Fashion Opera? What’s that?

There’s a lot to love about OPs OPHELIA: A FaShioN opeRa. First of all, it is a performance presented primarily through movement. The fact that the performers managed to create with their bodies not only a series of breathtaking images, but also a coherent underlying theme and – dare I say it – narrative, is something worthy of applause in itself.

The dramaturg herself (Maya Tan Abdullah) points out that if Ops Ophelia were a recipe, it would contain “3 cups Tanztheater”. But when you introduce a term like “Tanztheater” to a blur sotong like me, you had better explain it properly, which the dramaturg does in the programme notes:

“Tanztheater is a dance form where aspects of realism and the dramatism of theater have been fused with dance movements that may contain elements of classical ballet, and where the body tells the story, with words kept to a minimum.”

Ummmm, okay. I think.

And so, taking their cue from Tanztheater pioneer Pina Bausch, the team that staged this performance tried to infuse it with a strong socio-political message. In this case, the socio-political agenda of the performance was inspired by the story of Ophelia, from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in order to illustrate the subjugation of women in patriarchal society.

The focus on the body thus led to the creation of several powerful scenes and tableaus. There was Anne James’s regal display of the brocade wrapped around her bosom before concealing it with a thick cloak – an image that is pregnant with metaphors of the regulation of female sexuality. There was the brutal rape scene, presented unflinchingly. There was the collective scream of the tortured group of Ophelias writhing on stage – a scream that could have conveyed either the pain of childbirth, the horrors of rape, the trauma of blame, or all of this and more. And then there was the group cleansing ritual which bore a striking resemblance to a Muslim ablution rite, during which the Ophelias rhythmically washed their hands to an almost Gregorian reworking of 10cc’s ‘I’m Not in Love’. There was also a tastefully done short video accompanying the stage performance, with images of Ophelia drowning in a stream filled with flowers.

And here I was thinking that “fashion opera” meant a bunch of anorexic waifs teetering up and down the catwalk in uneven PVC miniskirts and high heels to the blaring of some tragic German soprano – the feminist take would be in their demolition of the catwalk with their improbable stiletto heels. What can I say but “oops”?

But I think the true heart of Ops Ophelia is its mesmerising original music. Jerome Kugan is that rare songwriter who has always managed to confess so much in his angular, haunting songs precisely by not walking a straight line with his confessions. And in Ops Ophelia, his Exciting New Music worked a kind of magic on the audience. It enhanced the feeling of the whole performance and wove its way around every piece of choreography, every detail in the costumes, and every sung syllable to create a fabric of delightful texture.

And the music never overpowered the urgency of some of the spoken parts. An easy example of this is Maya Abdullah’s virtuosic ‘Autumn’ monologue, especially when she did her best flight attendant impersonation (“Please do not touch the crew when they are working, sir!”). Maya deserves extra kudos for saying “Beef with egg noodles or chicken with steamed rice, sir?” three times fast without choking on her own spit. In so many ways, she showed how the notion of servitude is so engrained in the experiences of women – from flight attendants to discontented wives.

But herein also lies the problem with Ops Ophelia‘s gender analysis. From its very opening, it was clear that Ops Ophelia presented only a very specific kind of femininity – the opening sequence made me think of a Sunsilk shampoo commercial played on Valium. While I applaud the casting of a range of women with so much ethnic, gender and physical diversity, I could not help but feel that the whole concept was devised around a romanticised ideal of femininity. And this is where I have questions about the billing of the performance as a ‘fashion opera’. At what level was this concept operatic? And by ‘fashion’, does this also mean that the portrayal of femininity here could be reduced to mere spectacle, pageantry and perhaps even stereotype?

It’s easy to start off with a premise that celebrates an idealised hyper-femininity, where all young girls are portrayed as potential nymphs, giggling and sashaying their way into adulthood: It’s harder to portray the reality of those women whose battle against oppression starts precisely with their non-conformity to the ‘feminine’. Think Bend it Like Beckham, only more butch.

The oppression of women does not only work via women’s enslavement through overt weapons of violence like rape and so on. This oppression also works when it draws boundaries around what are acceptable presentations of femininity and masculinity. Like who is allowed to kick a soccer ball and scratch their crotch, and who is allowed to play house and get a bikini wax. Often, these assigned gender roles are also class-bound – something that I felt was not developed in Ops Ophelia.

And so, when the performance started with a group of girls, contented and happy with their ultra-feminised songs and games, my mind immediately wandered to the numerous girls who do not fit into these contented and happy moulds. And the male performers also seemed to be portraying only slight variations of an archetypal masculinity.

The problem with this line of analysis then becomes very clear in the rape scene. The act of rape, though horrifying and dehumanising, then becomes seen more as an act of paramount betrayal, rather than an extension of the gigantic piece of machinery that oppresses women. And the masculine archetype, as presented by the male performers, only increased the currency of what I think is a slightly simplistic analysis.

Personally, I also found the device of marking the progress of the performance by drawing parallels with the four seasons slightly unnerving. To me, the four seasons – spring, summer, autumn, winter – have already been loaded with so many clichés, that to work them into the grand narrative of Ops Ophelia would only reinforce and exacerbate stereotypes about women and femininity, like Mother Earth reconfigured a la Frankenstein’s monster.

Which is not to say that I did not like Ops Ophelia. I liked it very much. It is the first performance that I have seen for a long time in Kuala Lumpur where women’s experiences are not trivialised, where the performance does not end with women having to sacrifice their dignity for the sake of self-expression. I mean, compared to this particularly god-awful Malay play I saw where a brutal rape scene was played for comic effect, Ops Ophelia is a welcome effort to stop KL theatre’s slide backwards into portraying violence against women as mere plot fodder.

For all my disagreements with Ops Ophelia‘s gender analysis I still think that it is, at the very least, a courageous and honest attempt at pushing the debate forward. In fact, it does much more than this. The catwalk on which the violent rape scene was played is the same catwalk where all the Ophelias later screamed and mourned the injustice of it all and, in the end, this same catwalk was reclaimed by all the Ophelias in their sensuous and enigmatic glory as they strutted their stuff during the closing of the performance. In the world of Ops Ophelia, women are allowed to scream, to hurt, to grieve and to heal, which is more than what many women could even contemplate in real life.

First Published: 08.07.2004 on Kakiseni

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