★★★☆☆ (Performance attended 4/12/19)
A collection of choreographies wrestling with our complex relationship with our bodies and the societal expectations lumped upon them.
No matter how unattainable perfection is, it’s curious how much we beat ourselves up for not achieving it. This is a phenomena that applies especially so to the concept of the physical body, the most immediate visual representation of us, bearing the scars and weight of our experiences, and proof of how well we’ve been maintaining ourselves. It doesn’t help that anything less than ‘beautiful’ is derided by society, where our skin-deep beauty becomes a key defining trait for how far we get in life, scrutinised more than ever in our social media-obsessed world, and garnering countless issues of body shame and psychological harm resulting from that.
With Maya Dance Theatre’s collaboration with German company IPTanz, the two groups come together to create Puffing Bodies. Previously presented in Germany earlier this year in an old war bunker, the site-specific work now takes over Singapore’s Centre 42, and takes the form of a journey. Over the course of the performance, audiences are led through the venue, encountering various episodes and recurring characters each performing various choreographies dealing with the complicated feelings of body horror and self-loathing.
Led by Maya Dance Theatre Artistic Director Kavitha Krishnan and co-choreographed by IPTanz’s Ilona Paszthy, Puffing Bodies begins in the front yard of Centre 42, where we see a ‘runway’ of light. Upbeat music begins to play and we watch our performers strut down the catwalk, a variety of bodies on show who may not necessarily be your typical ‘models’, but each walking with confidence. We smell incense in the air, and it feels as if we have begun a ritual of some form, and there is something sacred about to happen.
From here, we go through a series of ‘episodes’, taking us all around Centre 42, encountering various characters. In the rehearsal room, we watch a large box sealed with gold foil struggle to move around, blind as hands and feet sneak out from underneath as it shifts about aimlessly around the room. Later on, when we return to this room, dancers Steffanie Schwimbeck, Diana Treder and Eva Tey kick a hole open in the foil, dressed in skintone underwear. They leap out of the box, and slam themselves over and over again onto the bubblewrap-lined floor, creating tiny explosions each time they land. They pinch each other, finding loose folds of skin to pull at (despite their clearly muscular bodies), lifting each other by these folds to slam each other into the ground. We understand this as a form of punishment, both by the self and society for their bodies being anything less than perfect.
Throughout the rest of our journey, we see various other instances of self-hate and loathing occur as various characters embark on journeys of self-destruction or forced transformation. Two unidentified dancers in black, skintight morph suits display agony through their bodies as they pull a length of red cloth out from one of their suits, as if blood is being let out as they lose weight, each understanding the other’s pain. In the courtyard, Subastian Tan is dressed in a white bodysuit, his face covered in a layer of bubble wrap while he is caught in a web of netting, spasming and jerky as he seems controlled by an external force (in line with Zsolt Vargas’s chilling, cacophonous music), perhaps a representation of society’s expectations of his body affecting how he chooses to move.
Maya and IPTanz even suggest that body dysmorphia has been an issue tracing as far back as the source materials for our myths; when we reach the black box, we find ourselves in a room where white sheets are hung up all over. Dancers’ silhouettes lurk behind, as if foreshadowing something sinister is about to happen, and Eva Tey emerges from behind. Dressed in a black dress with Indian motifs on them, we notice that there are certain parts of the dress that have been puffed up and expanded, as if they are cancerous growths on her. Her solo combines bharatanatyam movements with contemporary dance, and recalls the character of Shurpanakha from the Ramayana, an unattractive character who falls for the far more attractive Prince Rama, and reminding us that body shame has existed since the dawn of time, evidenced in our myths and histories.
Perhaps most poignant of all, we watch as differently abled dancer Chen Wanyi performs a number while separated from us in a space enclosed by sheets of clear plastic. We hear a voiceover of an interview between two people, as a woman answers questions relating to her ‘ideal’ body and dissatisfaction with her current one. Wanyi’s performance, while technically imperfect, represents the insecurities and fears represented in the voiceover, the anxiety surrounding imperfection leading to a lack of worth and value, yet bravely soldiering on in spite of it.
As heavy as it all sounds, Puffing Bodies does have moments of absurdist, almost humourous respite. In a short film from Barbara Schoer, we see a piece of (artificial) fat being thrust through a forest and ritualistically buried, before it is also exalted in paintings and works of art. This piece of fat later makes a reappearance, as it is carefully balanced on a dancer laying down, while Andy Yang, surrounded by three full-length mirrors, begins painting a grotesque face on his torso, as if his own body has become a monster. The woman then awakens, and the piece of fat is lain on a plate, and she walks away, sprinkling scraps of gold foil on the ground, as if the fat has dissipated, ritually destroyed and distilled into something of worth.
Puffing Bodies ends with a final number in the black box, where Steffanie Schwimbeck, Diana Treder and Eva Tey are banded at the waist, literally forming a many-limbed monster caught within a golden enclosure of foil and clear plastic sheets. They struggle to move, eventually giving up and coming to a standstill. While it doesn’t add anything particularly new to the ongoing discourse on body dysmorphia and self-loathing, with its multitude of visually arresting images and unique presentation style, Puffing Bodies is a reminder that there is worth in us beyond what society dictates, as overbearing as it seems. We finish by returning to the runway of light, where we are encouraged to walk it, as the performers did in the beginning, confidently and celebratory, allowing us to believe that we are so much more than our physical bodies.