Arts Music Review Theatre

★★★★★ Review: Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep by Margaret Leng Tan

Fragments of memory and avant garde performance come together for a singular work that could only be performed by Singapore’s most famous toy pianist.

CategoryScore (out of 10)
Performer (Margaret Leng Tan)9
Composition (Erik Griswold)9
Direction (Tamara Saulwick)8
Video (Nick Roux)9
Lighting (Andy Lim)8
Costume (Yuan Zhiying)8
Total51/60 (85%)

Born in 1945, experimental musician Margaret Leng Tan has and continues to lead a rich life, a woman keenly aware of her own talents and the value she brings to the world with her music. Amidst all odds, she has emerged in a league of her own, and as a self-confessed ‘dragon lady’ of indomitable will and nerves of steel, has forged her own unique path in life, never settling for anything less than extraordinary.

It is with this same unyielding spirit that she presents Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep, her first foray into theatre across her storied career. Directed by Tamara Saulwick, with a score composed by longtime collaborator Erik Griswold, the performance is designed as a ‘sonic portrait’ of Margaret, derived from a series of conversations that delve into her memory, career, friendships and artistry. These recounts and snippets are interspersed and paired with musical interludes, all performed by Margaret herself, as she lays bare the events that shaped her life.

When Margaret first steps onstage, the space seems to dwarf her, as the only performer present throughout the show. She walks towards a grand piano and opens the performance with a track titled ‘Obsessive Precision’. In darkness, the only light source from the piano, there is an intensity to her performance, a singular determination to pour her energy into all that she does, and we immediately recognise and respect her as an artist and master of the classical.

But what makes Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep more than just a concert is how personal it feels, each ‘chapter’ depicting a significant recount or reflection on Margaret’s part. After the first piece, she begins obsessively counting from 1 to 74, her age at the time of the show’s conception, and begins to elucidate on how counting has always been a part of her life. If you didn’t know before then you will by the end of the show – Margaret Leng Tan has a degree of OCD, where she feels compelled to count as a means of ritual to calm the nerves and settle herself. Thankfully, OCD also ties in nicely with her passion for music, a creative channel for her obsessive energies, that helped give her the sheer satisfaction from performance.

Counting however is not merely a symptom of a condition, and presents itself across how numbers feature within her music, in terms of counting time, while she also considers and recalls specific dates and times significant to her. Across the show, counting represents her way of enacting control over a chaotic life, and gives her a grasp over time and memory, the keystone to her passion for music. Through Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep, we are offered a rare glimpse into the events that shaped her, from her childhood reciting Chinese poems, to the immense sense of passion that emerges whenever Margaret recalls her time at Juilliard, a place where her anxieties and symptoms completely disappeared (before returning each time she came back to Singapore).

Most lovingly of all is when she speaks of American avant garde composer John Cage, who was both inspiration to her, and she in turn, muse to, with a particularly enthralling recount of a series of encounters that allowed her to show Cage a new composition. His influence on her work is evident, and we see the elements of the avant garde peppered throughout her musical segments. Every memory is tied to a specific track, which in turn illustrates her words in sonic form. She recalls playing for John Cage early on in her career, all while winding up various music boxes and allowing them to play simultaneously, before she takes to her signature toy piano. The effect is as she describes – the resulting sound like snowflakes flitting down every corner a truly magical experience, and inspiring her to go from the classical to the experimental. It is no wonder she refers to herself as one of many ‘children of John Cage’.

Supporting Margaret throughout the performance is Nick Roux’s spectacular video work, projected onto a single continuous white strip that stretches vertically from ceiling to stage, and then bends at a right angle across the floor. We watch as images of Margaret’s aged mother appear, silent but mouthing words, or an old photo of Margaret as a child that increases in stature until she is in its shadow. Elsewhere, we hear Margaret recalling the immensely debilitating pre-teen era when she felt utterly torn between piano, ballet and violin, with the words travelling down the screen like a news ticker, and constantly alternating between Cantonese and English, as the audio does the same, perhaps reflecting how Margaret herself is a complex mix of cultures, shifting with her place and position.

Ultimately, what makes Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep so fascinating is its very structure. As a whole, the work comprises of a series of fragments, each piece a concentrated, fully-formed and presented memory that contains visual aid, verbal explanation, and musical accompaniment. But what makes it so special is how it doesn’t matter if these pieces are out of chronological order; what matters is how they all come together to complete our impression of her, and work much like any composition played by Margaret – to evoke an abstract but undeniably powerful resonance in audience members, through the act of presenting something so genuine, personal, and artistically crafted.

Margaret Leng Tan is not a superhero. She is fallible – on the day of our performance, she spends a minute searching for a prop she forgot to bring onstage, before smiling and addressing it. Yet the joy of watching Margaret live is in how she remains collected and calm, a true professional as she apologises and smiles, before going backstage to retrieve the item – a bowl of uncooked rice. What happens next is spellbinding, as she sprinkles handfuls of them at a time on a cymbal, the grains ricocheting off the instrument and raining onto the floor, the sound reverberating through the theatre like symphonic hailstones.

And so that is essentially what Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep is – a humble depiction of an artist who has defied the odds and carved out a unique niche for herself, elevating gimmicks into legitimate instruments worthy of respect. A woman who has found the sheer joy of play through her craft and is willing to share it with us, who channels that passion into her performance. We are left assured that we are exactly who we are meant to be at this point in our lives, a product of all our experiences and our individual personalities that have shaped us into being. Surrounded by her multitude of odd instruments, neatly arranged around the stage, Margaret’s full power is on show as she ends off with a song titled ‘Transcendence’, a piece that seems like it could go on forever as she sits at the piano, in her comfort zone and at the height of her prowess.

Photo Credit: Crispian Chan

Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep ran from 21st to 22nd October 2022 at the Singtel Waterfront Theatre. More information available here

In New Light – A Season of Commissions runs from 13th October to 31st December 2022 at the Esplanade. Full programme and more information available here

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