Gostan Forward – Lecture Notes
8 May 2009
The Annexe Gallery, Central Market
The programme, as written by Mark Teh (Director of Gostan Forward), read like an obituary of Marion D’Cruz. Then, as he opened the show with talk of ‘memories,’ and how fluid it is, Anne James (guest performer) looked on with eyes glistened with tears.
But here was the woman, very much alive and performing in front of us; and making us laugh so hard that we could die laughing in our chairs or roll over on the tikar laid out on the floor.
Gostan Forward is an invitation to step into the mind and body of Marion D’Cruz, and to remember and to rediscover her in our own ways. It was a performance she just had to do in this lifetime and it almost felt like Marion’s rite of passage signalling her arrival at a certain phase in life – the celebration of Five Arts Centre’s (which she founded) 25th Anniversary.
And so, Marion was ‘delivered’ through a solo performance lecture that spun well-told stories using text, movement, music and images, referencing some of her favourite and significant pieces of her 60-odd choreographies. After years of collaborative efforts with artists, filmmakers, and the like, the ability to merge all these elements seamlessly into one production became her forte. It was a magical way of teaching the process of thinking, creating, discovering, rehearsing, and finally, seeing the final product. And most of all, it is about going back to reflect and contemplate to acquire the wisdom to move forward.
As we gostan (reverse) into Marion’s own history, we see how intricately it’s linked to Malaysian dance history and social history. The pieces selected chart her thoughts and experiences since the 80s, the era when Malaysia’s National Cultural Policy was formed. Marion’s own determination to overcome social ethos made her the first non-Malay woman to perform the lead male role of Terinai, and one of the two women to become a Dalang for Wayang Kulit.
The word ‘provocative’ rightly describes Marion. Wearing a black shirt (on a no-black-shirt day) with words that say ‘Let me speak,” Marion had plenty to say about the state of the nation and the deplorable state of affairs in Perak, which she calls a ‘Civil War.’
This set the stage for reliving a recent work, Bunga Manggar Bunga Raya (BMBR). It was created at the time when the Marion turned 57, a time when she experienced deep, extreme grief and loss – for Krishen, her husband, and for a nation that had ‘lost its plot.’ She invited 40 people to participate, out of which 22 agreed. The idea was to create multiple stories. The challenge to the participants was, “if you were given time and space, what would you say to Malaysia?” They had to come back with an idea that was tangible. The participants came back with Panadol, Rukun Negara, ‘Good Morning’ towel, kaleidoscope, and a picture of a gun, amongst other things. The idea was to create ‘multiplicity’ to represent the many bodies and minds of Malaysians. While, she claims, the democratic space in Malaysia is shrinking, the democratic space in her little Taman Tun studio is expanding. When she talks about the challenge of negotiating rehearsal schedules and different characters, she quickly drew a parallel to negotiating democracy. BMBR was Marion’s personal search for a Malaysia that is sweet but lost and far away. It is about her desire for every Malaysian to become the elusive ‘Chilayu woman.’
Marion shifted the gear stick to reverse and took us on a journey to New York with a frustrated rendition of New York New York, the popular broadway number. Projected on the wall is a painting of the city’s skyline cramped with towering buildings. It’s splashed with strong, fiery red at its base, and slowly its intensity recedes to a lighter orange, then yellow as the colours creeps skywards. And when it reaches the sky, the canvas burst into white, the all-colour. The receding tone paint Marion’s attempts to break free from being a dancer to becoming, simply, herself, the creator and collaborator of all arts. When you are free from syllabus, you can make dance, drawing inspiration from various sources.
Makna – creating movement from music
Marion reminisces about her first collaborator, Margaret Tan, a small, intense lady who graduated from Julliard, a prestigious dance school in New York. She created music that expresses her own intensity and favoured discovery of East-West collisions. Marion, who lived beneath Tan’s apartment, had been stirring curry to Tan’s music; and having digested every note, she was the right candidate to create dance to her music. Thus Makna was created using a combination of Silat and Topeng (which she admits to picking up from watching a video) vocabularies. She confessed to her first mistake, which was to ‘cut and paste’ traditional vocabularies into a contemporary one, but quickly said that the work was ‘saved’ by having a concept – a ritual of putting on the mask, and by “…feeling the music for ten seconds in a frenzied dance”. The ‘cut and paste’ method is a reflection of early attempts in dance productions to incorporate elements of traditional dances into a contemporary dance. Makna was presented to the legendary John Cage. And to think that the dance inspired Cage to write a mesostic with Marion’s name as its spine - it is a huge compliment especially coming from Cage, one of the most influential American composers of the 20th century who was also instrumental in the development of modern dance through his association with Merce Cunningham.
When she returned from New York, she immediately launched into dance-making with Solo, the first one-woman dance performance touring most parts of Malaysia to introduce the country to contemporary dance. By 1988 she discovered the joy of improvisation and became an ‘armchair’ choreographer working with non-dancers who are ‘mad enough to join her in this journey.’ Solo became the prototype method of showing-telling-performing that is repeated in other works.
Urn Piece – creating movement from objects
When ‘presenting’ the Urn piece, she describes how the shape, strength and function of the object inspire the movements that make the dance. Like a lullaby, she whispered to us the feeling of sitting inside the urn, tapping our kinaesthetic memory of being in the womb. She seduces us with the idea that as a performer, she has the power to create reactions, and she proves her point as our eyes follow intently the movement of her hands (running around the rim of the imaginary urn) anticipating its next move.
Sook Ching – creating movement from paintings and video
Sook Ching, meaning ‘purification by elimination,’ was painted in 1990 by Wong Hoi Cheong to describe the horrors experienced by the people during the Japanese occupation. Sook Ching became a multi-media presentation of video, performance, painting and dialogue between Marion, Wong and Anne James, which was presented at the International Video Art Festival, National Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur. Marion shifted from pose to pose showing us how the movements were derived from the painting. After looking at the painting and video countless times, they became the characters “…walking out from the painting.”
Swan Song – creating movement from text
Maria Zaitun is a poem by WS Rendra on the last seven hours of a prostitute’s life. The poem is rough and uses strong language to describe how the prostitute is rejected by all systems in society. After 11 months of preparation, the ugly topic became Marion’s Swan Song. This piece speaks of her religion, her politics and her being. Marion likens dance to vomit – you absorb and absorb and at some point you need to vomit it out – implying that Swan Song was the catalyst for her purging women pieces. James joined Marion in a duet. They both sat back-to-back on the table swaying hypnotically as Marion sings a beautiful but sorrowful song about “…an unfortunate whore who is not pretty enough and too old”. The last part of this dance uses the Terinai vocabulary because the wedding dance symbolizes union between Maria Zaitun with her Maker. James was so moved when revisiting this scene that tears flowed freely. At some point in every woman’s life, we must have felt the sinking feeling of helplessness and desperation that circumstance puts us. It is a poem that every woman can read and reread; and as James puts it, “…to grow old with.”
Terinai – putting soul into movement
In the finale, Marion expounds on the difficulty of mastering Malay classical dance. While the movements are easy to catch on, not everyone can put ‘soul’ into the dance nor internalize the dance. She stopped talking for the first time in the performance, put on her mask and proceeded to perform her favourite dance, Terinai, a wedding dance from Perlis. We are fixated on her flexible curved fingers and her gentle hands in constant movement pushing away from her body and then retracting it. At one point, her white-grey hair cropped short blends with the male-faced mask and for a moment, she ‘became’ the mask.
Moving forward, Marion declared an inclusive policy for dance. Through Five Arts Centre, she wants to make dance so ordinary that it is extraordinary; to make dance that make people say ‘wow’ but at the same time say, “Hey, I can do that!”