Kai is a perky Chinese-Singaporean woman wearing gray shorts, sneakers and a T-shirt adorned with cats. You get the impression she is getting ready for a run rather than a performance. The Ikea stools for the audience are arranged in an arch shape in part of the gallery close to a glass partition. My Brazilian friends, attending the performance with me, feel the audience setup is constrictive, mirroring public spaces in Singapore where any improvised crossing or alternative routes are obstructed by metal barriers and plant fences. It seems I have been in Singapore long enough to no longer pick up on bodily curtailment.
The text was written and first published in a Dance Mag, The Furor Issue, 2018.
Compressible Sentiments starts with Kai positioning two laptops running a countdown. When the countdown zeroes, a Chopin sonata starts playing. The two screens then flash the same text: “I have no friends”, as if providing emotional subtitles on the unfolding action. K starts moving towards what looks like a plastic T-Rex costume and starts swaying it on the floor and in the air. Once worn and inflated, the T-Rex head makes Kai significantly taller but means she has barely any frontal visibility and needs to rely on alternative markers. With her body taken over by the costume, K starts exploring the movements allowed by a half-inflated T-Rex.
The playful demeanor veers quickly towards self-harming, as the T-Rex starts banging his head against the glass wall and a concrete pillar. T finds one of the glass exit doors, goes out and starts jumping around the outdoor perimeter, before sprinting and disappearing from our view. When we catch sight of T again, he is on a different level of the building. He stops to wave at us and then continues running, pursued by someone desperately trying to capture this bizarre scene with his phone. For few minutes, we are left wondering if the performance is over and if we have ourselves become the spectacle for people outside the gallery. But eventually T returns panting and K starts getting out of the costume slowly. K’s head exits T through a zip, like a newborn emerging from the vagina. First, one eye peeks, then some black hair pushes through.
In the last part of the performance, without wearing the costume, K addresses the audience as T. She complains on his behalf of the pain and pranks inflicted on his body by Internet memes that were supposed to be funny. This is the moment in the performance when the suspension of disbelief breaks and Kai explains, using words, T-rex’s true feelings. She addresses us directly, until an audience member asks: “What would you like to do?” “A massage!” K replies on T’s behalf.
Some of us move closer to the deflated costume on the floor and – as instructed by Kai – we start gently stroking the inanimate object while singing a lullaby. There is compassion in our connected hands, bodies and voices.
The public enters the small theatre to find the artist, Madison, and a chorus of nine performers already on stage. With a beard drawn on with makeup, boxer shorts and open legs, M starts the act as a man. When M speaks into the microphone the flow is fast, like a rap beat. It is easier to distinguish the alliterations than to understand the words and sentences at speed. The amplified beat animates the bodies of the chorus on the floor. They start jumping up and around, moving in sync with strobe lights, similar to a rave.
Mollusk Theory: Soft Bodies merges pre-recorded videos, live performance, dance choreographies and the spoken word. The script is very tight and develops from an initial chapter called “Origins” which sees the artist visualize and dramatize her parents conceiving her by the ocean in Southern Australia. It continues with M (and the chorus) changing into costumes that mimic the roundness of jellyfish, cuttlefish and other genderless sea creatures.
M next becomes a femme, wearing platform shoes, a pale unitard and a long blonde wig. The chorus echoes the movements of the different bodies M inhabits – their limbs extending out of the holes of a temporary wooden screen. The partition moves backwards and forwards on the stage as shuffled by the ten performers hidden behind it, each moving with tiny steps in unison like a sea anemone.
Mollusk Theory is at the same time staged and undisciplined. The play is a pastiche of musical acts, philosophic concepts and linguistic repetitions, reminiscent of gospel music. There is a passage in which M sings questions to the chorus, like in a Mass for Socratic students, and they respond over and over with low-pitched and extended “I don’t knoooow”.
In Mollusk Theory, Madison quotes Jack Halberstam, who in The Queer Art of Failure writes: “We may, ultimately, want more undisciplined knowledge, more questions and fewer answers […] Disciplines qualify and disqualify, legitimate and delegitimate, reward and punish; most important, they statically reproduce themselves and inhibit dissent.”
I worked with Madison on re-staging this performance in Singapore with local participants: nine young dance students. We rehearsed every day for a week leading up to the performance. One of the challenges we faced was making the rave scene believable; the students had never experienced a rave before. Another challenge was to try to make each of their bodies forget its culturally-regulated discipline and embrace instinct and improvisation.
The first time we did a dress rehearsal, the students saw Madison wearing the costumes and started laughing out loud. Yet, after the show wrapped, all of them followed her on Instagram – I guess that is the ultimate validation.
Z is connected to the sea goddess of Java. Zarina Muhammad is an artist and lecturer based in Singapore. Her work analyzes and verbalizes the magic landscape that is consciously being eradicated in a society that professes technological capitalism. She recalls the histories and mythologies of the Malay peninsula and Indonesian islands before colonialism bulldozed most of them. I associate her with a distinctive floral smell, redolent of temple offerings and the flowers she employs in her workshops and performances. Z once told me about the Pontianak, the vampiric spirits of women who died during childbirth, which reside in banana trees and prey on the organs of the men who did them wrong. In many mythological figures, anger is channeled as revenge. Belonging to different times and geographies but united by their thirst for vengeance, from Medea in Greek mythology to the Pontianak in Malay.
Invited to respond to an exhibition by Irish artist Jesse Jones entitled Tremble Tremble, a quote from the Italian 1970s feminist slogan “Tremate tremate le streghe son tornate” (“Tremble tremble the witches have returned”), Z mobilized a group of about 20 Singaporean collaborators to perform before an audience of approximately 200 people. Each participant found a spot on the floor in different parts of the gallery. In the near-darkness, they started chopping flowers, lighting incense, playing music, chanting – first as individual acts that connected gradually into a climactic ensemble: a convergence of energy and release of force that was astounding to witness.
I have lived in Singapore for a year and half and I guess talking about these works in part helps me to address some of my own thoughts and observations about this strange place, where I often feel detached from my own body and from others. Pretty soon maybe touching digital screens will become the only tactile experience possible here. Public transport is already so silent – people do not talk or look at one another, eyes and hands glued to smartphones, often wearing earphones – an isolated capsule immune to external stimuli and fearful of germs.
Perhaps this is why these performances struck such a chord. Kai, Madison and Zarina are three women who could not be more different, but who to me share, to varying extents, the same power: anger and a desire to transcend rigid societal categories and pre-packaged relations. To look beyond binaries and grab the attention of those living in their capsules. Each performance seemed to say, in its own way and on its own terms: Take us all out of our boxes – we are angry, we are coming.