Eyes Open. Eyes Closed (a.k.a. Traitriot) by Venuri Perera / My Mothers and I by Chey Chankethya

Ng Yi-Sheng

September 2, 2015

Everyone’s been saying Dance Marathon has been great, but a friend last night pointed out something more specific: that the pairings for the double bills have always been really good matches in terms of complementing/contrasting themes and styles.

And that was really obvious with this offering: two women choreographers from countries with violent pasts, coming out of traditional dance into text-based performance.

First up is Venuri Perera's Eyes Open. Eyes Closed (a.k.a. Traitriot). This is a short piece: just 20 minutes long.


She starts off real cazh, asking for the house lights to be turned up, asking us all if we can follow her instructions: whenever she says "eyes closed", we should close our eyes, and whenever she says "eyes open", we should open them again.

Perera: Sometimes, for variation, I will say, "Open," or "Closed." It means exactly the same thing.

She tests it out on us a little - she wants to make sure we're not gonna peek! - and then we begin.

The main thing she's doing is this stylised walk - hips heavily weighted to each side, like a bronze statue of a Hindu goddess - and when she commands us to shut our eyes and open them again, she pops up in another location, in another line of flight. (Later she told me the walk is actually exemplary of everything she's NOT supposed to do in Kandyan dance, because it's too sensual.)

The exercise of opening and shutting eyes is pretty interesting by itself. We get an after-image of her body on the insides of our eyelids when we shut them, and we can tell when the house lights go up and down (as they do). And there's always the temptation to peek, which I did once - just once! (Nothing much to see: she just walks from position to position. Meh.)

But then she starts doing weirder stuff:


That disembodied mouth-vaj also becomes an eye-vaj at one point. Also, there's a scene in which (behind the table) she takes off her top and slams her head repeatedly into a suitcase.

And there's a scene in which her disembodied voice commands us:

Perera: Open your mouth. Turn up the sides of your lips. More. More! More!

And folks don't know whether to obey or not, so they're looking at each other making these funny faces.

And me, I misheard "more" as "moo", so I'm trying to making a cow sound with my mouth open, and confusing the hell out of everyone even more.


By the end, Perera, is clearly hurt, and there's a flash where she's brutalising herself, one whole fish against the cavern of her mouth -

And then "eyes closed", and she's gone.

I'd honestly expected a piece with the subtitle "traitriot" to be more explicitly geopolitical: something which we would look at and think, "Oh my, the Sri Lankan Civil War was so terrible, how brave of her for acknowledging her complicity as a Sinhalese woman, hum-hum."

But the lack of obvious labels made such distancing impossible here. Which is just what the choreographer wanted.

She later told us the whole device was created more or less by accident: it used to be "lights on, lights off", but then she was trying to do a demo in front of friends in a room where she couldn't reach the light switch, and she resorted to this DIY method, and realised, whoa, this way we can get the audience to be complicit in the violence.

Next up was Chey Chankethya's My Mothers and I. She speaks while she performs the movements of Khmer dance.


Kethya: My name is Kethya. People back home call me Kui. 

My mother's name is Pun Mari. In her time, women were not so educated. They were supposed to stay at home.

But she got a degree in... I don't know. She studied at... I don't know.

But she spoke French. Un, deux, trois.

She continues with these delicate, courtly Indochinese postures as she describes, bathed in a spotlight, how her mother taught her maths from a red book, language from a blue book, from the time she was three. And how she learned dancing from the age of five, because all good Cambodian girls must know how to dance.

Kethya: My master's name is... I never call her by name. No, never.

And while she poses in the classic postures of Khmer dance: kneeling, foot in the air like a descending apsara, she speaks of how she remembers her master's touch, pushing her body into the correct positions...

This is where we begin the strange connection of dance with violence. The commandments of her dancing master overlapping with their memories of the purges of intellectuals and artists during the reign of the Khmer Rouge.


Kethya: My mother, my master, they know the soldiers very well.

"To destroy you is no loss. To preserve you is no gain."

She embodies the violence of Year Zero, the attempted obliteration of courtly history, by retreating into the anarchic abstraction of contemporary dance - stuff I saw when she danced for Arco Renz in Crack. She does her Khmer dance while hurtling backwards, for chrissakes. It's actually shocking.

And she recalls the commandments of her mother as well. 

Kethya: Don't touch my breasts. Don't touch my buttocks.

The importance of modesty in being a traditional Cambodian girl. No touching. Covering up.

Kethya: But it is too hot.

Hot? hot is better than being destroyed.

Stories of women in the village who were destroyed by rapists... during the Khmer Rouge's regime? A few years ago? It's unclear.

It's notable that the original title of this work was "My Mother And I", but since then it seems to be acknowledging that it's not just Pun Mari who's moulded her, but also her master, and also Pol Pot - mothers of a different sort.

This isn't just something we Singaporeans can cluck our tongues at, either, because our mothers are just like that. She speaks of how, upon coming back from the US after three years, she hugged all her friends at the airport, and then saw her parents in a corner, hugged her dad, and was about to hug her mother, when -

Kethya: Don't touch my breasts. Don't touch my buttocks.

And a flashback to her first year in the US, when she was trying to cope with the touchy-feely-huggy-kissy nature of Western culture, screaming at everyone to respect her personal space.

Kethya: My god. I'm becoming my mother.

I've been there. We've all been there.

Kethya later told me her mum knows about the performances, but has tactically and tactfully excused herself from viewing them. Said piece has toured the west, but has never actually been shown in Cambodia. I'm curious about the reaction there, mind you - it is very much about the dilemma of the privileged, cosmopolitan citizen, and I think it is designed for foreign viewers, what with the English language (which interplays with Khmer, and of course some French).

But then it does have this kind of universal statement about youth.

Kethya: You have to forget that you are Kethya.

It's not just the Khmer Rouge saying this. It's not just her mother and her master. It's the globalised world, telling us that we can only be ourselves through assimilation, getting with the program.

By the way, both Perera and Kethya will be performing new works this Saturday at Archive Box #2, which will be free at 8pm, 72-13. Register here.

I can't make it - can you guys go in my place?

  • 2015