By Elaine Chiew
(1195 words, five-minute read)
‘A GAME OF NUMBERS’: Elaine Chiew interviews Mary Loh and Professor Victor Tan on the mathematically-themed NUS Arts Festival 2019 believed to be first-ever in Singapore.
Organised by NUS Centre For the Arts, a fete of mathematics-themed arts engagements in dance, music, theatre and film awaits us in the 14th NUS Arts Festival, which also celebrates the 90th Anniversary of the opening of the Dept. of Mathematics at NUS.
Prof. Victor Tan is the Deputy Head of NUS’ Department of Mathematics and Mary Loh is the Festival Director of the NUS Arts Festival. Here, she provides highlights:
The festival’s opening show, A Disappearing Number, devised by top theatre company Complicité, explores the relationship of self-taught Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan with Cambridge professor G.H. Hardy. She describes it as ‘a visual spectacle’, directed by Edith Podesta and featuring a well-known cast such as Remesh Panicker (The Merchant of Venice), Koh Wan Ching (Mortal Sole) and Pavan Singh (Chinatown Crossings) alongside creative talents Brian Gothong Tan, Steve Kwek, Teo Wee Boon and students from NUS Stage. It is also the first time a Singapore group has secured rights to stage this play.
Based on the personal stories shared by the members of NUS Chinese Drama, The Child Who Loved Numbers 《喜欢数字的孩子》 directed by Singapore theatre practitioner Judy Ngo features nine stories that explore how we carry the weight of numbers on our shoulders. The performance is developed collaboratively based on the personal stories of the members of NUS Chinese Drama.
Choreographed by dance doyenne Cultural Medallion recipient Mrs Santha Bhaskar, 28 is a Bharatanatyam dance that draw upon mathematical concepts in sequencing its five basic rhythmic beats (‘jatis’) that form the basis of Indian dance and music.
For lighter fare, films such as The Imitation Game and The Man Who Knew Infinity will also be shown, and admission is free.
For the launch on Thursday (March 7th) called Sine of the Times, math rock group LITE (Japan) will headline alongside Singapore indie math rock trio Forests and bands from the NUS campus.
EC: What prompted the theme?
ML: The NUS Arts Festival has been in existence since 2006, and is unique because it engages with not just student artists, but also professional artists and academics. Every year we’ve worked with a different NUS department, often exploring unusual intersections between the arts and sciences, or arts with humanities. For example, we presented ‘Wonder’ in collaboration with the Centre for Quantum Technology and the following year, NUS Wind Symphony worked with Centre for Biomedical Ethics on transhumanism in “Brave New Worlds”.
Given the current interest in issues such as Bitcoin, crypto-currency and data analytics, we wanted to interrogate the ‘love-hate’ relationship that people have with maths, despite its importance. The Dept. of Mathematics is having its 90th Anniversary this year, so we approached Professor Zhu Chengbo, the Head of Department about working together on a mathematics-themed festival.
EC: With mathematics being so broad, why ‘a game of numbers’?
ML: We tend to take numbers very seriously. In The Child Who Loved Numbers, we see how certain numbers like PSLE scores, height, weight, salaries can really affect us. Numbers, though, aren’t inherently good or bad; they’re neutral. So, we wanted to be more exploratory, to look at not just pure mathematics but also the lives of mathematicians, to play with the interlinking of mathematical ideas, such as rhythms and patterns, with art, as G.H. Hardy expressed, “Beauty is the first test, the mathematician’s patterns must be beautiful.” (paraphrased)
VT: Let me add that we picked the title because numbers are simple and relatable to the audience. Yet, if you think about it, numbers are entirely abstract; they don’t exist just by themselves. This is the essence of mathematics.
EC: Professor Tan, how would you characterise the appeal and interest for you in working on the festival?
VT: It’s put back to use my younger-days’ passion in the violin and in Chinese theatrical drama. Even so, I’ve not been involved in dance before. Working on 28 and seeing how the Fibonacci sequence is conceptualised and then choreographed into the rhythmic beats of Indian dance is eye-opening.
EC: To people wary of maths, how would you encourage them to leapfrog over the mental barrier?
VT: I would say just come attend the events and appreciate the particular art form for what it is. The festival’s intention is to make maths more visible, to show how mathematics works itself into all different arts forms. For the Indian dance item 28, I will present to the audience about Fibonacci numbers and its relationship to the Golden Spiral which will be projected onto the screen behind the dancers. I hope it will augment the experience of enjoying the dance.
ML: All the events are accessible to the less-mathematically inclined. It was revelation to me when actor Aninda Rao in A Disappearing Number characterised theatre as make-believe, but said that maths is real. Pythagoras is long dead, but his theorems are still in use. Amazingly, maths coming in this unusual form of a theatrical play is really about connections and finding different ways to think about the world. Cradled in the relationship between arts and mathematics is this thing called imagination. Take ∞. Infinity is uncountable, and numbers go onto ∞, but did you realise that infinity also exists in between each whole number? Between 0 and 1, you have 0.1, 0.11, et cetera. It is mind-blowing. Our hope is that the festival challenges people, but that they also come away with a different understanding about our relationship with numbers.
EC: Does the dialogue extend the other way? Do the arts inform the practice of mathematics?
VT: Definitely. The branch of Applied Mathematics is about the real world, whether we’re talking about an engineering or economics problem. When the mathematical model is insufficient to describe the problem, we have to refine and improve the concepts and techniques. The other day in Critical Conversations (series of talks and panels discussions in the festival), Professor Varella spoke about using computational maths to analyse Javanese dance: how certain dance movements might shed light on characters. In this computational process, if the existing mathematical theory is insufficient to explicate certain patterns, he might need to explore ways to close the gap. His new discoveries thus advance the field of mathematics.
EC: Were there challenges for the festival’s arts practitioners in working through mathematical concepts?
VT: Not challenges per se as a number of my colleagues shared their mathematical knowledge, such as tessellations with the Harmonica Orchestra, or game theory with the Chinese orchestra. In 28, the Fibonacci number ‘8’ does not exist as a rhythmic beat, which threw the dancers, but I explained that these numbers actually manifest in the real world, and this helped them somehow bridge the numerical absence.
ML: Our challenge, or perhaps ongoing endeavour, is to have further future collaboration between arts and mathematics, to put the ‘a’ in STEM subjects, which NUS, as a leading university, is known for. STEAM!
Mary Loh is the Festival Director for NUS Arts Festival and the Head of Talent Development & Programming at NUS Centre For the Arts.
Professor Victor Tan is the Deputy head at the NUS Department of Mathematics and is the President of the Singapore Mathematical Society. He has also been writing scripts for stage plays since 2006.
Guest contributor Elaine Chiew is a writer and visual arts researcher in Singapore. She currently works at the Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore.