Readings on a Performative Seismograph
By Promona Sengupta (24th November 2023, English Theatre Berlin)
Staged at a very particular moment in the history of the world, of Germany and of Berlin, choreographer Ming Poon’s production of Soldier M.I.A proves to be a remarkably intelligent and sensitive long-form enquiry into the deeply codified relationship between gender and war. Led by an exclusively East-Asian queer and femme cast, appearing on the migrant-expat “freie szene” stage of English Theatre Berlin, Soldier M.I.A. sutures the wounds of world-changing wars that continue to be waged, especially on innocent BIPOC lives, across the later stretch of the year 2023, the echoes of which ring in unprecedented censorship and repression on BIPOC migrant lives and art in the city. A fruit of Poon’s artistic research into Nan Dan, a specific form of male-to-female impersonation performance in Chinese opera, Soldier M.I.A. is a complexly layered and playful experiment in live theatre history – to understand, examine and embody the Disney-famous traditional heroine of Chinese legends Hua Mulan from a contemporary queer feminist perspective.
As is the case with a large number of Poon’s works, this piece is also a work of public art and historical and archival pedagogy – it is a research project that plays out as performances, audience engagement and presentation of archival material and knowledges that do not reach “global” or Western stages in all their beautiful complexities and layers. The story of Hua Mulan, mostly understood in a post-globalization world through a revisionist Disney animation about a young Chinese girl going to war dressed as a boy and falling in love with her commanding general, is given a radical decolonial restitution by Poon and his team of fantastic performers, artists and thinkers. The enquiry is like a seismic graph – the epicenter is the ever-present but almost unknowable figure of the mythical Hua Mulan, and the seismic waves unleashed by the cast are,
- the representation of Hua Mulan in Nan Dan – a male performer playing the role of a female figure, playing the role of a male figure in a Chinese opera context
- the representation of the Nan Dan performance by contemporary dancer Lee Mun Wai, who is assiduously trying to recreate the spirit of the Nan Dan maestro, and the questions that performing alongside the many predestined scripts of Hua Mulan bring up for the gendered subjectivities of Lee Mun Wai, Dandan Liu, Sum-Sum Shen and Tin Wang, the four protagonists and co-makers on stage
- the representation of Hua Mulan in Chinese opera and her importance within East Asian societies for ideological purposes of nationalism, patriarchy and the military industrial complex
- the representation of the unreachability of the Hua Mulan figure through experiments with sound, text, costume and movement
- the unanswered questions from the protagonists that lead to an invitation to the audience to share the scripting of Hua Mulan’s performance
- the post show Q&A with Ming Poon
As we know, seismology is the study of earthquakes. One has to be mindful of the number of waves in a seismometer, and be able to state that there could be more waves that are outside the current readability of the machine. In that tradition, I will try to speak about these waves that I describe above, while they crash and take birth in each other.
As is the case with the show itself, the epicentre of the enquiry is “who is Mulan”? The audience watches the four protagonists taking up space on the stage, flanked in parts with movable white wooden partitions (that have by now become a signature in multiple English Theatre Berlin productions) dressed in gender unassigned costumes in hues of light pink and grey, asking questions about Hua Mulan – who is she? Does she know what she is doing? Is she afraid? As the cast performs a random walk and movement to take up the space of the stage, the background projection shows close ups of their faces, merging and melding into each other, the same questions on their lips. There is an atmosphere of confusion, of not knowing some very basic facts about the research object, Hua Mulan, and the creation of research questions, all in front of a watchful audience. The mystery of Hua Mulan is established and intensified.
The projection changes. There, on the darkened stage, a video image appears, of a Nan Dan performer, in full regalia, performing to a highly codified musical piece, the scene of Hua Mulan leaving her family to go to war for her nation. She is next to a stream, she has her horse, and she seems to be, at that moment, not belonging to either the family or the nation, but to the moment. The performer is a maestro, and he exemplifies this moment in the legend of being between knowing and unknowing, the moment of decision, and how it becomes a point in the life of Mulan to openly ask questions about the roles she has chosen or not chosen to play – that of a daughter, or of a soldier, or of a patriot. The expertise of the Nan Dan performer is able to bring forth the timelessness of this moment in Mulan’s legend, to speak to generations after, and meld together the complex mise-en-scene of music, movement, and spirit, to evoke an art form that, to many in the English Theatre Berlin audience, is completely unknown.
As the projection keeps going, we watch the performers starting to engage with the research material in real time. The clip is contextualized within its complex art form, within its even more complex mythologized story, and woven together with the performers’ own authorial edits on it. Lee Mun Wai tries to embody it, within a body of a Singapore-born gay man who is a contemporary dance-trained performer. He does and does again the gestures of the Nan Dan maestro, sharing his experiences of compulsory army service as a citizen of Singapore, and its layered significances in both personal and political realms. What does it mean to fight for a country that is not at war? What does it mean to take part in military exercises of peacetime, nose to nose with an imagined enemy, who is also an object of homoerotic desire? Shot through his embodied research questions are the quiet and insistent insertions from Taiwanese sound artist Sum-Sum Shen, who is measuring and monitoring the frequencies of sounds of war and love – how many megahertz is a kiss, or a fighter drone? From Sum-Sum, we get the context of the musical score of the archival video – there is the neigh of the horse, there are war bugles and the clash of cymbals that announces the approach of the enemy.
Dandan Liu’s critical enquiry comes in the form of a cindering text about fear. Working from the perspective of dramaturgy, Dandan substantiates this ever-important decisive moment in the archival footage of Hua Mulan’s operatic scene at the stream with a jaw-droppingly powerful monologue about witnessing the wear and tear of war, the burned towns and villages, and the incapacity of a survivor to engage further in violence. Costume designer Tin Wang brings the much needed playfulness in the mix, with their realtime experiments to fashion a war-ready gender-neutral costume for the canonically gender-bending Mulan to emerge from this performative research, using iridescent found material that heavily use queer feminist cyberpunk aesthetics. The audience is left with a multiplicity of open questions that underline the extent to which gender is connected to warfare – not only in the legend of Mulan, who is valorized as a dutiful daughter and patriotic soldier who volunteers to fight for a nation in a man’s uniform to spare her father’s life, but also in how this legend continues to play an ideological and disciplinary role in the socialization of femme and non femme queer lives in countries and cultures that are dominated by Chinese culture and geopolitics.
At this point in the seismograph, things start getting murky. The performers make a decision, under the direction of Ming Poon, to invite the audience on stage, for a fairly chunky period of time, to help them remake the original assignment of a Nan Dan performance of Mulan for a final show. As a large number of audience members walk on stage, and gather around each protagonist, workshopping over the course of fifteen minutes subtle changes in text, sound, costume and choreography, the rest of us are left watching this complete breakdown of boundaries between actors and audience, while an animated war horse gallops on the projection screen to keep a track of time. Eventually, after this crowdsourced directorial input, we are finally treated to the final piece.
Lee Mun Wai, now in an iridescent costume fashioned through audience participation, performs the Nan Dan choreography to an ever so slightly changed soundscape. He performs in front of four large makeup mirrors that are dramatically lit up with their signature bulbs all around, and they reflect the audience to create the illusion of being watched from all sides. And, scene.
At the heart of Ming Poon’s choreographic practice is his deliberate and political usage of the rehearsal, the constant repetition and mistake-making process that is the flesh and bone of choreographic labour. Often working with politically loaded themes such as nationalism, state censorship and insurgent politics, Poon designs an approach of playful “trying it out”, a constant state of rehearsal as his primary mode of intervention into these dense political worlds full of polarized thought. With Soldier M.I.A., he and his stellar team of performers and intellectuals not only find a way to speak honestly and cuttingly about the instrumentalization of gender to foment war and nationalist ideologies, but also present a deeply effective critique of the gender binary that remains existent even within queer thinking in Western societies. To be able to bring pivotal performative concepts and practices like spirit, that is a part of Nan Dan phenomenology, to a stage unapologetically, and provide constant and generously loving contextualization and mindful knowledge sharing through post show talks, is a bold step in actively educating and building up a vocabulary for audiences. This makes the experience of an audience member without prior knowledge of queer theory or queer activism a highly enjoyable and accessible one. Without falling back on theoretical polemics, the piece is able to invoke in our minds the complexities of watching a man playing a woman playing a man, and how that could potentially be misused over and over again by institutions such as the nation state, the army or the heterosexual family. For me it was particularly special and eye-opening to hear an audience member share their own experience during the Q&A, of being born as a girl and brought up as a boy in a Chinese context, something she claimed was quite common and what Mulan experienced, and her astute assessment that this is a unique form of gendered socialization that falls outside the purview of Western ideas of gender and queerness.
Overall, it is of importance to mark Soldier M.I.A. not only because of its own credentials as a performance research piece, but also for the space it creates for artistic and intellectual production of Asian queer and femme migrants within the city of Berlin. Economically precarious and oft-exoticized into strict roles within white supremacy and model minority syndrome, the bodies and minds on stage in Soldier M.I.A. find a way to break through any attempts at enforced role-play, whether through the imposition of Hua Mulan as the ideal Chinese subject, or the meta-narrative of what Asian migrant art production should or should not talk about. Deftly using the canonical script of Chinese opera as its primary source material, Ming Poon and his crew artfully transgress every preconceived notion about the performance live on stage, being able to create joy, critique and knowledge, all at the same time. This playful approach to telling hard truths is surely one of the endearing qualities that speak to BIPOC artists in the city who often face censorship and tokenization. Within the current context of polarized cultural politics in the city, Soldier M.I.A. provides a heartening example of artful, insightful and yet subversive performance. The earthquake unchains waves that remain long after it recedes.