Judging from where and how often I bump into Australian Stephanie Burridge and her Singaporean husband, Robert Liew, they’re on the A-list of just about every arty-farty event in Singapore. But that’s unsurprising: she’s a veritable doyenne of dance, and he’s a pioneering impresario whose company has been bringing in soloists and performing arts groups from all over the world for the past 28 years.
As I cross the threshold, Robert shows me his latest toy: an AER amplifier. Though he no longer plays seriously, he informs me (half-) jokingly that he’s “still the best”; and to prove his point, pulls out one of the guitars in a corner of the room, plugs it in and serenades me with a jazzy rendition of Bach’s “Bourrée in E Minor”.
The AER brand is closely associated with Tommy Emmanuel, “one of the greatest guitarists in the world,” says Robert. He himself plays both acoustic and electric guitar now, having taken up pop guitar in his youth and then trained in classical guitar at London’s Royal Academy of Music. (In their bedroom is a handsome black-and-white photograph of him in those days, taken in 1975.) Robert was the first Singaporean Artistic Director of the Singapore Arts Festival, and established his own company, Arts Management Associates (AMA), in 1988. Through that company, he brought the big Broadway productions to Singapore for the first time, plus a slew of internationally renowned ballets and symphony orchestras.
What’s more, he and Stephanie clearly enjoy opening their home to visiting artists – usually a pool party where the wine “and everything else” flows. “We can’t host a whole symphony orchestra here, though we have invited the Ballet Jazz de Montreal; by the end, they were dancing in the garden on their backs,” he twinkles naughtily.
Which of these dance and theatre companies were the most memorable for him? “For me,” says Robert, “it’s the really fascinating and esoteric ones such as Mummenschanz, Momix, Pilobolus, and Compagnie Philippe Genty – not necessarily the ones with the biggest audiences.”
“Of course,” he adds, “we always cherish the primas such as Placido Domingo, the New York Philharmonic, the American Ballet Theatre and the Paris Opera Ballet.”
Is AMA slowing down after 28 years in the business? “No, I’m as busy as ever,” says Robert; “The market is more competitive now, so I can’t afford to slow down.” Upcoming highlights include the Brussels Jazz Orchestra on 27 September; Tommy Emmanuel (again), on 26 October; and the perennially popular Vienna Boys’ Choir, on 2 November.
As a pioneering arts presenter, he has won international recognition. On display is a medal bestowed on him in 2008 by the French Ambassador: Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters). He also has its Italian equivalent, the Ordine della Stella d’Italia (Order of the Star of Italy). “If I wear that one out to dinner,” he quips, “I get a bigger serving of pasta!”
And the piano? It’s Stephanie’s, and she gets great pleasure from playing it for herself – not to get better at it, she says, but just for relaxation. She paints, too, in the same upstairs room where she does her morning tai chi practice.
Stephanie grew up in Tasmania’s capital, Hobart. She’s been dancing since the age of four-and-a-half, when she started lessons with “a wonderful immigrant who had been with a Russian dance company and taught us Russian-style ballet”. In her study is a portrait of at her first performance, at the Theatre Royal Hobart, cute as can be in a very large pink tutu.
After school, she went on to train in London and then performed in many places around the world. “But for me,” she says, “it wasn’t all about being a dancer. I’ve always had a keen interest in choreography and the creative side of dance.”
She returned to Australia in 1978 as the artistic director of the contemporary Canberra Dance Theatre company, a role she held for 21 years. As it was the resident dance company of the Australian National University, she took the opportunity to do a BA degree in Art History and Anthropology there, and eventually completed a PhD in dance from the London Contemporary Dance School in association with the University of Kent. As a professional choreographer, she has choreographed everything from ballet and opera to musicals, and even the floor routines for the Australian women’s gymnastics team at a series of Olympic Games.
Since moving to Singapore in 2001 to teach at Lasalle College of the Arts, and now also at SMU, Stephanie says she’s become more of an academic than anything else. Amongst her various published writings – including a number of dance-related pieces for Expat Living – is a Routledge series titled Celebrating Dance in Asia-Pacific. “We’re also working on Evolving Synergies: Celebrating Dance in Singapore, which will be out next year.”
Nevertheless, she’s also looking forward to a couple of upcoming choreography projects, starting with a visit to Canberra this October to choreograph her previous company’s 35th anniversary show. “It will be nice to be back in the studio after having been away from it for a while.”
Does she still dance? “I don’t seek it out, but still might do it if I’m asked. I’ve done some faculty dancing at Lasalle; and when friends of ours held a soiree at a lovely black-and-white house a while ago, I danced for them there. But as a mature dancer, I’m not going to be dancing Swan Lake en pointe!”
Stephanie and Robert bought this house six years ago for its location. These double-storey Old Upper Thomson Road houses line what was the old F1 track; wonderfully, they face straight across the narrow road onto a wall of greenery that is the boundary of Lower Peirce Nature Reserve. Just beyond their front gate is a secluded entrance to the jungle boardwalk.
It was Robert who found the house, Stephanie recalls. “And as soon as I stepped onto the boardwalk, I said this was it. It’s wonderful to be able to go for walks each day through the natural greenery and beside the wide, watery expanse of the reservoir.” Space, nature and greenery were very important to her, she explains, as she grew up in Tasmania. Birds and other wildlife are certainly plentiful; the monkeys do their daily rounds and there are even wild boars in the undergrowth.
As the house was sound, not much needed doing. Stephanie and Robert knocked down the original front wall, replacing it with floor-to-ceiling glass to create an indoor-outdoor connection; they installed a pool in the front; and they converted the back scullery area into a romantic whirlpool spa retreat, complete with wall-mounted surround sound. “The Jacuzzi is always switched on and ready for action,” according to Robert.
I can imagine how lovely it must be after dark, when the lights come on. Speaking of which, it appears that Robert has a thing for DIY, and particularly for lighting effects. Throughout the house is a complex system of sidelights, focus lights and spotlights, all his own handiwork; he also framed and hung the artwork, and even constructed the lit glass cabinet in which a prized Dali sculpture, Carmen Castanets, is displayed.
Beautiful golden retriever Topaz was adopted from the SPCA, during a time when Robert was doing some advisory work for the organisation. “Topaz has a lovely nature,” says Robert. “He takes after me.”
Collecting Australian Aboriginal art is another of Stephanie’s passions, sparked, she says, by the time she spent in Aboriginal communities. For her graduate education degree, she chose Aboriginal schools as her area of study.
The print of turtles and fishing boats in the dining room is by Banduk Marika, from Yirrkala, Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory; the print above the piano is by Sally Morgan of Western Australia. Three bark paintings on the upstairs landing are from Ramingining in Central Arnhem Land; others are by Stumpy Brown and Honeychild, both artists from the Kimberly region of Western Australia. There’s also a pair of Mimis, or spirit figures, by the sculptor Crusoe.
Australian artist Tony Twigg, a friend of Stephanie’s, created the tall sculpture of three figures – he likes to use found objects, such as the packing cases used in this piece, and shows his work at Taksu Gallery in Holland Village.
Canopy Garden Dining and Bar at Bishan Park 2 has a lovely and dog-friendly setting
ReDot Fine Art Gallery for its Australian Aboriginal fine art
FairPrice Finest at Thomson Plaza for its Culina organic butcher and deli
Lower Peirce Reservoir Nature Trail is a leisurely 20-minute circuit through the jungle on the boardwalk
Arts website for what’s on:
Favourite travel destinations:
Hobart, Tasmania’s fabulous MONA (Museum of Old and New Art) for its extraordinary art gallery, winery, fine dining and accommodation
Italy (Milan, Verona and Venice) for opera, fashion and fine art
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