SKIN TIGHT – Of Docile Bodies, Dancing Bodies and the Quest for Freedom

 "SKIN TIGHT" by Ah Hock & Peng Yu, Photo: AARON KHEK

"SKIN TIGHT" by Ah Hock & Peng Yu, Photo: AARON KHEK

Who am I? Who are you? Who are we?

Is there a difference, or is there not?

I want that. I want it. What? 

Success.

The race. The chase. The impossibility. I want it. All.

Wait.

Again, Again, the same old routine.

Yes, hello? Yes. Keyboard. Type. Type. Type.

Aaaahhhh

 Slow down. Breathe. Relax. Stand on my head for a change.

After hours.

I sing, I dance, I touch, I move. I feel. I emote. I perform.

Song. Sex. Gender.

Me. Woman. You. Man.

He? Man? Woman?                    

 Now man. Longing for touch. For love. For sex. 

 Become it. What? Woman?

 Now woman. Skirt, Blouse, Hair.

I walk here, I walk there, hair to flip. Skirt to adjust.

Now two. Not one. But who?

 Of course the fake, not the real.

Real? What is that?

Who knows. It’s fluid. Anything. And everything.

 Nothing perhaps?

 ...(random jottings after coming home from the show)

 

The morning after and I am still thinking of “Skin Tight”, a performance piece by Ah Hock & Peng Yu staged as part of the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival. This marked the emphatic return of the AHPY dance company after a hiatus of 8 years or so. The piece was created in collaboration with performance maker Andrew Ng, with excellent sound design by Zai Tang. 

The work continues to speak to me in so many ways, which to me is the hallmark of a meaningful work. 

The three dancers – Aaron Khek and Ix Wong (who ARE Ah Hock & Peng Yu), and Joey Chua explore the concept of anonymity using costume as a powerful metaphor. In Ix's brilliant costume design, the word “suit” takes on various meanings. In the beginning, all three performers are dressed in typical black corporate suits, white shirt, tie – basically, the works. And yet even as Aaron faces the audience managing to look as stereotypical as they get, Ix has his back to us, the circular movements of his arms revealing a sense of what lies beneath that stoic exterior. He comes across as the alter ego, conveying a thin line between the private and public. Aaron and Ix are partners both in art and life.

Two men and one woman standing, perhaps on a train? They are in close proximity, their bodies rocking forwards and back.  There is a synchrony brought about by the rhythm of the moving train, and a potential intimacy that becomes palpable to the viewer. But they seem to live in their heads, unable and unwilling to connect. When they start to walk in circles, the competition between them and yet the futility of it all is evident. It is a convincing spoof on how seriously we take the rat race and ourselves, rushing to offices each day to tap, tap on keyboards, ring ring talk on phones. Automatons that flock to yoga classes to breathe and to karaoke lounges for social interaction, sexual release and to just sing. Aaron stands, microphone in hand and singing a famous Cantonese ballad that I later find goes along the lines of - The long road ahead of us will be scenic…Let's take time to enjoy each moment.

An endearing moment that has us tapping our feet to the rhythm and laughing at the same time. We see a childlike quality in a grown man, excited to have a chance to hold the mic and perform!

 Ah ha ... I want to fly towards the heavens

Ah ha ... so free like the birds

Ah ha ... where there is hope

Ah ha... towards the warmth of the sun

Costume is used ingeniously as a device for pushing the boundaries of identity. A sensual portrayal by Aaron connecting with his inner feminine is followed by a change of costume, both Aaron and Joey walking onto stage wearing female business attire, their faces covered with flesh coloured zentai suits. It is a class act of gender transformation by Aaron in his tight black skirt and wig– the flicking of that hair, the tilt of the head, the shifting of weight onto one hip, hand on hip and fingers moving delicately.

In another scene, Joey steps into a white bridal dress, walking slowly across the stage. Head tilted downwards, reluctance is subtly and touchingly conveyed in her posture and gait as she fades away into the darkness. She seems to symbolise a liminality, a young woman on the verge of entering an abyss - the loss of identity for a woman when it comes to marriage. In another scene, she depicts a diametrically opposite stance, of a woman (in flesh coloured zentai suit) wearing red high heel shoes holding both men on two red leashes. They, like dogs on the ground. She in full control.

My mind is left with thoughts and images. An exquisite image is one that has Ix and Aaron perform intimacy at the centre of the stage. Two bodies completely comfortable with each other. They intertwine sensuously, each appearing ready to somehow dissolve into the other, slipping in and out of the other’s sleeve. When one shirt is buttoned to the other forming a veil of sorts, it creates a boundary to offer the two male bodies a moment of relief from our gaze. I must say that the male dancers transition superbly from the automatous to emotive. Intimacy is an underlying strand in the work - the lack of it, a surfeit of it, you know it's there.  

The work speaks to me about gender, identity, isolation, notions of beauty and perfection. One scene however seemed to lack clarity and had my mind wandering.  Here the dancers crawl around the stage in what looks like muddied body suits. At this point, they sort of lose the plot.

Corporate suits shift to zentai suits that afford anonymity, while at the same time introducing a vulnerability. For yes, the faces are covered, but the shape and “imperfections” of the body become more accentuated. Perhaps we become freer to expose our inadequacies when our identities are masked? I have never worn a zentai suit and so I don’t know. But certainly, the short film by Russell Morton that shows the dancers walking around various parts of Singapore,  in colourful zentai suits, hugging each other on a train, dancing together in the heart of Raffles Place, lying on the grass – it all seems to suggest a wonderful sense of abandon. Camouflaging the face and body did appear to free them from the “constructs of gender, age, race and beauty”. Interesting to find three Chinese people in Singapore ready to explore the masking of their racial identity!

In the final scene, we hear the chanting of the Buddhist Heart Sutra that conveys the concepts of interconnectedness, oneness, the emptying out and freeing of the mind. Live in your heart, not in your head is the message I hear. By now the dancers have peeled off the superficial layers of skin, figuratively. The men wear nothing but skin-coloured loincloths. As a woman, Joey's shedding of garments is more symbolic. The peripheral layers gradually cease to matter, they seem to say. However to my eye and in my own experience, the female body is much more shackled by those societal constructs. Can we ever really be as free?

Today I am thinking of the three bodies on stage last night and about the importance of imperfection and vulnerability in a work such as this. Joey is lithe and beautiful to watch and has the conventionally perfect body. Ix too, is quite flawless in technique and physical form. But somehow, Aaron's radical body and its expressions reveal to me that so-called imperfect bodies are where real possibilities of resistance lie against capitalist consumption. Still, it is the presence of all three bodies on stage that contributes to this and other revelations. 

"Skin Tight" is an artistic conversation that underscores the notion of the 'docile body' that is absorbed by the dancing body to become a site for challenging restrictive social constructs and triggering the possibility for change. I know that this probably means releasing Dance/Movement from that quest for technical prowess and sublime beauty, to focus on its potential as a powerful tool for non-verbal communication. "Skin Tight" shows that it is through the body that moves silently in space that some issues can be addressed most effectively.

Nirmala

P.S: I watched this production with my sister Shobha Avadhani ... the conversation between us continues ...