By: Madge of Honor
Months before Singapore’s first ever socially progressive diverse burlesque troupe made their world debut, they had to strip for the first time. Singapore is a country where being seen naked through your own window is illegal, so responding to an open call for a big burlesque project with total strangers took some courage.
Before she put out the call, internationally renowned drag queen Becca D’Bus had been hearing “What about burlesque?” from audiences after her filthy and raucous drag revue RIOT. Burlesque has a colorful history in Singapore, from legendary diva Rose Chan who wrestled snakes, to topless dancers in feathered costumes at the Tropicana and the Neptune Dinner Theater. More recently, superstar Sukki Singapora campaigned to produce burlesque shows, but they were mostly for high-paying audiences at private or exclusive events.
Otherwise, burlesque isn’t accessible in Singapore because entertainment licenses in bars and clubs prohibit nudity as well as religious and racial content, and “promotion of non-mainstream lifestyles.” But artists chafing against prohibitions will push and pull and find ways to shimmy out of them (or at least stretch those limits).
Becca pitched the project of forming a burlesque troupe to the M1 Fringe Festival for 2017. The troupe would be open to all races, all genders, and all body types. Skin in SIN, a troupe that didn’t exist yet, was commissioned to produce a show called “Foreign Bodies” – using the controversial form of burlesque to explore the contentious topic of immigration to the rapidly changing island country.
The promo material for the show read: “In our march towards 6.9 million people in Singapore—many of whom are imported—how do we make space for each other? Let's start by taking off our clothes! In trying to understand what might be a ‘new normal,’ perhaps it is the expatriates who might have something unique to share.”
Burlesque lends itself to stripping away layers of social norms to see what’s underneath. There’s a tension that’s right below the surface in Singapore between the vision of a being diverse meritocracy with a global economy, and the reality of racism and xenophobia in a culture dominated by a Chinese majority. This clash was not unfamiliar to me as an American, particularly during the 2016 election cycle.
When Becca asked me to mentor the project, we talked directly about how to avoid the colonial dynamic of bringing a white American artist over to proselytize about “the right way to burlesque.” I did want to share how burlesque has been an outlet for me to scandalize, satirize, and criticize. I wanted to offer tools and techniques to people who were willing to engage in the artistic and political project of shifting the discourse and narratives around who is beautiful, who belongs, who is visible, and who is valuable.
Eighteen brave, bold, brilliant, and beautiful strangers showed up to strip down. Most people were navigating some amount of risk being involved in the project –whether that was a tumultuous relationship with their own body or real fears of repercussions from their boss or family finding out they were doing something so taboo.
We started off slow. We created community agreements so we could be accountable for treating each other and ourselves well while we were attempting to thwart shame and stigma. I reminded performers that they were in control over their own bodies at all times; we were going to practice self-determination so we could get better at it. On the first day, I asked people to choose one body part to show off and tell a story about. We listened and looked at a scar above someone’s eye, or the heat rash on someone’s thigh.
The next workshop we went for it. I asked people to find their own place in the fluorescent lit room, face away from the mirror, focus on themselves, and at their own pace strip off as many layers of clothing as they wanted – ideally down to undergarments, but no pressure. I asked people to try to enjoy it. I stupidly wore extremely tight leggings and then got stuck in them – which is actually exactly who my burlesque persona is: graceless but dogged. And when the music was over, every body was in underwear. Everybody.
Then we had the most outrageously fun and fancy-free and feeling ourselves dance party to Lady Marmalade. It was a truly gratifying release. That kind of defiant, collective joy is an antidote to the repression endemic to Singapore and the rising fascism in the United States. We must resist despair.
“I developed body positivity,”Aura Hahn reflects. “As a transgender woman, in one of my performances the remnants of my body modification were left untouched. This was my way to promote trans bodies, different though they may be, still uniquely beautiful in their own respect.” Fellow troupe member Michelle Piper discovered, “Doing burlesque is an eye-opener that made me comfortable with my body and enabled me to do a performance with confidence.”
We did a total of 40 hours of workshops together. We practiced bumps and grinds, we twirled tassels, and we pulled gloves off with our ass cheeks. We did physical theater exercises to explore gender, stature, and gesture. We discussed and debated how racism, sexism, classism, ableism, xenophobia, homophobia, and Islamophobia function in Singapore and in our home countries. Whether or not performers are going to make (or think they are going to make) explicitly political burlesque, as artists we must have an understanding of how oppression, power, and privilege work in order to be responsible for what we’re making, why we’re making what we’re making, how that work impacts us, and how it impacts others.
While performers were creating their acts for the show, the festival itself became embroiled in controversy. There’s an active and well-connected ultra-conservative Christian right in Singapore, who pressured the government to censor the festival for explicit content. Becca calls the religious right’s aggressive response to the Fringe programming “religious terrorism.” Hate group “Singaporeans Defending Marriage and Family” hid behind anonymous online posts bashing the festival and the festival’s Artistic Director online. The cowardice of the Christian right in Singapore should sound familiar to Americans.
Such religious terrorism resulted in two fellow performers being cut from the festival after being denied a rating by the Infocomm and Media Development Authority (IMDA). According to the IMDA, performance lecture Naked Ladies by Thea Fitz-James and interactive piece Undressing Room by Ming Poon exceeded the R18 rating under the Arts Entertainment Classification Code (AECC) and couldn’t be shown in Singapore.
“Foreign Bodies” received the R18 rating for “mature content and coarse language” just one week before our world debut for three sold out audiences to open the M1 Fringe. We dedicated our performance to our colleagues Ming and Thea whose shows had been censored. “The stakes of our burlesque performance became so much more pronounced when the entire controversy around the Fringe Festival erupted, when the moral panics were triggered around 'skin' and what nudity might do,” recalls Skin in SIN troupe member Hank Spank.
“How do we subvert these imaginations, cheekily tease and toy with them, expose these preconceptions and proliferate the other possibilities in which one might relate to nudity,” Hank mused. “I suspect a large part of our discomfort with nudity stems directly from this collective imagination of assuming what type of nude bodies are permissible, and how those nude bodies should behave, which relegates any other alternative body or performance of bodies to the minoritarian spaces of shame or deficiency.”
The stakes for Skin in SIN cast member Toralina Purrverse were particularly high. She was sure she’d be kicked out of her house if her family discovered she was doing burlesque. Toralina created an act based on an autobiographical comic book character she’d drawn – an inverse mermaid; a fish head with human legs. When working through whether or not Toralina should remove the fish mask at any point in the act, her primary concern was protecting her privacy.
But beyond that, for Toralina, keeping on the mask was a way to push back against the hypervisibility she experiences as a person of mixed race in Singapoare. She told me in rehearsals, people are always staring at her because she’s “exotic.” The mask was her way of only letting the audience see what she wanted them to see.
I’ve been blessed to perform burlesque on 3 continents now, and Kitty Padi created one of the most of the inventive and ingenious costumes I’ve seen anywhere on earth. Kitty took off a three-layer cocktail dress-length costume made entirely from of high-end shopping bags to reveal a fringe belt of Old Chang Kee curry puff paper pouches that she removed one by one to Erykah Badu’s “Bag Lady.” I mean come on. While strapping on all those curry puff packages she learned that basically the worst part of burlesque is putting your costume back on when you’re rehearsing.
A moment of the show that consistently got one of the biggest laughs was when Steven Manja ripped open each one of his Velcro dress shoes during the act where he gives up anxiously singing a Schubert solo in favor of stripping to Britney Spears’ “Hit Me Baby One More Time.” He undid the Velcro with such self-possession, and the sound was just so satisfying. Maybe just as satisfying as his tear away suit pants.
“I was getting into a rut in my medium as a classical vocalist,” Steven told me. “I felt and still feel constrained by the limited perspectives of other practitioners, especially those in positions of power regarding casting and providing opportunities, and therefore feel its essential for me to break out and try for other opportunities in the broader arts scene. Getting to do burlesque in Foreign Bodies has been the perfect antidote to get me out of my rut, an opportunity where anything goes and the outrageous and outlandish are celebrated. The fervent response from the audience -compared to the tepid, proper applause one gets after soldiering through a physically demanding aria- has given me my confidence and mojo back.“
I was terrified that my hosting wouldn’t translate to Singapore, especially the part where I ceaselessly talk about my pussy. I did my best to overcome my total lack of self-esteem because I was supposed to be the mentor here. I desperately wanted the audience to feel like they were part of something substantial while being wildly entertained. I wanted our show to bring them somewhere they’d never been before, and once they went there – they couldn’t go back to being exactly the same. I wanted it so badly I changed my outfit and my hair four times during a show that didn’t even have an intermission.
We did it. We debuted Singapore’s first ever socially progressive diverse burlesque troupe. Kathy Rowland wrote my favorite review of Foreign Bodies for Arts Equator: “Foreign Bodies was an evening of art and defiance. One felt that the training and performance was an emancipatory experience for members of Skin in SIN, and the transmission of joy and acceptance was infectious.” I hope the courage of these performers is contagious.
So allow me to offer one more curtain call of congratulations to the cast of Foreign Bodies: Lykkie Liquor, Datin Coconut Muffin, Patch Strongwood, Kitty Padi, Aura Hahn, Steven Manja, Hank Spank, Toralina Purrverse, Michelle Piper, Aloysius D, our stage kitten Jessica Moonshine, our stage manager Leah, and the visionary behind the project my beloved friend Becca D’Bus. I can’t wait to see what Skin in SIN does next!
Connect with Skin In SIN here: www.skininsin.com and www.facebook.com/SkinInSINBurlesque
MADGE OF HONOR is a queer performance artist whose work focuses on the body as a site of both complicity and rebellion. Madge uses femininity, sexuality and spectacle to expose and confront social conventions and our collective fantasies/pathologies about race and gender, drawing from nightclub traditions of drag and burlesque. They also engage with physically and psychically demanding endurance and time-based work. Madge is a prison abolitionist and organizer.