By Hong Xinyi
I don’t really remember how to do this.
Hours and hours before Ceremonial Enactments begins, I spend the blistering afternoon in a blissful cocoon of mechanically cooled darkness, immersed in a movie projected onto the wall. It’s a story about the passing of time, and the postures of love. And because giant movie-star faces un-scaffolded by plasma screens have the alluring textures of ghosts, I slip into a reverie that eases into a nap. By the time I wake up, the sky is preparing to darken. Crap.
By some miracle, I am able to hail a cab right off the street. I tell the uncle where I need to go, and he doesn’t object — another miracle. He promises I will not be late. We discover we enjoy the same sorts of nonsense. He tells me about the anxiety of never signing his name the same way twice, and we ponder the impending possibilities of biometric scans. “But what if the day before you need to go to the bank, somebody punches you in the eye, and then they can’t scan your eyeball?” he muses, in the manner of a sardonic sage. I exit his cab still laughing.
Making my way into the theatre, I remember being in the adjacent concert hall just a few months ago, accompanying my mother to a concert because my father, recovering from knee surgery, had been forbidden – by matriarchal not medical decree – to venture outdoors. Back then (!), audience members still had to have empty seats between them, and you could feel these inert spaces in the timbre of everything. The concert featured veteran getai artists, and I watched them start to agitate the molecules in the air, creating then sustaining the tautness and fizz that formed, slowly, amid the rhythms of the music and the banter. By the end of the night, they had conjured up something warm and alive, activated a muscle memory of the way things used to be. It was a sort of magic.
This evening, there are no longer any empty spaces between us, but everyone is still wearing masks. I don’t mind it; it may offer some protection in this space that fills with ghosts. But it turns out not to matter, because the first act is deliciously defamiliarising and also activates some interesting muscle memories. For starters, it’s named ANG, after the maiden name of creator-director Max Tan’s mother, and when rendered in Chinese that also happens to be my own surname. It’s not a common family name in Singapore, so I always feel a kind of kinship with the people who share it. We meet Madam Ang piece by piece — photographs of her youthful face stretch like memories across the backdrop; we hear her voice in conversation with Tan, speaking in Mandarin about mortality and maternity, about what it was like for her to give birth, and what that was like for her own mother.
ANG joins a small but potent body of Singapore art that engages, in part at least, the kind of mothering body that does not often appear in art of any kind, despite the clear ubiquity of its wit and will — the kind that articulates an inner life in vernacular tongues, and moves towards revelation in the idiom of the everyday. Two works that come to mind are Li Xie’s Mandarin play, The VaginaLogue, which included audio clips of Li’s interviews with her mother; and Another Woman, Amanda Heng’s photography and mixed-media installation created with and featuring her mother. ANG is similarly animated by the generous vulnerability of its muse-collaborator, and it expresses a familiar tenor of ferocious tenderness.
But, of course, Tan comes to this subject matter across a different divide. I am struck by his recorded repetition of the line: “Child-bearing is a fragile and relatively unsafe process.” This is definitely not untrue; yet, outside the framework of modern medical rituals devised by men, it has also been described by women as ecstatic, sensuous, and not a disease. But the reach across the divide is what matters, and Tan creates a moving empathic connection between his mother’s mothering and his own artistry. Madam Ang describes the experience of pregnancy as “normal”, delivery via caesarean as scary, and healing as a process that hurt, but less and less as time passed. (Like many women, she perhaps learned to be-frenemy the pain that comes with the reproductive plumbing.) From these revelations, Tan crafts a collection of clothes inspired by the inciting cut of the caesarean incision.
(ANG by Max Tan, image by Tuckys Photography)
The garments that emerge from his dynamic constructions are austere and alive, and their presentation follows the rough contours of a fashion show — the performance genre that is more transparent about the nexus of art and commerce than perhaps any other. You could even consider its deliberately alienating affect to be almost Brechtian. Up close, the conventional modelling body startles with its otherworldly proportions, communicating fantasies dreamed up somewhere else long ago. Besides appearing to be mostly non-Caucasian, ANG’s cast of models do not deviate much from this convention. But, by elongating the duration and gestures of this genre, the molecules in the air change. As these unusual bodies strut repeatedly across the makeshift bridge that extends from the stage into the seating area (created by set designer Randy Chan), you start to notice the sounds their feet make as they strike its surface, to register the labour behind the spectacle. Arterial-blood-red seeps into the monochromatic palette of their procession, but their impassive expressions never waver. Are these fates or furies?
Towards the end of this first act, the petite Madam Ang appears in the flesh, led onto the stage by Tan. A musical fragment embedded earlier in the show blossoms into a familiar Mandarin love song. I care only about you, goes the key lyric. (The parent’s fantasy, or the child’s? A clear impossibility? Or: devotion is a practice?) Red-garbed sylphs swirl around her, filling up the space that opens up between mother and son. She leaves the stage slowly, chaperoned by one of the patient sylphs. The moment compresses popular and personal memories so suddenly that it catches me by surprise. Here’s one: an undertaker’s vehicle leaves the carpark, and I follow it with my eyes until it is no longer in view. There was a full moon that night. Going. Going. Gone.
ANG is a bridge, a lesson in attempting affinities. Enter 293NW, the second act by ensemble Nadi Singapura. The molecules in the air start shift, to jangle to a different fizz. This act is based on the grand celebration that is the Majlis Persandingan, the traditional Malay Muslim wedding ceremony that comprises pageantry, poetry, martial prowess, dance, and drums. And it is incandescent with joy. Dressed in costumes designed by Tan that add a punch of pop-art pep to traditional silhouettes, the ensemble is a marvel of exuberant movement and percussive cadences. The jubilation is infectious. At one point, the drummers seated downstage shimmy their shoulders in what looks like a reflexive reflection of the shapes and rhythms created by the performers on the bridge. I see some members of the audience doing the same shimmy, while others are bopping their heads. A little boy seated near me is wriggling in his seat with unchoreographed, unconstrained glee. Everyone is linked by the same gossamer thread, jostling the same molecules.
Director, co-writer, composer and ensemble performer Riduan Zalani has spoken about the essential role of the community in this traditional ceremony, and how their presence communicates a collective care for the newlyweds as they start their lives together. Indeed, for much of this act it is not the performers playing the bride and groom who take centre-stage, but rather the ones creating the music and movement that hallow their happy day. There is an intriguing juxtaposition between this assembled collective body, reinforcing and renewing itself through the performance of its own distinct art forms and idioms, and the intensely private nature of “this lifetime bond that demands your fullest and sincerest actions”, this “journey filled with secrets and discoveries”. These relationships are not oppositional, this work proposes, but necessary complementarities. The former sustains the latter; the public assertion makes the personal journey possible. As an avowed antisocial-ist sceptical of staged devotions, I take my first step across the bridge. This part is not hard. We all perform ourselves, from time to time; it’s a shared mode of creation. And who is not fantasising about being nurtured by a collective body of care after these past two atomised years? In the before times, the sights and sounds of this ceremony, the heartbeat of its syncopations, hallowed our everyday spaces; 293NW revives this muscle memory, of feeling the profound making space for itself within the prosaic.
(293NW by Nadi Singapura, image by Crispian Chan)
But my next step falters. This work’s title refers to the location of the sacred Islamic site the Kaaba as calculated from Singapore, and spirituality is a central theme of this act, which sees the relationship between husband and wife as both a mirror of the devotion offered to one’s creator, and as a stream that feeds into this larger ocean. It is a weighty, serious thing, a different way of saying: I care only about you, or will certainly seek to try. I think about this for days afterwards, this orientation of one’s life in service to the divine. I broach it in my private devotions, turning over the question — how do you bridge the divide between secularity and spirituality, and find a way to create an empathic connection, a meaningful affinity? Is aesthetic appreciation enough? Can I confide that I find these spaces between us, earthbound, tuned to connect, divinity enough? One answer offered to me is bald: You need to have a revelation.
Spoiler alert: I haven’t had one (yet?), just a few sleepless nights. In this way, 293NW is, to me, a bridge I am still building; the bell it rang continues to reverberate. Most immediately, its resonance primes me for the third act by Bhaskar's Arts Academy, Yantra Mantra. “Yantra are sacred geometric drawings and the Mantra are chants. We invoke the energies of the Navadikpalakas or the Guardians of the Nine Directions, and the Hindu Astrological heavenly bodies to bring healing. We intersect tradition and the abstract to find harmony for today,” explains co-choreographer Meenakshy Bhaskar in her message in the programme. “It is a sacred, ceremonial prescription of cleansing, an offering for the troubled times we face today on Earth.”
Unschooled in the spiritual and artistic roots that inform this work, I focus on pure form, not just those created by the dancers, musicians and vocalists, but also the shapes and hues in the work of multimedia designer Brian Gothong Tan, lighting designer Andy Lim, and costume designer Tan. Illumination — bright eyes glitter; metallic accents glint. Colour — the cosmic palettes of realms imagined, dimensions yet unseen. Movement — individual precisions each expressing a universe of meaning, a collective body constructing patterns of grace. Sound — sinuous song, a driving tempo, and above all, the little joyful bells that ring, ring, ring. I imagine our molecules turning transparent in ecstasy. The music “superimposes” all nine Navagraha Kritis songs created by composer Muttuswami Dikshitar and the Navasandhi Kavuthuvams (music and dance for worship) — another elongation of genre, another experiment in the art of devotion. Its cumulative effect on me is an invitation — do you widen the doors of perception, give yourself over to the immensity of this transcendent harmony? Can you?
While I keep pondering this bridge, here’s an affinity that made Yantra Mantra a poignant and powerful closing act. In February, dance doyenne Mrs Santha Bhaskar passed away. At the time, she had completed two components of this work, which have been kept intact. Meenakshy Bhaskar created the rest, describing the process thus: “I then started from scratch, researching her design and researching from my perspective, to find my own voice and inspiration. Finally, through journaling and searching, I found the magical spot where these two points could align, complement each other and move forward. The journey has been surreal, dreaming my mother's dreams.” The journey of Ceremonial Enactments thus begins and ends with acts of co-creation between mother and child, presents two ways of experiencing how devotion illuminates the spaces between.
(Yantra Mantra by Bhaskar's Arts Academy, image by Crispian Chan)
Not every body wants to, or gets to, conceive, conjugate, and consecrate. But every body craves to connect, somehow; to create, one way or another. Life passes like a dream, and of late has felt like a series of punches to the eye. Still, we be-frenemy our ghosts; have faith that love threads us to infinity. We walk across the great divide, even if, especially if, the bridge to travel is narrow and tenuous. We try to feel another heart beat. We re-dedicate ourselves to joy.
After the show, I go for an oyster omelette supper, an old and perhaps ill-advised post-show ritual. Throughout Ceremonial Enactments, performers Edith Podesta and Tan Guo Lian Sutton had appeared periodically, threading the acts with their measured tread and enigmatic implacability. I saw them as extremely cool versions of Adam and Eve, transfigured into Father and Mother Time. Later that night, I dream about giants baptising themselves in the sea. Stranded onshore, I try desperately to book a cab.
About the writer
Hong Xinyi is a writer, editor, and producer. Her essays explore the intersections of gender, technology, and culture. Read more about Hong here.