Ong Keng Sen is currently the Artistic Director of T:>Works (formerly known as TheatreWorks) where he has created much of his groundbreaking art. His approach to traditional arts of Asian in contemporary arts is grounded in his studies of intercultural performance with the Performance Studies Department at Tisch School of the Arts, NYU, and his intellectual girth in practice comes from holding a law degree. He has led the company since 1988.
Keng Sen has made his career as a performance director with sensitivity towards weaving traditional Asian arts into contemporary creation since 1997. His talent has been the ability to negotiate diverse traditional arts of Asia bringing the best traditional masters together in one performance with contemporary arts of all kind from film to dance to plastic arts to music. Hence he has actively contributed to the evolution of Asian identities in the theatre as well as the subsequent transglobalisation of the Asian aesthetic in contemporary arts.
He has consistently collaborated with different Chinese operas ranging from Beijing opera in seminal LEAR (premiered in Cocoon Theater, Tokyo in 1997, subsequently travelling to Hong Kong Arts Festival as well as Theater der Welt, Berlin in 1999), to Liyuan Opera in his well-received production about the life of Buddha and Pico Iyer’s book, THE GLOBAL SOUL (premiered in Haus Du Kulturen der Welt, Berlin in 2003), to Kun Opera in AWAKING (Singapore Arts Festival 2008) which juxtapositioned Tang Xian Zhu, the chief playwright of Kun Opera, and William Shakespeare, who both lived at the same time on different ends of the globe.
However central to his artistic direction has been the ability to coax traditional artists into contemporary frames and his intercultural approach of one holistic production. This is demonstrated in his last two productions in 2016, one within a singular tradition and the other bringing many Asian traditions together in a contemporary expression. The phenomenal TROJAN WOMEN (a Greek classic written in 300BC adapted into Korean realities of women in war) recently with the National Theatre Of Korea where he collaborated with pansori artists, including the national treasure Ms Anh Sook San as his composer, took Seoul by storm. It was a sold out hit, representative of his philosophy that tradition can be equally contemporary.
In the production, he attracted the top contemporary playwright and pop composer in Seoul to artistically transform pansori from the inside out to the global world. Working with international and Korean designers he inspired a whole team of traditional singers and musicians to embrace ancient Greek theatre as their own in a unique creation. A few months prior to this, he brought kabuki, kyogen and Indonesian shadow puppetry together with pop musical elements to make an intercultural SANDAIME RICHARD (RICHARD III) which opened in Shizuoka and then toured internationally to Singapore finishing with a successful month long tour in Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre and 4 other regional cities, proof that intercultural theatre can both be cosmopolitan and also extremely local.
Other productions involving tradition include Indian Kathakali and the 1000 year old Sanskrit theatre Kudiyattum-based DESDEMONA (premiered in Adelaide Festival 2000), SEARCH HAMLET with Balinese mask performance, Thai classical khon dance, Malaysian silat martial arts and Japanese Butoh, (premiered in Kronborg Castle, Denmark in 2002), GEISHA with Japanese classical dance nihon buyoh (Lincoln Center, New York City in 2006), noh theatre and virtuosis pipa music in LEAR DREAMING (Theatre de la Ville in Paris) and his epic yet simple documentary production which has travelled the world starring the legendary classical Cambodian prima donna Em Theay. This production, THE CONTINUUM, looked at the life of a classical dancer from the palace to the cultural revolution of the Khmer Rouge/Pol Pot till today.
His works have been presented throughout the world including Edinburgh International Festival; Palais de Tokyo in Paris, Tanzquartier Wien; Landestheater Linz (European Cultural Capital 2009); Rotterdam Schouwburg; Oslo Dansenshus; Stockholm Dansenshus; Zurich Theater Spektakel; Roma Europa Festival (Rome); Grand Theatre de la Ville Luxemburg; Idans Festival Istanbul; Cairo Experimental Theatre Festival; Panorama Rio de Janeiro; and Melbourne Festival.
In 1994, Keng Sen conceptualised The Flying Circus Project, a laboratory project that brings together traditional and contemporary Asian, international artists as well as other international artists from the fields of visual arts, video, documentary, new media, performing arts, as well as philosophers, literary specialists, and “new ritualists”. Beyond Singapore, he has enabled this in challenging local Asian contexts such as Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, Phnom Penh, Cambodia and Yangon/Mandalay, Myanmar. Further he has developed this work with Dasarts, Amsterdam; Goteborg Dance and Theatre Festival; Kiasma Helsinki; Live Arts London; Connection Barents in Kirkenes Norway; a:pass Antwerp in the Nu Festival in Tallin (European Cultural Capital 2011); the Summer Institute at The Kitchen New York City. A major exhibition that he participated in was Yokohama Triennale 2005 where he showed The Flying Circus Project (Special Edition, Yokohama): The School of Politics.
In 1999, he initiated a network for Asian artists to encourage inter-Asian engagement, known as the Arts Network Asia (ANA). This recently received an endowment from Ford Foundation for its sustained collaboration across borders in the arts and cultures of Asia. Further he created the Continuum Asia Project (2002/3) in Luang Prabang, Laos, working with elders and youth there to explore a sustainable developmental intervention through Asian heritage and traditional arts.
An important part of his work is in research with emerging artists, the latest being the mentorship programme for the Spielart Festival Munich and his curation for Goethe Institute of Sri Lankan dance makers in Colombo. He also takes part actively in lecture and conversation programmes, as well as teaching in various universities which include UCLA, the University of Amsterdam Masters of International Performance Research Programme (2011 and 2012). He was also Adjunct Professor with the National of University of Singapore for many years, having started the theatre studies programme there in 1992.
He has extensive expert experience in Europe. Keng Sen is the founder artistic director (2001 – 2003) of In-Transit, an annual interdisciplinary arts festival which continues in Berlin today. He initiated the curation of south east Asian contemporary art and performance in Europe with the Insomnia season for the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London (2005), as well as the Politics of Fun exhibition at the House of World Cultures, Berlin (2005).
Keng Sen was the Festival Director of the Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA). As Festival Director from 2013 – 2017, 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.
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.
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.
He completed his fourth and final festival in September 2017.
From 2011 – 2015, he served on the prestigious Awards Committee of the Prince Claus Fund for Culture and Development in Amsterdam. A Fulbright Scholar, Keng Sen is also the first and only Singapore artist to have received both the Young Artist Award (1992) and the Cultural Medallion Award (2003) for Singapore. He was awarded the much respected Fukuoka Asian Arts and Culture Prize 2010 for his work in Asian performance.