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Endure: A Life in Emerging Moments

By Mok Zining

Minutes before the world premiere of Muna Tseng’s Me, You, Then, Now, the air in Victoria Theatre bustled with the atmosphere of a party. Over the sound system, glassware made bright clinks against the warm, muted sounds of conversation. Arranged onstage were several chairs, a table with a jug of water, a clothing rack and a half mannequin, all made of clear acrylic. As the set sat in quiet anticipation of a body, on the backdrop, a pair of hands danced a mesmerising duet.

With the house lights still lit, a figure enters from the wings and walks towards centre stage. “Hello everyone, I’m Muna,” she says. With that, the house lights gradually dim, and Muna begins to tell us a story about her names. Born in British Hong Kong to a lineage of women with the name Chuk, she was named by her maternal grandfather as Siu Chuk, or petite bamboo; then by her godmother as Susan. It was only later when, not wanting to be known as Susan, she received the name Muna on the eve of moving to New York. The name had been improvised, inspired by a scarf she’d gotten from a thrift store that had the monogram “M” on it, but it had stuck, and so began Muna Tseng’s illustrious, four-decade career.

Muna, who is turning 70 this year, has called the present production a self-portrait and “performative archive”, one that brings together movement, words, and archival footage to condense the choreographer’s life and sprawling body of work into a one-hour performance. The word “archive” generally brings to mind a collection of carefully preserved historical documents kept in buildings with regulated access — succeeding, in the words of performance studies scholar Diana Taylor, in “separating the source of ‘knowledge’ from the knower”. But Me, You, Then, Now is an intimate experience. As the production unfolds, the set, with its domestic yet theatrical clear acrylic chairs and clothing rack, feels to me increasingly like a stage home, befitting of an artist who has made an art of life and a life of art. While selections from her oral history and archival footage of her past performances play on screen, the present Muna moves on stage, interjecting here and there with asides, insights, and elaborations. Her movement, precise and magnetic, seems to be a mode of time travel; at times re-embodying a particular memory or performing the distilled essences of the movement onscreen, Muna invites us to consider what it means for a dancer to age.

In an interview with The Straits Times, Muna explained why Me, You, Then, Now is not simply a retrospective. “It’s activating certain emotional states and sensory remembrances that have to bring the works alive again,” she said. Indeed, the production layers time, weaving the certain reflections of hindsight with a “sense of emerging” – in the words of lighting and video designer Thomas Dunn in the post-show talk – that a younger Muna might have felt at a particular moment in her life. At one point in the performance, for example, Muna relates two moments from early in her career: the first, her 1981 performance in Jean Erdman’s Transformations of Medusa; and the second, her creation of the solo piece What’s the Rush, in 1984. At the time, these two works had felt completely different, with one representative of her ‘uptown’ dancer sensibility, and the other her ‘downtown’ one. “Looking at both works with you now,” says the present Muna onstage, with footage from Medusa and What’s the Rush spliced together in a single frame, “I see a similarity. They both want to say the most with the least, less is more. Edited, rigorous, formal.”

While Me, You, Then, Now brings together an ensemble of the choreographer’s past and present selves, it also raises the question of what constitutes a self. As I consider this question, what comes to mind is an anecdote that a younger Muna, projected onscreen, tells about stockings. As a child, she had lived with two older cousins who would wash and hang their nylon stockings by the toes in their room. Fascinated by how the stockings held the shapes of their legs, she decided, one day, to sniff them, only to recoil in horror. It was as if they were alive, she says of the stockings. The idea that a person could “shed” their smell and shape on things felt to her “dangerous” and “mysterious”.

Selves – and bodies – are not unlike stockings, I think. They, too, hold memory of events and people that have shaped them and, in turn, come to shape others. Indeed, Muna’s oeuvre is evidence of the self as something that contains multitudes, with each work of art composed of a unique movement vocabulary fashioned from a specific subject, object, memory of a person, or societal ideal. (In the 1986 Water Mysteries, for example, the choreographer plays with the idea of long hair as a sign of femininity in Eastern culture.) As a self-portrait, Me, You, Then, Now is as much about Muna as it is about the historical forces and cultural inheritances that have shaped her. There is growing up in British Hong Kong, being abruptly transplanted to Vancouver at the outset of the Cultural Revolution in China, and coming of age as an artist in downtown New York. There are also the people — Jean Erdman; her teachers Magda and Gertrud Hanova; her many collaborators through the years; her brother Tseng Kwong Chi; her mother; and her aunt, the person who activated the first inkling of Muna’s desire to become a performer, a desire that would eventually develop into an acclaimed career.

And yet, this was a future that the younger Muna, while watching her aunt sing operas in the garden, could not have known. Me, You, Then, Now is in this sense “a story about being taken out of one sphere of comfort and safety, and leaping into the unknown”, Muna had said to me over a Zoom call earlier in May. “The immigration experience is an unknown. New York is an unknown. Your career establishment is an unknown, you know, all these things are adventures.”

In Singapore, we are often given a script of what an ideal path in life looks like — good grades, which leads to a good job, a first home, a family, and finally, retirement. But here, onstage, Muna seemed to be saying that a life cannot be choreographed, can indeed be scripted only with hindsight. As a young artist who has often been frustrated by the uncertainty and precarity of a life in art, I found this immensely buoying.

“I don’t know how young artists manage these days, but they will,” said Muna on our call, in reference to the rising costs of living and survival in New York, especially after the pandemic. “They will, because there will always be new young artists who will do what they do, no matter what…It’s like plants shooting out of concrete, you know.”

 

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