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With Singapore’s geographical location and cultural dislocation in Southeast Asia, the country has been ripe for artistic collaborations that reframe its relationship with the region. Singaporean arts managers have become intercultural interlocutors of sorts, connecting Singapore and its neighbours through the performing arts.
Producers Tay Tong and Esplanade’s Faith Tan talk about the kick-starting of long-running artistic exchanges and how they go about creating suitable platforms for making and presenting work. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Faith Tan: I recently attended a brainstorming session with colleagues from Asia and Australia to discuss a Dance Network for Asia, where we listed all the platforms for performance presentation, funding, and residencies or process-based support.
There was a long list of platforms for presentations and festivals, but a very short list for funding bodies and research grants across Asia, and an even shorter list for dance residencies and process-based support for dance within Asia.
If there is no funding for research, how will dancemakers who aren’t able to get international support or have such mobility be able to develop a focused contemporary practice within Asia and stay in Asia? As it stands, dancemakers often don’t invest in longer processes for research, having become accustomed to operating under limited resources, and the expectation to keep creating “finished” productions.
I feel more grants and initiatives to support dance research, process and residencies would be highly beneficial to dancemakers across Asia. In Singapore, one exciting recent development is the National Arts Council’s Dance Nucleus, which supports process-based critical research for independent dance artists. The Esplanade’s da:ns lab was also created in response to this need, and every year we shift its focus according to what is urgent.
In its first year (2015) we focused on identifying what independent practice means, and in our third edition last year we examined artistic practice in relation to the ongoing global political crisis. With the support of the National Arts Council and Goethe-Institut, we were able to invite six dancemakers from Asia to be participants. It’s important for performing arts institutions like Esplanade to be able to create spaces not only for presentations, but also for other parts of the creation process that are inclusive to artists beyond our own country, especially when there is a great need for it.
Faith Tan: The challenge that institutions, funders and policymakers often have is to justify the use of the funds to support art, and thus establish clear outcomes from an investment. Sometimes risk-taking and failure in an outcome-based system is hard to build in. However, if we see each contribution we make as a small but essential step that collectively, over a very long time, is essential to moving dance forward, then we accept that there are no grand, instant outcomes that will come of one project or one platform.
In Asia, funding conditions are also often limited to the country’s artists who have nationality there; however given the way some contemporary artists work now, living in several cities, I believe adopting the style of funding that I’ve seen Goethe-Institut take—where it supports artists who are based in and work significantly within Germany, in spite of their nationality—is a useful one that also attracts talented artists from beyond one’s country to invest in another location. In this wider sense of collaboration, I feel this would open up the movement and flow of ideas and dialogues within dance, and create different energies and possibilities for creativity.
Tay Tong: Can we imagine our Southeast Asia, our ASEAN, as something like the European Union? If I make a work in Brussels, for example, I can tour it very easily across Europe. Why can’t we do that in Southeast Asia? I’d like to convince Singaporean policymakers that we can be an enabler for the region. If we can build capacity in other countries, there will be returns by way of opening up new markets for the kind of art that we would like to share. The Singaporean market is saturated, and if we don’t begin to see the outside world as our next market, our hinterland, we’re going to collapse.
One of the things I really want to do is to show Singaporeans good models of practice in Southeast Asia where artists and arts groups have no or very little government support and resources, but they make things work. Why is it possible for them, but not possible for us? I feel like there’s something to be learnt there. There are still certain kinds of experiences that we can share. For example, we are a bit more organised in terms of funding, in terms of infrastructure, and to a certain extent, management support. We can give that kind of advice. But I think the region doesn’t need Singapore as a bridge any longer. The rest of the world is going directly to our Southeast Asian neighbours, so that role is no longer available for us, it’s no longer sustainable.
I hope that Singapore will continue to adopt the sense of openness that has always been the success of the country: being open, being porous, and not being protectionist. The world has become so much more complex, more intricate, and more expensive. We can no longer do this kind of work by ourselves. On the ground, we can work with artists and colleagues to get a buy-in, and we can build connectivity. But then we need policymakers to talk to their colleagues and neighbours and get them to think in the same way.
There was no way an official agency could get into Myanmar in the 1990s, because there were so many sanctions on the country. But through arts and culture, through people-to-people exchanges, we could begin to understand the country and have a two-way conversation: inviting their artists out, as well as us going in. For the 1998 Flying Circus Project, Myanmar was one of our countries of focus. That relationship continued, and in 2013 the Flying Circus Project went back to Myanmar after it opened up.
Tay Tong: I really believe in the value of the internationalism of the arts. I’m speaking generally here, but I think that one of the issues with Singapore is that we are so well-off compared to our neighbours that we’ve become entitled. And, sadly, that sense of entitlement leads to insularity and navel-gazing. The reality of the situation is that if you take away these resources, how do you compete with our Southeast Asian colleagues? They are often much hungrier and much savvier when it comes to navigating the complexities of the international scene. I really want to find a way to encourage more of our Singaporean artists to put themselves out there.
Faith Tan: As an arts venue, we connect artists and their productions to audiences in Singapore. One of the challenges is that while the programmers and producers understand the context of the artist’s work, Singaporeans coming to watch a performance may not. It’s important that audiences have a dialogue with the work and understand its significance beyond what they see on stage. Therefore the team at Esplanade has been thinking hard about how we can deepen this conversation with the audience meaningfully, going beyond the post-performance talk. For me, this is the next stage of audience appreciation, and is key to getting more people invested in supporting and talking about Asian artists.
This interview was first published in Cultural Connections Volume 3, May 2018, published by The Culture Academy Singapore.
Corrie Tan is associate editor and resident critic with Arts Equator, a Southeast Asian arts platform based in Singapore. She has also written about theatre and performance for The Guardian, The Stage, Exeunt Magazine and BiblioAsia.