Ong Keng Sen
Ong is a Fulbright scholar and studied intercultural performance with the Performance Studies Department at Tisch Schools of the Arts, New York University.
Themes and style
Ong is a member of the Asia-Europe Network, which promotes the artistic exchange between Asia and Europe. He has been applauded around the world for this kind of transcultural theatre which mixes Western and Eastern performance traditions, especially dance with spoken word drama. Ong is largely contributed to cultivating young, educated, imaginative audiences for new works. Ong's unique "process-oriented" projects involves placing wide ranges of master practitioners of different traditions on the same stage, but remaining independent in their own aesthetics. He is particularly well known for his performance at the Bunkamura Cocoon Tokyo production of Lear in 1997, his Desdemona at the Adelaide Festival, Australia in 2000, and his Search:Hamlet at the Kronbourg Castle in Elsinore and Copenhagen.
In 2013, Ong was appointed Founding Festival Director for four editions of the Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA), the revamped, independent version of the Singapore Arts Festival. As Founding Festival Director since June 2013, he is responsible for both artistic and executive directions including sponsorship, maintaining the financial well being, setting policy and creating the public profile for the Festival.
He was invited to recreate this national performing arts festival, formerly named the Singapore Arts Festival, after an industry review. He restructured the festival with a global vision and renamed it SIFA to highlight the Singapore and international perspectives in it.
Despite his artistic collaboration with traditional arts of Asia, Keng Sen has niched SIFA as an inclusive, multi-genre, contemporary arts festival including cross disciplinary work. This is to complement other cultural institutions in the compact nation-state of Singapore.
The last 3 annual festivals have seen SIFA growing from strength to strength under his baton. Audiences have grown beyond that of the former Singapore Arts Festival. Beginning with 20,000 audiences in SIFA 2014, this has increased to 62,000 and in 2016, the festival peaked with 155,000 attendances, 96% capacity houses and 75% of its performances sold out. Further in 2016, he was responsible for raising 20% of the S$9 mil festival through sponsorship.
In particular, he has brought an unprecedented quality to the festival, concentrating not just on quantitative performance indicators. His inspired artistic leadership has won him accolades locally but has also attracted the attention of colleagues in different countries and the international press from The Guardian to South China Morning Post to New York Times.
In his term, he has zealously safeguarded the public space of the arts in Singapore, winning audiences for his robust curation studded with breathtaking international artists bringing Asian premieres to SIFA. This is only possible with international partnerships drawn from his vast artistic networks around the world. He has striven to dynamically commission artistic challenging work from Singapore and international artists, winning support from both sides. It is a rare achievement in this contentious field with its local and international divide.
Specifically, the curation of Singapore artists has seen his sensitivity to the artistic and cultural needs of the city. Singapore artists have also benefitted from his thoughtful brokering of collaborations between them and international art stars. During his tenure, he has brought international artists to work deeply with Singapore art schools. He has capacity-built cultural development through his scaffold of an alternating international and local focus for SIFA from year to year.
Strategically, he has strengthened the engagement, outreach and educational directions of SIFA with The O.P.E.N., an exciting pre-festival of ideas. This has won praise for its innovation and fruitful communication with restless audiences wanting more.
He will complete his fourth and final festival in September 2017.
In addition to serving as festival director, Ong has directed one performance every year at the festival. Insisting on a unique porosity between art making and curating has resulted in a rich synergy for the pioneering Singapore International Festival of Arts. Ong directed Facing Goya, a Michael Nyman-composed opera, for the opening of Singapore International Festival of Arts 2014.
In 2015, Ong directed a six-hour site-specific performance, The Incredible Adventures Of Border Crossers, for the opening of the inaugural Singapore Festival in France at the Palais de Tokyo. The production involved 30 foreigners and explored what it meant to be a "border crosser". The festival also re-staged at Theater de la Ville Paris, TheatreWorks' Lear Dreaming, directed by Ong. In the same year, Lear, directed by Ong and written by Rio Kishida, was selected by The Business Times as one of the "finest plays in 50 years" alongside productions by Goh Poh Seng, Michael Chiang and Alfian Sa'at and others.
In 2016, Ong created Sandaime Richard based on Hideki Noda's script of the same title with kabuki onnagata Kazutaro Nakamura as Richard III. This groundbreaking gender bending production at Tokyo Metropolitan Theater was followed by a captivating new production of Trojan Women at the National Theater of Korea, inspiring Korean audiences with his masterful blend of pansori, K-pop and Greek tragedy. In particular, he stunned all by casting a male pansori singer as Helen of Troy.
Ong is the first artist to have received the two most acclaimed Singaporean cultural awards, the Young Artist Award (1992) and the Cultural Medallion (2003). In 2010, he received the prestigious Fukuoka Prize for Art and Culture for his contemporary performance directions.
- Leiter, Samuel (2007). Encyclopedia of Asian Theatre. Volume II.
- Leiter, Samuel (2007). Encyclopedia of Asian Theatre. Volume II.
- Nanda, Akshita (12 August 2014). "Facing Goya not for the fossilised, says director Ong Keng Sen". Singapore Press Holdings. The Straits Times. Retrieved 2 September 2014.
- Ng, Kelly (10 September 2014). "Local arts groups take French stages next year in three-month festival". MediaCorp. TODAY. Retrieved 10 September 2014.
- Tan, Corrie (10 September 2014). "France to host three-month festival of Singapore arts and culture". Singapore Press Holdings. The Straits Times. Retrieved 10 September 2014.
- Yusof, Helmi. "The finest plays in 50 years". The Business Times. Singapore Press Holdings. Retrieved 5 January 2015.
- Bio on Shakespeare In Asia website
- Culture base website
- Pathfinder website
- Emedia website
- Abc website
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