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Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep: Brilliance Is Margaret Leng Tan

The following review is made possible through a Critical Residency programme supported by

By Carolyn Oei
(638 words, 5-minute read)

Note: This review may contain some minor spoilers for Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep by Margaret Leng Tan.

 

ONE: “Music; this is where the counting belongs.”

In Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep, Margaret Leng Tan – the queen of the toy piano – comes clean about her obsessive-compulsive disorder, one of the classic manifestations of which is compulsive counting. The show is an evocative chronicle of the people, situations and influences that have shaped Tan’s life and music. 

This one-night-only world premiere performance at Asia TOPA in Melbourne is going to be very difficult to describe because most superlatives would short-change Tan for her display of artistry, grace, style, eloquence, presence and physicality. 

So, here goes.

TWO: Daily Reality Checks.

Tenets of Tan’s Daily Reality Checks (or DRCs) flash, one at a time, against the backdrop. Presumably, these nuggets of information are what Tan uses to keep her grounded and aware of the world around her. 

Video artist Nick Roux employs the use of lines – bold, unbroken lines – in his projections. Lines of text; lines that form clean geometric shapes that fall away and come back again; lines that move in a conveyor belt fashion, one after the other. 

“Every day, 100 elephants are slaughtered for their ivory.”

Tan faces the audience and pronounces, “Toy pianos don’t kill elephants.”

THREE: “Benson! Jeeves! Abigail!”

Tan’s dogs are, evidently, very important to her. 

FOUR: Timing is everything.

Tan’s professional relationship with the late John Cage, the avant-garde composer whose works and influence have been described as transformational, essential and freeing, endured for about 10 years. In the space of 74 seconds – 73, to be exact – Tan recounts her tenacious pursuit of Cage, which culminated in a special performance for him in 1981 in a thousand-seater theatre, by Tan and dancer Marion D’Cruz, co-founder of Five Arts Centre, a champion of the contemporary arts in Malaysia. 

FIVE: “Wouldn’t it be great if we could stop at one?”

In terms of the number of instruments that Tan works with, we’re fortunate that she doesn’t. She ekes out meaning from a toy mobile phone, a toy rotary phone and a toy gun. These aren’t just sounds that entertain. Coupled with her lines of spoken word, they’re sounds that stir emotions and jolt the senses. 

How would you describe your relationship with technology?    

Photo: Pia Johnson      

SIX: Age is just a number.

Tan tells the audience that she’s 74 years old. The audience finds this hard to believe. 

Tan tears through Erik Griswold’s compositions with speed, deft and dexterity; her right hand tinkling on the toy piano, her left caressing the keys on the grand. Some of the pieces in the 75-minutes of Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep are looped layers of sounds that Tan creates from individual instruments – the triangle, the plucking and bowing of piano strings, wind-up stopwatches. This is .gif on steroids. 

Tan reclines on the stage. And gets up again. 

She sits on a tiny stool to bang away on the toy piano. And gets up again. Several times. 

She moves props around the stage. She pushes and hauls and bends over to pick things up. 

In August 2019, filmmaker Chuang Xu completed a documentary that features Tan and her collaboration with experimental composer, George Crumb. In there, Tan says, “The last thing that I want to do, is to pluck strings badly, or sit down at the toy piano and not be able to get up again. That would be embarrassing.” 

That time is not now. 

SEVEN: “Proper prior preparation prevents piss-poor performance.”

Tan counts all her instruments and implements and walks offstage. 

“Idiot check, complete.”

Tan will perform Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep in Singapore from 25 to 29 March 2020 at Esplanade Theatre Studio with post-show dialogues on 25 and 26 March. 

I’ve already bought my ticket. Second time and counting…


This review is based on the world premiere of Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep at Arts Centre Melbourne on 28 February 2020 at Asia TOPA. This was part of the SUBSONIC programme curated for Asia TOPA by The SUBSTATION. Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep is co-produced by Chamber Made and CultureLink Singapore and co-commissioned by Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay and Asia TOPA. Click here for more information on Singapore showtimes.

Update: The Singapore performance has been cancelled as the artist is unable to travel to Singapore due to the evolving COVID-19 situation. Please click here for details.

For more ArtsEquator articles on Asia TOPA, click here.

Carolyn Oei is an educator, writer and community builder. She’s currently a lecturer at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts where she teaches law and policy in the School of Arts Management, Dance and Theatre. Her community work is focused on heritage and the environment. Her writing can be accessed via www.mackerel.life.

Comments: 4

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  1. Loved the counting in your review, Carolyn!
    BTW, those were windup miniature music boxes and the 74 count down to zero during my telling of the Cage story are the countdown of the years I have been on this planet compressed into 4′ 33″ (sounds familiar?).
    I hope you enjoy it as much the 2nd time around. Only 23 days and counting……down!

    1. Dear Ms Tan, I’m finding it a little difficult to breathe knowing that you’ve commented on my review. Thank you for the clarification on the music boxes; have them and the other ambient sounds make the performance. But would you consider the performer’s, ie: your storytelling ambient? It really didn’t feel like 4’33” in terms of duration. And I guess that’s where the magic is and that might have been Cage’s point. Thank you!