“Is it dance?” Marion D’Cruz is sick of the question. In her long and varied career — the topic of discussion and demonstration at her masterful solo performance Gostan Forward at the Annexe last week — Marion was never afraid to take her art where she needed it to go, bending, breaking and redefining the boundaries of the discipline. Semantic quibbles over where to place her work on the continuum of theatre and dance mean little to her, for clearly they miss the point.
But there is another question, to some now equally trite and tired, which for Marion has been a lifelong source of inspiration, and we might phrase it thus: “Is it Malaysian?” Marion, like many members of her generation, has been consumed by the desire to participate in the process of a nation actively imagining itself. Her work has always been interlinked with the state of the nation, our politics, crises of identity, traumas and joys. Marion sought to create a vocabulary of dance and theatre that is uniquely Malaysian, and she’s done better than most.
The degree to which she has succeeded can, I think, be measured by audience reaction. I went to Gostan Forward on Saturday night, accompanied by a non-Malaysian friend. At the performance I met another friend who, though Malaysian, was raised in the cultural bubble of international schools. He didn’t know what gostan meant. My friend from overseas was even more mystified – what sense could she make of this wild woman on stage, moving her audience first to laughter then to tears, speaking first in this language and then that, pulling disparate cultural and political references from here and there and weaving them into her narrative? Marion and Five Arts Centre, like Instant Café Theatre, have made a space for this irreverent style that only Malaysians (and, perhaps, older Singaporeans) can understand. For Malaysians, Marion’s performance was so clear and straightforward (despite its gostan topic), so accessible, that it requires little interpretation. During the performance, she wondered briefly, “What if I had not come back from New York?” Well, she might have been speaking to a more global audience, but she would not be speaking so directly to us.
Marion’s presentation was humorous, illuminating, frightening, always engaging, but never confessional. Some members of the audience thought that she could have spoken more about her relationship with her husband Krishen Jit, but I disagree. There is enough of the public Marion, the Marion that we already know in bits and pieces, to keep an audience sated when it is all brought together – why ask for more? Many of the people in the audience were younger than I am, and we didn’t really know much about Marion’s artistic activity in the past. But what we discovered, what Marion told us, about her life and its role in our history, came to us as easily as something from our collective subconscious – oh, of course!
Marion has reached a stage in her career when, although she is far from dead, it is useful for her and the audience to consider her legacy now and how it will be handed down to posterity. I grew up with another figure, seminal in the search for the Malaysian vocabulary, who was also energized by the optimistic nationalist visions of the 70s: my father. Which will prove more lasting, I wonder, his edifices of concrete, or Marion’s ephemeral presentations? These things are unpredictable. I am reading the diaries of Virginia Woolf at the moment, and it interests me how she compares her state of small but rising fame with that of contemporary bigwigs, Prime Ministers, lords and ladies. She would not have predicted that a hundred years later we would be reading her diaries, and all those lords and ladies dead and forgotten. But now, as the ongoing discussion on Arteri indicates, the idea of nationalism as a driving force seems to be spent in the younger generation of artists in Malaysia. So where now? And whither Marion?
Reading Woolf is instructive. “Now, with middle age drawing on, and age ahead, it is important to be severe on such faults. So easily might I become a harebrained egotistic woman, exacting compliments, arrogant, narrow, withered. To correct this, and to forget one’s own sharp absurd little personality, reputation and the rest of it, one should read; see outsiders; think more; write more logically; above all be full of work.”
Marion is nothing if not full of work, as the program for Five Arts Centre’s 25th anniversary this year shows. She is building a reputation as a teacher, too, although not as a guru – I think Marion has too much of a sense of humour, too much questioning self-awareness for that. What she gives us is not an authoritative sense of “This is how you do it,” but quite the opposite: an example of daring to which we can aspire, a pattern of action which may reverberate in our cultural consciousness for a long time to come. As she says herself, speaking through, from, with the orang tua mask which she assumes so comfortably, “Buat saja, lah, ’nak!”
[For a more straightforward, and less gostan, account of what happened during Marions’ performance, check out Choy Su-Ling’s article in AsiaDanceChannel. And for a more hard-hitting discussion, Simon Soon’s piece on ARTERI. ]