By Kathy Rowland
(1030 words, 15 minute read)
Skin in SIN, a new burlesque group, made its debut at the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival (M1SFF) last month. Members of the group had spent several months learning the art of burlesque whilst developing their stage persona and performance, under the mentorship and training of Singaporean drag performer Eugene Tan (Becca D’Bus) and American performance artist Madge of Honour.
The resulting show, Foreign Bodies was part public debut, part graduation ceremony: on stage, the performers beamed pride and a sense of achievement; in the audience the mood was convivial and celebratory. It was like an arangetram, only, with nipple pasties.
The group was conceived by Tan as a creative response to the rising xenophobia and racism he noticed in Singapore. An open call for participants who were not originally from Singapore, and Singaporeans who had spent time abroad, turned the exclusionary nature of being an outsider into the criteria for inclusion.
SIN is the international airport code for Singapore and idea of the airport offered multiple entry points for the audience. Airports are, obviously, transient spaces, which operate as border and portal at the same time. The rituals of immigration control make us aware of being foreign or national in the plainest terms possible. Changi Airport and SIA’s Singapore Girl are mythological symbols of nationhood, rooting the work in the actuality of Singapore.
It also allowed Madge of Honour, the evening’s ‘Foreign Talent’ MC , to dress up in iconic Singapore Girl batik and drop endless puns and saucy innuendos as she prepared us for our flight of fantasy, including an exhortation to get rid of our baggage about nudity, and to enjoy the ride. What followed was a series of short performances by the 10 members of the troupe.
While the makeup of the members and framing of the project was coded on nationalism as exclusionary, as the performances unfolded, a more personal, bodied sense of identity emerged. Perhaps the way that mobility and transnationalism in the Singapore context is, generally speaking, an outcrop of social-economic privilege, had something to do with this. Further, the time commitment to the project would have been a problem for workers who may not have full ownership of their leisure time. One can imagine that the criteria of locals with experience living abroad would have yielded quite a different demographic in countries like the Philippines or Indonesia. (The mentors of the project were aware of these issues and convened a Long Table on Diversity as an addendum to explore these gaps and absences.)
Nevertheless, the performances were no less powerful for being scaled to the personal. Foreign Bodies staged diverse bodies, running the gamut of ethnicity, size, gender and sexuality. These embodied differences recuperate the political potential of burlesque from its current pop-culture manifestations. Using the conventions of the form, each participant staged an aspect of their identity that set them apart, or which they desired to explore and expose. Steven Manja’s acceleration from Schubert to Spears (as in Britney) was accompanied by a forceful disrobing that transmitted his sense of release to the audience directly. Lykie Liquor’s commitment in his performance give it an edge of risk, for one was unsure where it might go. Hank Spank’s routine was crafted to disarm you with whimsy before it hit you with its sexy.
While exposure – literally and metaphorically – was the operative word, one performer, Toralina Purrverse, concealed her face with a full, amphibian-like mask. Her costume spoke of a creature that exists and adapts to different worlds, and this sense of duality was also evident in the opposing impulses to conceal and expose that she enacted on stage. The desire, or need, to protect her identity gave her performance an extra poignancy, one that the audience recognised and responded to vociferously.
In contrast, Aloysius D, the Singapore star scholar returning home with his Ivy League degree, had to actively urge the audience to cheer him on. His persona appeared to be the most ‘normal’; his namesake is, after all, part of Singapore’s most beloved TV family, the Phuas. The camp or transgressive elements that the other performers deployed, to the delight of the audience, was missing. As he peeled off layers of his clothes – ordinary jeans, t-shirt and college sweater – the distance between character and person closed by a fraction, and I suddenly became more aware of the authenticity of the individual before me as opposed to the burlesque performer. The strains of a patriotic song played, rousing up the notions of nationalism, citizen and foreigner that had hereto taken a backseat in favour of more personal identity politics. He striped down to a skimpy, sparkly red thong. There was an indeterminate quality to his presence, that I felt threw the audience off a little, resulting in the aforementioned appeal for the audience’s support.
This could have been a moment of layered reflection on diversity, foregrounded against the xenophobia and exclusion implied in the title and framing of Singapore in Foreign Bodies. Instead, we were immediately pulled out of it by a voiceover of what appeared to be the MDA ruling proscribing two works from the Fringe. This may have been well-intentioned and in solidarity with Ming Poon and Thea Fitz-James and the Fringe. However, it belaboured the point that the performance, and the Fringe as a whole, was a repudiation of the proscription, revealing a lack of faith in the power of art to communicate this exact same point. Worse, it felt like a clumsy and ham-fisted attempt to score public points over the Fringe’s detractors, who, make no mistake of it, deserved to be criticised.
Overall, despite this misstep, Foreign Bodies was an evening of art and defiance. One felt that the training and performance was an emancipatory experience for members of Skin in SIN, and the transmission of joy and acceptance was infections. As a riposte to narrow minds, the performances successfully communicated the idea that diversity, rather than being the exception, is our default position.
SKIN IN SIN’s Foreign Bodies was performed at the Esplanade Recital Studio from 5 – 7 January 2017 as part of the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival: Art & Skin, 2017.
About the author(s)
Kathy Rowland is the Managing Editor of ArtsEquator.com, a registered charity that she co-founded with Jenny Daneels in 2016. The site is dedicated to supporting and promoting arts criticism with a regional perspective in Southeast Asia. Kathy has worked in the arts for over 25 years, working in the areas of critical writing and arts advocacy, with a special interest in media platforms for the arts. She is the Project Lead for ArtsEquator’s Southeast Asian Arts and Culture Censorship Documentation Project, launched in 2021. She has written extensively on censorship of arts and culture in Malaysia. She was a member of the International Programme Advisory Committee of the 8th World Summit on Arts and Culture, 2019.