . an age-old break-up story.”

That’s not to say that Chong is paring down the horror elements. The beautifully eerie soundscape, he promises, will send shivers down many spines.

Tickets are sold out. But you can watch it on SIFA On Demand video service after the festival.

7. SIFA On Demand

With several shows cancelled and audience capacities greatly reduced, the festival has taken the extraordinary step of filming many of the shows so that they can be streamed online for about two weeks post-festival.

You can pay S$15 for individual titles or S$60 for an all-access pass to watch most of the sold-out and cancelled live shows, such as The Commission, A Song For Louis and Three Sisters. Visit sifa.sg for more information.

Affected shows

SIFA is reducing the audience capacity and implementing Pre-Event Testing (PET) for the following live productions:

Three Sisters
The Year of No Return
OIWA – The Ghost of Yotsuya
A Dream Under the Southern Bough: Existence

The audience capacity for the following shows will be reduced, but there will be no Pre-Event Testing (PET) for them:

The Consoler
Ghosts of Yesteryear
Alone Together
The Mole Agent
A Human Voice + Lux Eterna
A Love Unknown
Gunda
Satantango

The following live shows have been cancelled. But some will be filmed and offered as video-on-demand. The latter titles will be confirmed later:

The Rhythm Of Us
Be Comforted Now: Bach Cantatas
Before Life And After
Echoes Of Fire And Water
Nature Of Daylight
A Thousand Ways Part III: An Assembly

SISTIC will be in touch with patrons affected by the cancellations and reductions in capacity.

This article was originally published in The Business Times.

(Related: Singapore International Festival of Arts returns amid new curbs)