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“An invitation to expand one’s palate”: Festival Director Natalie Hennedige on the multidisciplinary Singapore International Festival of Arts 2023

Natalie Hennedige

It’s the hottest month of the year, which means that it’s about time for the return of the Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA). Founded in 1977 and billed as the nation’s “annual pinnacle performing arts festival”, each year’s Festival has large shoes to fill, as each iteration promises to be more cutting-edge than the last. 

As Singapore emerges at last from the throes of pandemic restrictions, we’re excited to see how the second instalment in the present three-year festival arc, helmed by Festival Director Natalie Hennedige, will build on or break the mould of last year’s lineup, which was well received for its fresh spirit of authenticity.

To find out what SIFA 2023 has in store, we spoke to Hennedige, who is the founder and artistic director of Cake, a contemporary performance company dedicated to “multidisciplinary and adventurous” experiments both within and beyond the four walls of the theatre. 

It’s no surprise, then, that SIFA 2023 cuts across the usual generic demarcations of theatre, dance, music, film, and the visual arts, featuring a host of fresh collaborations across multiple venues—the stage, the black box, and even a rooftop bar. Programmed through three platforms, CREATION, SIFA X, and LIFE PROFUSION, this year’s festival also builds on last year’s exploration of virtual spaces, though on a pared-down scale. 

Ahead of the festival’s opening on 19 May, Hennedige gave us a glimpse into how this year’s thematic subtitle, Some People, resonates with last year’s Ritual—all under the larger umbrella of The Anatomy of Performance.

Touching on unconventional venues; the place of technology in contemporary performance; the importance of seeding artistic collaborations across diverse media and genres; and her plans to reach new audiences, her sharing hints at a smorgasbord of performances designed to whet your appetite and expand your palate. 

Hello Natalie! Let’s start with a few questions about the curation of the festival. How did you conceptualise the three-year arc for SIFA 2022-2024? And why the recurring title The Anatomy of Performance?  

The Anatomy of Performance considers the structural inner workings of performance and the dynamic quality of art to make strong creative impressions, to look at nuanced narratives and make sense of today’s complexities. 

Embracing performance is a way of getting us out of these silos of music or theatre or visual arts or dance. It also resonates with how artists are creating today. Artists are coming in with a perspective, a sense of research to what they came to explore, and they invite to the table collaborators who excite them, who they can spar with artistically. It’s a meeting of minds and disciplines. 

Each year there are subtitles to help focus the curation. 2022’s was Ritual and 2023’s is Some People. These two subtitles also interrelate. Ritual specifically looked at the elements, conditions of time, artefacts, and gestures that are applied in performance-making. 

Some People looks at the spectrum of the human experience. The narratives that chapter our lives, the trials and transformations, and how we occupy space in this world all determine how we perceive the world. So, [there’s] this idea that we live in the world, but we don’t experience it in the same way. 

Angel Island by Huang Ruo and Brian Gothong Tan. Image courtesy of Brian Gothong Tan.
Angel Island by Huang Ruo and Brian Gothong Tan. Image courtesy of Brian Gothong Tan.

I see Some People as a layer on Ritual. Some works in 2023 respond to Some People more directly. For instance, Angel Island by Huang Ruo and Brian Gothong Tan deals with historical examples of systemic racism and exclusion, while Joanna Dudley’s We Will Slam You With Our Wings, where 19th-century imperialistic portraits are replaced by young girls, echoes a feminist war cry through the ages.  

But something like, for instance, Joyce Ho’s A Day—which looks at intricate everyday rituals—resonates with the 2022 frame, but also sits meaningfully within Some People. The work is about something everyone can relate to: an anticipation of the future, but a complete inability to predict what tomorrow brings. As these three years unfold, there’s a continuum in the way the festival is conceptualised. 

Looking at last year’s edition of SIFA and this year’s lineup, one thing that stood out for me was the strong focus on cross-disciplinary practices. Could you tell me more about the process of commissioning the artists, and how you selected practitioners from different fields, bringing them together for these collaborations?

Well, that’s a huge question. It’s at the very heart of the work of the festival director. First of all, you have to be sensitive to the artists who are occupying the space. Also, having a pulse on the ways in which artists are creating internationally.  

There are two things that we really want to come behind. One is to celebrate originality in creation, which means that the festival stands behind works that have never been premiered before. 

Next, a festival platform is a platform for multiplicity. Collaboration is a wonderful way of expanding possibilities in art-making. The festival seeks out artists who are willing to embrace a conversation with artists creating across different disciplines and discovering different cultures.

The festival defines an exciting meeting point where work can be born from nuanced discussion. 

You mentioned earlier that part of programming is having a pulse on how artists create internationally. What are some trends or directions you’ve observed in contemporary performance, and how have artists in Singapore responded to or engaged with them through the Festival?  

I try to steer away from what’s considered a “trend”.  I will say, though, that coming out of 2020, the festival was also looking at how technology relates to art-making—how machines or non-human collaborators could come into play.

Technology encompasses transformation and artists are always looking at how things shift, how we can deconstruct or break or bend the rules. I wanted to invite the festival artists who had been, over the past decade or more, engaging with technology in their practice.

In 2022, for instance, we had Holly Herndon and her partner Matt Dryhurst, who are known for their technology-subverting art. We also had Lucy McRae who created a performance film and used low-tech approaches to explore high-tech conversations.  

In 2023, I wanted to take that out of the digital space that we had defined and look at technology in live performance. So, you have Sougwen Chung’s work, Realm of Silk, which enables non-human entities to create quite spontaneously in her painting performance. These robotic arms extend the possibilities of the hand-drawn line, philosophically making us meditate on the idea of transformation.  

Defining the space for technology to occupy live performance in this beautiful way—with Leslie Tan, Singapore’s renowned cellist, sharing that space—is a great example of how the festival facilitates these conversations. To put Realm of Silk together, the festival also made recommendations for a design team from Singapore, with set design by architectural studio Zarch and lighting design by Elizabeth Mak.  

In this way, the festival occupies a much more invested role, where we’re not dictating the art-making, but supporting the elements coming together.

You’ve got to be very creative and spontaneous to see how you might introduce elements to different artists, and that’s an engaged way to look at how a festival can support contemporary art-making. 

Could you tell me more about the differences between CREATION and SIFA X and what we can expect from them?  

A main difference is that the artists programmed under the CREATION platform tend to have experience behind them, so they’re often mid-career or well into their careers. But we wanted to create a space where we didn’t exclude other kinds of work, to embrace work in process.  

[Part of SIFA X,] Intermission is a collaboration between SIFA, BIPAM (Bangkok International Performing Arts Meeting) and George Town Festival (GTF), which came about when BIPAM was introducing us to the choreographer Thanapol (Virulhakul), who had been away for a while. Thanapol was revisiting his craft and looking at his process.

And we said, “look, let’s have this work.” It’s not ready, but it’s exciting, we’re involved in conversations, and it’s going to keep evolving. It’s also a wonderful way of reflecting a partnership between Southeast Asian festivals. 

SIFA X this year also encompasses a partnership with Centre 42, with a group show that embraces new writing and reflects on theatre-making that emerged in Singapore in the ’90s. 

There’s also Love Divine. The stage is CÉ LA VI and we have this edgy evening of burlesque-meets-rope performance, which begins with Daniel K. and Luke George binding a high-net-worth individual or a social influencer.

The second half of the evening will feature an explosive burlesque vaudeville performance, curated by SUKKI, Singapore’s queen of burlesque. The idea of a late-night party that encompasses performance is the opportunity not just to occupy an unusual space but also to relate to the work’s concepts, like how we relate to wealth in this city. 

It’s not just the sensational act of tying up a social influencer or a high-net-worth individual, but it’s also, as Daniel describes it, tying up a context.  

What about LIFE PROFUSION, which exists as a virtual stage in parallel to these two platforms? Last year, LIFE PROFUSION featured five content categories, whereas this year it centres on PRIVACY and PROMPT:PLAY. I’m wondering if the programming of physical and virtual events has shifted now that the pandemic situation has died down and travel is back in full swing.

One of the key things that I was keen to engage with was arts writing because festivals are not just about shows. They’re really about linking the art to all these ideas, these expanding ripples. 

I took away the other categories because they served us in 2022 when we were trying to define this digital space because borders were not really open and we weren’t sure if we could invite people. Now that we can have these post-show talks and workshops, I wanted to retain what was essential in this space, which for me was the voices of writers. I feel it’s intrinsically linked to art-making and performance-making. 

I’ve invited Hong Xinyi again to curate writers [for Prompt:PLAY’s Critics Circle Blog] because she links us to a wide range of wonderful people that engage with the festival insightfully. We wanted to keep that relationship going and focus on creation that is meant to exist in this digital space: creations that speak to a digital aesthetic and imagination, and look at the ethics of this digital life and these aspects of technology.  

PRIVACY is curated by MOJOKO. He’s invited local and international artists to create moving images that express how artists think about privacy [symbolically], with visually saturated moving images that remind us of history, society, politics, and popular art. 

What are some changes, initiatives, or new directions that you hope to bring about in your tenure as Festival Director? 

I hope these two years have demonstrated that a key focus of mine is to shine a light on local artists and to have them sit alongside international names. [Another goal is] to find definitions for the festival and how it sits in relation to the multiplying artistic spaces that are available to us in this city, by knowing what other venues and companies are producing and presenting. 

Could you tell me more about the different venues that you’ve programmed for the festival this year? 

I looked at the work first and decided what it needed. Quite a few of the pieces (such as Jaha Khoo’s) needed the clarity and focus of a black box space. 

A piece like The School was conceived as a promenade theatre piece, so it was in the concept that they didn’t want to occupy a conventional space. They were going to expand the possibilities of school as a notion, so they wanted spaces to create experiences of different classrooms, and have the audience move through these spaces. We decided that Stamford Arts Centre would be a suitable space for this. 

With Humans 2.0, we decided to come into a venue partnership with the Esplanade. And of course, CÉ LA VI [for Love Divine]. We thought, wouldn’t it be great if we projected this work in a space that embraced a late-night vibe, and a loose environment? And not only that, but to also be in a space with an audience that may not be so familiar with SIFA—CÉ LA VI’s following. 

In what other ways does this year’s festival aim to reach new audiences?  

The multidisciplinary nature of the work has enabled the festival to reach out to people from other art practices, such as design, music, the visual arts, and film. 

Rather than programming film, we programme film in performance. In 2022, Filipino filmmaker John Torres created in relation to Singapore writer Eleanor Wong. That’s a way of introducing independent film followers to the festival. This year too: having someone like [K.] Rajagopal work with Edith [Podesta].  

Once you arrive, you can—on your own, as you’re taking in the performance—make connections. That’s part of The Anatomy of Performance, because once you’re there, you start to see what the bones, the teeth, the flesh, the blood of this performance are; how these different art forms and artists are coming together to reflect a singular perspective.

What kind of attitudes do you hope audiences will bring to the festival in light of the multidisciplinary nature of the performances and the experimental spaces that you’re hoping to cultivate?   

My sincere hope is that our audiences will come in with an open mind, knowing that the festival has been put together with them in mind. And also with this desire—an invitation to expand one’s palette. 

If we were to liken this to a culinary experience, it’s not about doing away with the food that comforts you or the food that you recognise. But it’s to introduce something a little bit different, that’s all we need in our space. Performance is a way to widen one’s perspective, and this brings us back to the title of this year’s festival,The Anatomy of Performance: Some People.

We strongly believe that performance is a way of expanding one’s perspective by taking in another’s. And that’s the perfect way to gain empathy, making us more vital actors in this very complicated, very disturbed world that we occupy.  

This interview has been condensed for clarity and length. 

SIFA 2023 runs from 19 May – 4 June 2023. Click here to find out more and purchase tickets.

Feature Image: SIFA Festival Director Natalie Hennedige. Photo courtesy of Arts House Limited.

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