A body-centric approach to performance

04 April 2019 | Education
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NUS students with Taiwanese students working in Mdm Yang's orchid nursery (Photo: Huang Hsian Jing)

Performing can be a healing experience — as a group of eight NUS Theatre Studies students discovered while on a field trip to Shigang in Taiwan from 23 to 27 February. Working with members of Shigang Mama Theatre, they learned a new approach to creating performances that could be therapeutic and restorative for their bodies in the long run.

This year’s workshop, “Body, Labour and Gender” is the fourth in the series, part of a long-term transnational project combining theatrical collaborations and academic research developed by NUS Theatre Studies Assistant Professor Liang Peilin, called “A Home on the Island”. This is an interdisciplinary project that seeks to integrate the arts with medicine, combining practice, research, teaching and learning. It emphasises a depth of community engagement that often cannot be cultivated in the short-term. Dr Liang has been working with the Shigang Mama Theatre since the mid-2000s. Bringing students there regularly, Dr Liang hopes to develop what she conceived as “probody aesthetics” — shifting artistic practices from body-based to body-centric.

Shigang Mama Theatre is a company that began almost 20 years ago following the horrific earthquake of 1999 that devastated various parts of Taiwan, particularly Shigang, a tiny district along the fault line that runs through the heart of the island. Formed by a group of about one dozen Hakka women who are farmers, mothers and wives, and now grandmothers, their initial performances portrayed their traumatic experiences and eventually incorporated other aspects of their lives as marginal, labouring women — their fears, hopes and dreams.

Everyone walked away from the workshop a different person. The experience made me recognise the person that I am — a reflector, a sympathiser, a learner, and finally an individual who wants to be a part of the community while working with that community.

Over the years, members of the Theatre (affectionately called Mamas) began to encounter physical injuries aggravated by age and the demands of daily agricultural labour like repetitive motions. To empathise with the strain on the Mamas’ bodies and the repetitive motions they are subject to, the students did work on the farms. With the help of a Taiwanese chiropractor, Dr Hou Boyuan, they choreographed and devised short performances incorporating various chiropractic movements that countered aches and pains from neck, shoulder, back and knee injuries. These pieces also dealt with social themes such as domestic responsibilities and challenges, agricultural labour, marriage and parenthood.

NUS Theatre Studies Year 4 student Cordelia Lee shared, “We constantly considered the Mamas’ physical constraints when brainstorming for ideas, and actively sought ways to incorporate them into our performances. All of us agreed that our performances did not have to function strictly within the mode of realism, and that the therapeutic chiropractic exercises we chose could be shaped into symbolic gestures to convey more abstract ideas, such as a character’s interiority.”

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The students and Mamas rehearsing their short performance pieces in the Shigang community centre (Photo: Corrie Tan)

Some of the students were paired with Mdm Yang Zhenzhen, the leader of the Shigang Mama Theatre. In her late 50s, she runs a sprawling orchid nursery with her husband and son. The students learned how employing probody aesthetics in performance has been helpful for Mdm Yang. During the harvest season, Mdm Yang often picks thousands of orchids a day by hand without using any farming implements or tools that may damage the flowers. This led to her developing excruciating pain on the right side of her neck, fingers and wrist, so much so that she could not even move her head.

When Mdm Yang picked up taiko drumming as part of the theatre company’s training, she grew acutely aware of her non-dominant left hand. So she implemented a policy of ambidexterity on her farm, insisting that everyone on the farm had to be able to use both their dominant and non-dominant halves of their bodies to carry flower pots or pick flowers. Her experience has led to participants learning to devise performances that make use of probody aesthetics to sustain and restore their bodies.

Year 3 NUS Theatre Studies student Chimene Khoo was deeply moved by the trip. She said, “Everyone walked away from the workshop a different person. The experience made me recognise the person that I am — a reflector, a sympathiser, a learner, and finally an individual who wants to be a part of the community while working with that community.”

by Corrie Tan, Year 1 PhD student, NUS Theatre Studies