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And the category is: shamanism

Voguing and religion in Yishun is Burning at Julidans

Joke: A US police officer says he once got three armed drug dealers in handcuffs at the same time. A firefighter from England brags that he rescued 10 people from a burning flat. A Singaporean says he lives in Yishun. Everyone claps for the Singaporean.

Yishun is the dystopian suburb of Singapore. And it is the starting point for Choy Ka Fa's performance Yishun is Burning with performer Sun Phitthaya Phaefuang

Shamans and rituals

Singapore is a city where freedom of speech and religious freedom are firmly under pressure. The suburbs do have room for that freedom, and there are temples, mosques and churches where everyone is more or less free to perform rituals. Choy Ka Fai encountered a female shaman there who embodies the goddesses Kali and Guanyin. The documentary film clips from the show show that she is as spiritual as she is pragmatic: the goddesses don't get in each other's way, they just come on different days.

The videos show the rituals performed to exorcise evil. This is not always subtle, with metal pins and hooks piercing cheeks and backs. Then sometimes it is lyrical, with ritual movements performed until the participants are in a trance. Sun Phitthaya Phaefuang is one of the participants, moving between trance, surrender, queerness and performance.

On religion and the body

In doing so, he raises questions about what exactly religion is, what it means to us, to what extent it is intrinsically performative. Is sitting demonstratively in the front row in church different from sticking a pin through your cheek? It's less painful, for sure. But you can argue about the difference between wafers and dance, both require a physical act rather than a spiritual one.

Director, multimedia artist and choreographer Choy Ka Fai questions the relationship between spirituality and the body, gender and sexuality. He shows the liberating nature of religious trance, liberation of the soul through liberation of the body. But can you free your body if it is hampered by imposed gender norms? The two goddesses are gender diffuse, so are the performers of the rituals. And Sun Phitthaya Phaefuang certainly is.

https://vimeo.com/532584152

He trained in classical dance, but then turned to the ballroom scene into Southeast Asia. This gives him much more freedom to be who he is, but also to fight that freedom on stage. Because we do think that Thailand, his native country, is a queer paradise, but unfortunately this is a sham. Trans women cannot change their gender in their passports, for example.

Vogue is a lot more than Madonna would have us believe

The title is based on the legendary film Paris is Burning about the vogue and ballroom scene in New York in the 1980s. In it, dancers from different houses against each other in different categories, in which they persiflate gender, class and professional roles and offer a way out of everyday reality. The categories can be themed, skills or techniques are, the competition is tough.

Although there are now Netflix series about the scene and Ru Paul also contributes to its popularity, there is still also an underground scene. That scene was born out of a need to find a safe place and have a chosen family, the houses. Classic voguing is seen with two songs. At Theatre Bellevue, four dancers from Dutch houses present who gave their best moves show. Sun dances to the stars and flirts with the audience.

In a short white lace cape that reminded me of cardinal attire, and a Thai headdress, he showed what it is all about. Shape your own life, create your own religious rituals, your own gender identity. Vogue and ballroom comes from the Bipoc queer and trans community in New York. Activism and expressing who you want to be in a safe environment is in the genes of this dance form.

Hell guards and one night stands

Yishun is Burning brings together live performance with live music played in Singapore by the duo Nada and percussionist Cheryl Ong. Nada plays in the costume of Chinese hell guards, those who are supposed to lead lost souls to hell. The singer is all whitewashed, a hint to Choy Ka Fai's Butoh past? We also see clips from Yishun, featuring the shaman, rituals and street scenes. And texts projected at a murderous pace. This multiplicity is attractive; it gives the performance tremendous momentum. But it is also sometimes too much, so that it is not clear what choices Choy wants to make, where exactly he wants to go.

The score guides us through the performance. The live music is rousing, with an important role for percussion. The songs fogued at the end are deceptive. The first one comes across as a classic Asian pop tune, but turns out to be a song about one night stands. It is this kind of slightly subversive ingredient from which the show derives its power. The content is political, the form almost celebratory. You don't have to take to the streets with a banner to voice your opinion. It can also be done very well with a white mini cape and rousing music.

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Helen Westerik

Helen Westerik is a film historian and great lover of experimental films. She teaches film history and researches the body in art.View Author posts

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