SIFA Plays It Safe

SHOULD one person’s taste prevail when presenting a national collection like the Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA)?

In recent years, SIFA programes have been the result of a funnelling of culture through the perspective of an individual. Ong Keng Sen and now Gaurav Kripalani assumed the responsibility of presenting a snapshot of the current cultural experience for a Singapore audience.

It’s no mean feat to curate something representative like that, given the multitude of influences that invade our senses. Be it the Internet, education abroad, travelling, or through the shows that come to Singapore, there’s an ever-evolving smorgasbord of cultural candy to choose from.

George Orwell’s 1984 was published in 1949 and is still too relevant.

Kripalani has grown up in this cultural pot. He studied theatre and has been 22 years with the Singapore Repertory Theatre. He’s travelled extensively for his craft. So, he knows his theatre.

He’s been forced to stretch as he’s stepped into the Festival Director’s role at SIFA. Beyond theatre, he’s got to look at dance and music, and then there’s the cross-section of Singapore community to consider. What will the various parties expect — The Arts House as organiser, and the National Arts Council as the commissioning body and the increasingly critical public?

After pondering the question, Kripalani carefully explains his perspective. “One of the reasons a festival director gets the job is for his or her taste. It’s also why it’s important to periodically change festival directors. Audiences benefit from different people’s tastes,” he explains.

As a beneficiary of the Singapore Festival of Arts (SFA), which was the precursor to SIFA, Kripalani is well aware of the influence culture has on formative minds.

“The Singapore Festival Of Arts (which replaced SFA in 1982)  and the other festivals I’ve attended have shaped my taste and interpretations, and my aesthetic. I would love to share some of my 20 years of experience with audiences.”

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Building Audiences

Kripalani intends to target new audiences and cultivate fresh enthusiasm with his curation.

“I would love it if there was a young person who walked out of SIFA 2018 and said ‘I never heard music like that.’ If we can achieve that, that would be amazing.”

What started as the biennial event in 1977, the SFA has grown to be recognised as part of Singapore’s cultural fabric. Over the years, as more events and facilities have cropped up, SIFA’s raison d’etre has become a bit uncertain in the growing complexity of the fabric’s warp and weft.

The Enemy Within,
Henrik Ibsen’s The Enemy Within, presented in German with surtitles. Photo: Arno Declair

In its early days, the SFA added a splash of colour as Singapore drove in determined fashion to achieve industry and productivity. Culture was a convenient tool to foster unity among the different migrant races. It was also a means of informing an outward-looking nation about what the rest of the world was up to. Today, with so much flowing into our smart devices, the role will SIFA play?

“The scene has changed a lot in the 20 years I’ve been doing this,” Kripalani notes. “In the early days, when SRT staged a show, there was a high likelihood it would sell out because there wasn’t as much happening in town.

“Now, the arts companies have to reinvent themselves to some extent and we all have to up our game to attract an audience because of the plethora of choice. It’s not just in the arts, it’s in exhibitions, Netflix…all the disruptors.”

Duke Ellington Orchestra
The Duke Ellington Orchestra will close off the festival with a free concert.

Even as the online space brings instant electronic gratification, Kripalani still sticks firmly by the old-school beliefs.

“Nothing beats the live experience,” he is quick to declare.

A Safe Lineup?

Juggling the S$4.5 million funding available for the festival, Kripalani’s line up for the first of his three festivals is a mix of classic and experimental fare with a leaning towards acceptability. Was it a case of experimenting while he found his footing with his first national festival?

“The programming was deliberate,” Kripalani insists.

Drawing on his experience at SRT, he feels he’s able to deliver on drama, but all those festivals he attended in the past are paying off as he dips into his memory to pull shows that would fit into the SIFA programme as he sees fit.

“I wanted George Orwell’s 1984 because the questions raised are pertinent to what’s happening in the world today. There is a greater degree of ‘Big Brother watching’…more state surveillance, fake news,” he echoes the oft-uttered sentiment.

“And I’ve always wanted to work with Thomas Ostermeier (the long-standing artistic director at Schaubuhne Berlin theatre). Sitting down and looking through their body of work, I felt their take on Henrik Ibsen’s Enemy Of The People would resonate with our audience.

“The programming…it wasn’t happenstance,” he reinforces.

Kripalani will add his touches to the festival through borrowed and shared experiences from his travels. He wants to bridge art and the public through talks, lectures, master classes programmed to keep the conversations going, and affordable tickets.

Javed Akhtar, Shabana Azmi,
Javed Akhtar and his wife Shabana Azmi perform Urdu poetry.

Making SIFA Friendlier

The Arts House will be transformed into the Festival House, the nerve centre of SIFA. Here, after-event meetings and conversations with some artists — choreographer Michelle Dorrance, Indian actress Shabana Azmi, Ostermeier, and Singapore-born, New York-based theatre practitioner Wang Meiyin — will take place.

He is pleased to set the tone of the three-week festival by “bookending” it with key events. This year’s opener, on 26 April is 1984, and the Duke Ellington Orchestra will serve up the big closer on 12 May with a free concert at the Singapore Botanic Gardens.

Jacob Collier
Jacob Collier leveraged social media to gain fame and Grammys.

Privileged to have been surrounded by the arts when he was growing up, Kripalani wants to widen his reach, especially to children. There are $10 tickets for selected shows for students. And for those who are new to the art forms, the Festival Starter Pass bundles three events — The Blues Project (dance), 1984 (theatre) and YouTube sensation and Grammy winner Jacob Collier (music). Do note that Collier’s show is sold out.

Kripalani’s ideal in his three-year spell is to position SIFA as Singapore’s “pinnacle national arts festival”. He wants it to reach out to a wider audience, and in doing that, encourage discussion that he hopes will raise questions and fuel debate; not just about the arts, but also about society.


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