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SCR IN SINGAPORE : Festival Raises Issue of East-West Ethnic Focus

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As warmly as South Coast Repertory has been received here for its vibrant production of George Bernard Shaw’s “You Never Can Tell,” the contemporary Japanese dance company Sankai Juko made a bigger splash over the weekend at the opening of the Singapore Festival of Arts.

The most obvious reason was that festival officials had promoted the five-man dance troupe as “erotic” and “shocking"--sensationalist hype picked up and flogged in the local press.

This was bound to stir avid curiosity, particularly in a society seemingly bent on achieving moral purity along with economic might: All sex is edited out of movies here. Playboy and similar magazines are not allowed into the country. Videotapes, including those brought in by tourists, must be screened by customs. Recently, two teen-agers came under intense public scrutiny for kissing on a bus, an open intimacy frowned on even by the young.

“We must keep up the standards,” said Aquila Moses, a genial Singaporean who can’t be more than 20 years old. “They were not married.”

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Meanwhile, all theatrical productions--amateur or professional--must be licensed by a government censor. Yet festival officials are also government officials. And so the paradox of the government promoting Sankai Juko as something forbidden served only to heighten the curiosity about its two performances at the 1,744-seat Kallang Theatre, one of the six main venues of the monthlong festival.

Of course, the dance cognoscenti were primed for Sankai Juko by the fact that it has toured the world many times--the troupe was last seen in Los Angeles during the 1984 Olympics--but had never been to the Asian Pacific outside of Japan, Australia and New Zealand. The appearance was, therefore, long awaited. By contrast, nobody had heard of SCR. Before coming here, it had never toured beyond California.

Further, butoh dancing as performed by Sankai Juko can be stunning, and the piece it presented--"Unetso,” which premiered in Paris in 1986--did not disappoint. For 90 minutes without intermission, the dancers put on a ritualistic sand-and-water show about birth and death that was visually spectacular, musically entrancing and conceptually profound. Nothing about it, however, was remotely erotic or shocking.

The less obvious but perhaps more significant underlying reason for the intense interest in Sankai Juko had to do with regional cultural relevance and the question of whether the influence of Eurocentric culture in particular should be embraced whole, assimilated and transformed, or simply rejected. It is an issue that the whole arts festival of several hundred acts is grappling with, not always successfully.

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In one respect, butoh embodies European influences without for a moment resembling anything Western. Sankai Juko is based in Paris--its completely Japanese flavor notwithstanding--and its works are a derivation of everything from Kabuki and Noh theater forms to German Expressionism, environmental activism and performance art.

The successful amalgamation of such various artistic strains makes considerable sense for Singapore’s multiracial, multicultural, multilingual mix of Chinese, Malays, Indians and Caucasians. Shaw, on the other hand, would seem to require a strictly Eurocentric focus both from its audience and its players.

That, at least, was an issue raised by Wong Chek Hooi, a student at the National University of Singapore who attended an SCR workshop Saturday on producing “You Never Can Tell” and other Shaw plays. The workshop, attended by two dozen members of the Singaporean theater community, was led by SCR’s producing artistic director David Emmes, artistic director Martin Benson, costume designer Shigeru Yaji and scenic designer Cliff Faulkner.

Although Hooi did not use the label Eurocentrism , it very definitely applied.

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“I think one of the greatest difficulties in the local context of Asian actors is interpreting this traditional play,” he noted. “For example, the costumes reflect a strong (British) cultural background. I can’t imagine an Asian actor wearing Victorian costumes without the audience laughing.

“If we really want to integrate G.B. Shaw into the local context, what is the best way possible?” Hooi asked. “What things can we do to bring him across without looking ridiculous? Even the Asian facial structure is different (from Caucasians’). Nobody would believe us.”

The SCR panelists gave a wide range of answers, citing the move toward color-blind casting in the United States as well as successful adaptation of Western dramatic material for Eastern consumption, such as some of Akira Kurosawa’s movies. But it was Faulkner who waxed most eloquent.

“One way to answer the question is to look at both extremes,” Faulkner said. “You can do Shaw absolutely authentic to the period, with every last detail, and ignore the discrepancies you are talking about. Or you can ask yourself what makes Shaw exciting for an Asian company?

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“Does the particular play have values and issues that pertain to the Asian cultural experience? I’m certain Shaw has resonances. One way to make a production exciting would be to find design elements from an Asian background, and put those on stage--either entirely within an Asian design scheme or mixing Eastern and Western together.

“You can show visually that the play relates to your culture, and to more than one culture. I think the discrepancies you mention should never be seen as a hindrance, but rather as a challenge.”

However, when the festival itself has tried to meet that challenge, it has made some peculiar choices. For instance, the Repertory Philippines has been invited to do Robert Harling’s “Steel Magnolias” as a main event in what is called the Core program, while W.S. Rendra, Indonesia’s leading playwright and a literary figure of world stature, has been shunted off to the Fringe festival without a production, although he did lecture.

The festival has little artistic cohesion and almost no daring vision. It is, for the most part, a safe festival. At the same time, festival officials deserve credit for bringing the South African exiled dancers, the Amandla Cultural Ensemble, to the Fringe.

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In fact, the Fringe as a whole is probably more interesting than the Core and a lot like the remarkably eclectic shopping here: If you know what you’re looking for, it’s a bargain hunter’s paradise. But you have to be able to spot the genuine article.


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