M1 Singapore Fringe Festival

Exploring what it means to be a woman at the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival

Artists at the festival next month respond to Amanda Heng's seminal performance Let's Walk

Theatre students from the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (Nafa) wear high heels on their hands and paw the air like cats, while dancers working with director Edith Podesta explore how stiletto heels and tight skirts restrict movement.

What should a woman wear? How should she walk and behave? Pointed questions about beauty and feminine stereotypes are explored by artists commissioned for next year's M1 Singapore Fringe Festival, from Jan 17 to 28.

This 14th edition is the first time it has been curated in response to a seminal work by a Singaporean artist, Amanda Heng's 1999 performance Let's Walk. Previous editions followed a broad theme, such as this year's Art & Skin.

Festival director Sean Tobin explains the change in direction: "We want artists and the audience to know some of our cultural heritage and understand it. Younger artists may not know Heng, but she's a very important part of their lineage."

On Dec 9, 1999, Heng invited members of the public to join her in walking backwards in the streets with high-heeled shoes in their mouths, while guiding themselves with handheld mirrors.

Let's Walk was a response to the 1997 Asian financial crisis and data which showed female employees were the first to be retrenched.

Oddly, at the same time, women began spending more on beauty treatments and cosmetics to enhance their looks to keep their jobs.

  • Foreign works

  • The 2018 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival also features works from overseas artists, curated as a response to Amanda Heng's exploration of gender and beauty in the 1999 performance Let's Walk. Here are some highlights.

    IF THERE'S NOT DANCING AT THE REVOLUTION, I'M NOT COMING

    What: A collage of film scripts, pop songs, advertisements, costumes and dance put together by Julia Croft from New Zealand to uncover how women's bodies are viewed in pop culture.

    Where: Esplanade Annexe Studio, 1 Esplanade Drive

    When: Jan 18 to 20, 8pm

    Admission: $27 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to sistic.com.sg)

    Info: R18 for mature content and nudity

    THE MOST MASSIVE WOMAN WINS

    What: Four intelligent, successful women anxiously await liposuction in this 1994 comic play written by Madeleine George, a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in Drama. It is presented by Mitchell Productions and Australia's Chopt Logic Productions.

    Where: Esplanade Annexe Studio

    When: Jan 24 and 25, 8pm

    Admission: $27 from Sistic

    Info: Some mature content and coarse language

    DISPLACED

    What: Canada's Ground Cover Theatre explores cultural identity and prejudice through the story of three female immigrants to the country at different times. One flees the Irish Famine in 1847, another leaves World War II Germany and a third escapes Taleban rule in Afghanistan in 2007.

    Where: Esplanade Theatre Studio, 1 Esplanade Drive

    When: Jan 26, 8pm; Jan 27, 3 and 8pm; Jan 28, 3pm

    Admission: $27 from Sistic

    Info: Some mature content

Heng will revisit Let's Walk on Jan 20 for the festival and as part of a workshop with art and design students from various institutions. The students and members of the public are invited to join her on the walk once again.

From September to last month, she also walked around Singapore for an exhibition that will run from May 10 to 27 at Objectifs gallery.

Theatre students doing their Bachelor of Arts at Nafa say the festival commission they are working on, Step Outta Line, is their first exposure to Heng's work - apart perhaps from selfies taken unknowingly at museums exhibiting her art.

Under the direction of theatremaker Thong Pei Qin, in a rehearsal space at the academy, 11 female students hiss at and menace the lone male in their group with high-heeled shoes on their hands and ears.

They explore issues from social decorum to sexual harassment and violence against women, using texts extracted from seven published and one unpublished work by the blackly comic playwright Ovidia Yu. (Included are critically acclaimed works such as Three Fat Virgins and Hitting (On) Women.)

Thong, 31, says: "What line do you have to maintain and according to whose standard? How far do we get pushed before we act out?"

The students, aged 19 to 26, have to wear the heels at some point in time. Few own a pair. They have borrowed shoes from their mothers or The Necessary Stage, the theatre group behind the annual festival.

Most say high heels are uncomfortable, yet all associate the footwear with power. Student Keith Lee, 24, says: "When I see my classmates put on heels, it does create the effect of me taking them more seriously."

Fellow performer Lareina Tham, 23, says heels give her good posture and confidence. "When I wear heels, I don't slouch. When I wear slippers, I slouch."

Over at Centre 42, director Podesta and performers Koh Wan Ching, Ma Yanling and Yarra Ileto agree that heels are not for everyday use, but are a must for special occasions - or when they want to feel more feminine.

Along with dancer Dapheny Chen, they are working on The Immortal Sole, a dance performance based on the tale of The Little Mermaid.

They examine a soft, woollen mermaid blanket, worn like a fishtail over the lower half of the body, bought online. Podesta is fascinated by the permanent place mermaids have in pop culture, from the 1989 Disney movie The Little Mermaid to the frenzy over the Starbucks mermaid Frappucino.

Exploring beauty and feminine stereotypes

For Podesta, 37, The Little Mermaid story is about growing up, asserting independence, running away from parents and also the restrictions that come with womanhood. "There will be a time when a girl stops running and sweating and begins to think of how she appears to other people. When we 'get our legs', it entails getting a skirt and high heels, so it's a restriction for women."

There will be no prince in The Immortal Sole, only the mermaid and her female friends and relatives. Yet this is challenging for Ma, 35, as the dancers improvise movements for the characters. "What kind of images come to mind when we talk about the female body? Is it breastfeeding, putting on make-up? We got stuck trying to portray femininity," she says, laughing.

  • BOOK IT / THE IMMORTAL SOLE

  • WHERE: Esplanade Theatre Studio, 1 Esplanade Drive

    WHEN: Jan 17 to 19, 8pm; Jan 20, 3 and 8pm

    ADMISSION: $27 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to sistic.com.sg)

  • HAYAT

    WHERE: Black Box, Centre 42, 42 Waterloo Street

    WHEN: Jan 17 to 19, 8pm; Jan 20, 2, 5 and 8pm

    ADMISSION: $27 from Sistic

  • STEP OUTTA LINE

    WHERE: Studio Theatre, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, 151 Bencoolen Street

    WHEN: Jan 18 to 20, 8pm; Jan 20 & 21, 3pm

    ADMISSION: $27 from Sistic

  • FORKED

    WHERE: Studio Theatre, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts

    WHEN: Jan 25 & 26, 8pm; Jan 27, 3 and 8pm

    ADMISSION: $27 from Sistic

  • ALL IN HER DAY’S WORK

    WHERE: Ion Art Gallery, Level 4 Ion Orchard, 2 Orchard Turn

    WHEN: Jan 17 to 28, 10am to 10pm

    ADMISSION: Free

How women look at themselves and others fuels another festival commission, All In Her Day's Work. The exhibition by photographer Charmaine Poh, 27, stems from her interest in the beauty industry. "It's such a huge industry that runs on low self-esteem," she says.

Her showcase at the Ion Art Gallery in Ion Orchard will feature about two dozen photographs of women whose jobs depend on their appearance, such as dancers, a former air stewardess and a beauty coach.

"For these women, you do have to look a certain way. You can't step out of the house looking neutral. The project looks at different expectations of women."

For the project, she had her subjects get ready for the day in their homes or other familiar spaces, and shot them through a two-way mirror. "I wanted to shoot through a mirror as a way to see women as they looked at themselves. It's an intimate gaze we don't often have the privilege of having," she says.

"In their professions, they are used to certain types of photos shot professionally. This is different. It's not about flattery or technicality."

Forked, the first full-length play written by 35-year-old actress Jo Tan, is also about women putting on a face that is acceptable to the world.

Her protagonist is only 19 and studying theatre in London. "She wants to be whatever is in demand at the moment. It's the whole idea of Singaporeans being cultural chameleons," says Tan.

And what happens to women as they age?

Hayat by Pink Gajah Theatre is written and performed by Sharda Harrison and her mother, Ajuntha Anwari, a horticulturalist and expert in jamu treatments. It is based on Anwari's life and experiences with ageing.

The 66-year-old says that, on the one hand, ageing comes with more respect and appreciation for the older person's wisdom.

On the other: "Things droop. That's gravity. I'll be out in the sun and go, 'Oh s***, that's an old woman's skin.' I look at the back of my hands and there are veins."

Harrison, 30, says her mother is "the only woman in my life" who could embody the strong, feminist spirit of Heng's work. Woven into the performance are scenes inspired by her parents' rocky relationship - Anwari was married to zoologist and Night Safari founder Bernard Harrison from 1984 to 2001 - and the emotional healing that followed the divorce.

Anwari says she has been inspired and influenced by Heng's work. "She is a warrior. She advises women to be free, to cut ties and walk. So what if you had this past? You're not this broken person any more. A woman is like skin. It grows back and maybe it's not so transparent and vulnerable any more."


Correction note: An earlier version of the story stated that the protagonist in Forked is studying in France. It is actually London. We are sorry for the error. 

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 12, 2017, with the headline 'Walk in their shoes'. Print Edition | Subscribe