It’s about being a woman… and so much more
SINGAPORE, June 23 — I first encountered Urn Piece as an undergraduate at University Malaya in 1988. Marion D’Cruz’s choreography, performed by D’Cruz, Noraini Jane Ariffin, and Ann James left a deep impression on me.
It was my first encounter with contemporary dance that really spoke to me in ways I could understand about gender, grace and power. Because of that, rightly or not, the work has become a personal benchmark of sorts, against which I view Malaysian contemporary dance.
It's been staged seven times since then, and is considered an important work in the body of contemporary Malaysian dance.
Its most recent manifestation was a Singapore Arts Festival 2012 commission. Renamed Dream Country: A Lost Monologue, it was staged at the Singapore Arts Festival 2012, May 31-June 1, 2012.
Traditionally featuring three urns and three performers, it has been super-sized for the Singapore Arts Festival to 35 performers and their urns.
D’Cruz and Ann James worked with four other collaborators — Claire Wong, Natalie Hennedige, Zizi Azah and academic and theatre practitioner, Charlene Rajendran — each of whom directed smaller groups of performers, all women, ranging in age from 17 to 58.
The original choreography of Urn Piece was inspired by Leow Puay Tin’s monologue, Dream Country, about a young girl who takes her mother back to the home country to die.
It is a homeland filled with rain, rivers and tears. It was this overwhelming sense of wetness that inspired D’Curz’s use of the urn and water in the original production.
Puay Tin’s text has long been lost, which is not to say that it is missing from the work. Much like the passing on of a loved one transforms him/her into a memory that is ever present through their absence, the monologue now shapes itself in new images and emotions with each performance.
While D’Cruz, working with Ann James, remained at the creative centre of the work, the performance of Dream Country at the Singapore Arts Festival was an act of passing on too.
The four Singapore-based directors were given free reign to “do anything” by D’Cruz. She did stipulate that they use the emblematic urns, sacks and water however.
There was freedom to create but not freedom from the spirit of performances past. D’Cruz and James came in only a month before opening night to bring the four groups of performers together.
Staged in a grassy field fronting the bay at the Esplanade, Dream Country was a sight to behold; 35 women in sack-cloth emerging like bizarre hatchlings from 35 giant urns in a manicured arcadia. It stopped passers-by dead in their tracks, turning them from pedestrians to audience.
What followed was a series of movements that can be read as birth, sex, domesticity, lunacy, mourning, play, discord. The women moved from tranquil to frantic, joyful to fearful. They appeared to inhabit a world within a world.
Incidental sounds of traffic, comments from curious onlookers and the aural seepages of the Festival’s other events provided the soundscape to Dream Country. Like the visual artists who work with found objects, the collaborators of Dream Country have deployed found sounds as counterpoints to the world inhabited by the women to great effect.
Against a backdrop of the skyscrapers of corporate Singapore, the performers remained largely voiceless for much of the performance. Purposeful sound, was used judiciously. There were two distinct moments I recall.
The first appeared mid-way through, when wet sacks are swung against the urns, creating a crowd-pleasing musical interlude. The second comes when all the performer’s heads are buried in the urns, their faces hidden from us. The inside of the urns provide acoustic amplification for the vocalizations that follow, creating one of the most visually and aurally arresting moments in the performance.
The moment is a significant one – the women have found their voices. They break free from the urns, continue their vocal chanting as they turn their backs to the audience and assemble at the back in a single row.
This is a taut, angular moment that prepares the audience for the moment of resolution. One by one, and then in bigger numbers, the women break free and sprint off the platform and into the night.
Others walk in measured steps as if sleep-walking, and slowly melt into the darkness. A handful of women remain, tethered to the edge, unable to move on.
Did it live up to my deeply subjective memory of the piece? Yes and no. Dream Country: A Lost Monologue bears the imprint of the original Urn Piece in the use of the sacks, urns and water. These materials impose a particular regime of movements and interactions upon the choreography, as it did with the original work.
The production at the Singapore Arts Festival 2012 was, however, a differently imagined work, by a new generation of artists, for a new generation of audience. Larger, bolder, messier, more uncertain, I found it a work that spoke to the middle-aged me in a way that my younger self would have found incomprehensible.
While the work possesses an overwhelming femaleness about it — all those women, all that wetness, all those womb-like urns — it was also a work about home and belonging.
The women occupy a world of their own. Within this community of other women, they retreat even further into the urns as their emotional and physical refuges. But is this a utopia of the like-minded or a body of outcasts who have been ghettoised by power systems that operate from the outside.
The phallic intrusions of corporate Singapore that formed the backdrop to the work in Singapore gave some hint as to what the answer might be.
A further hint comes from the emotional vein of patriotism that runs through much of of D’Cruz’s recent work. There is love, anger, pride, frustration, even panic, about the state of her dream country, her homeland.
She has said that she is in a monologue with her country because it no longer talks back to her. It's a sentiment that many Malaysians can relate to.
Watching Dream Country in Singapore, conscious that the chances of the work being re-staged in Malaysia, using Malaysian tax-payer funds, would be a dream of the pipe variety, I felt a creeping sadness at how much we have lost as a nation.