By SMU Office of Student Life and Arts Festival Student Marketing Taskforce
The Singapore Management University (SMU), well known for its warm and vibrant student community, is home to over 20 student arts clubs in dance, music, theatre, culture and visual arts. Over the last 20 months, the arts, like many other aspects of learning, has had to alternate between pushing on and taking a break, and its community toggled between in-person and virtual interactions. Despite the challenges, the pandemic did not put a stop to SMU’s resolve in putting up quality arts showcases.
A major event on SMU’s arts calendar is its annual SMU Arts Festival taking place from 30 November to 30 December 2021. Involving over 300 cast and crew members, the online festival is aptly themed 2GETHER AS 1, signifying the strength of unity within the SMU arts community in overcoming new odds which have become a regular occurrence in the face of Covid-19.
So near yet so far
For art forms involving expulsions of air such as singing, playing wind instruments and drama, the Safety Management Measures (SMMs) requiring performers to be at least two metres apart at all times were crippling.
“This change was the most devastating to dancers – especially for my item, Latin ballroom partner dance.” shares Lim Shen Jie Jeff, who participated in Sentience, a programme on the inter-dependence of mankind and robotic machines. “Without being able to touch each other, the essence of partner dancing was lost,” adds Jeff, a Year Four School of Computing and Information Systems (SCIS) student and past President of SMU Funk Movement, a street style dance club.
Sentience is a first-of-its-kind collaboration between dancers from SMU and robotic machines from NUS Advanced Robotics Centre
Other art forms were required to abide by a one metre social distancing guideline, which also proved to be a challenge. Gu Jiawen, a SMU Chinese Orchestra’s Marketing Director and percussionist, had to perform in open space. “The one metre distance prevented us from relying on audio cues from fellow musicians, and we had to rely on click tracks to help us,” shares Jiawen, a Year Two Business student at the Lee Kong Chian School of Business (LKCSB). A click track is a series of audio cues used to synchronise sound recordings, which is now commonly used to coordinate remote digital recordings involving multiple performers. It was a common feature in the preparation of Jiawen’s programme, Rhythmology, a music production about the multicultural beats and rhythms underpinning the Singapore identity.
Rhythmology explores cultural beats and rhythms underpinning the Singapore identity, through dance, traditional music instruments, and sounds from vocal and body percussionists
Performing to an empty theatre
Up until recently, school clubs had been forbidden to hold performances for a live audience of any size. “The loss of a live audiences was quite unfamiliar for an art form as intimate as theatre,” affirms Ong Yu Huey Ariel, a Year Three School of Social Sciences (SOSS) student, who was a cast member of On N. Diversion Road, the award-winning stage play by Filipino playwright Tony Perez.
To recreate the sense of immediacy with the off-screen audience, this staging of On N. Diversion Road was recorded from multiple angles, transforming it into an interactive play where viewers could customise their viewing experience. “I have learnt that theatre, even during the pandemic, cannot be limited or contained. It is especially during a time like this that such an art form should have an even greater place in our journey to recovery and care for one another,” shares Ariel, who is also President of SMU StageIT – SMU’s theatre club.
Standing tall despite the heightened alert
For a four-week period from July to August 2021, Singapore entered its second Heightened Alert which forbade in-person classes and CCAs. This meant that all in-person rehearsals and filming had to come to an abrupt hiatus.
“Heightened alerts caused our practices to shift online temporarily. Being a music CCA, it was difficult to practise together online, and we had to do remote learning through Zoom sectionals and videos,” says Yatty Oo, President of the university’s Afro-Brazillian percussion band SMU Samba Masala, which was also a part of Rhythmology.
Jeff agrees. “Online training required a lot more mental preparation, like brainstorming concepts and moves. Although we saved time on traveling, we still preferred to dance together to get an idea of how the items would look like when we executed it.”
Generating new chemistry through collaboration
The festival theme, 2GETHER AS 1, shaped and sparked many unique collaborations, a few of which were groundbreaking in the tertiary student arts scene. Sentience for example, was the first arts production to combine dance with robotic machines provided by the NUS Advanced Robotic Centre.
Rhythmology was also unique in presenting three percussion pieces that made use of instruments representing various cultures, accentuated by digital effects and dance. Yatty adds, “This SMU Arts Festival has shown me that the opportunities to work together are endless and there are actually many different artistic styles that we can explore!”
Students were thankful for the experience to work with collaborators whom they normally wouldn’t have had the chance to rub shoulders with. These included celebrated local artists such as dance choreographers ScRach MarcS and Andy Benjamin Cai, theatremaker Tan Shou Chen, music composer and academic, Dr Zechariah Goh, just to name a few.
Ariel says, “SMU Arts Festival has a special place in my heart. Though it took great effort to prepare, the experience of getting to work with industry professionals, alongside a team of dedicated and passionate members, despite all the restrictions, has been nothing short of a blessing.”
On N. Diversion Road follows 10 couples driving on the same highway North Diversion Road, and their varied approaches to marriage, love, and betrayal
Watch SMU Arts Festival for free from now until 30 Dec 2021 here.
This is the first of a two-part article. Look out for part two of the article dropping soon!
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