2020 Festival Report: Case Study

Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep

AUSTRALIA / SINGAPORE

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Featuring renowned pianist Margaret Leng Tan, Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep is a co-production by Chamber Made and CultureLink Singapore and was co-commissioned by Asia TOPA, Arts Centre Melbourne and Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay Singapore.

Premiering at Asia TOPA, this full length theatrical work brought together the iconic performer with an international team of accomplished artists and creatives working at the intersections of dramaturgy and composition.

Tan, a New York-based pianist of Singaporean heritage, is a legendary force within avant-garde music; a muse for such iconic 20th Century composers as John Cage and George Crumb. Her stellar 40-year creative journey forms the basis for Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep and offers a glimpse into the passions and obsessions that shaped her life and career.

"Till this day I count the number of steps when climbing a flight of stairs or the number of times I rinse after brushing my teeth. These rituals permeating my daily life serve no particular purpose other than to satisfy the need to perform them. Enter music…you can imagine how delighted I was… I could now count to my heart’s content."
– Margaret Leng Tan




Creative Team

Musician / performer Margaret Leng Tan
Composer Erik Griswold
Director Tamara Saulwick
Dramaturg Kok Heng Leun
Video artist Nick Roux
Lighting design Andy Lim
Costume design Yuan Zhiying
Additional video footage Tey Mun Sen, Chuang Xu, Erik Griswold, Rick Tejada-Flores
Production Emily O’Brien, Leo Gester, Yap Seok Hui
Co-Executive producers Kylie McRae, Goh Ching Lee
Administration Jocelyn Chng, Emilie Collyer & Dan Sheehan

Creation

The work was in part an ode to Tan’s mother who passed away in 2018. Her mother’s decline into dementia revealed to the artist her greatest fear; "not remembering how to remember".

Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep was conceived as an opportunity for Tan to reflect on her career, and journey from her childhood home of Singapore to daily life in New York. "Do you know when I'm proudest? When I'm at an international festival and I see my name, Margaret Leng Tan, and then in brackets, Singapore."

A deeply personal story, in Dragon Ladies Tan had a vision of what she wanted to create and the desire to explore a theatrical format. Long-time collaborator and composer Erik Griswold suggested the addition of Australian director and performance maker Tamara Saulwick to the project, having re-connected at the Australian Performing Arts Market in Brisbane in 2018 soon after Saulwick had been named Artistic Director of Melbourne-based Chamber Made.

Interrogating intersections of music, sound, contemporary performance and culture, Chamber Made creates original works that defy boundaries. Saulwick explains, "When I met up with Erik, the more we talked about the project, the more I started to think this is something that Chamber Made could do. It just sounded exciting, the international partnership sounded exciting, the collaborators sounded exciting… it was ticking a lot of boxes for me as an artist but also with my Chamber Made hat on."

The creative process began with a video conference between Saulwick in Melbourne and Tan in New York.

Dramaturgical work marked a new frontier for Tan, whose considerable career had been predominately concert-based. Saulwick said "One of the challenges was always going to be taking Margaret on a journey to create a work in a very different process, and Margaret doesn’t have a history of collaborating, she is an interpreter of composer’s music."

With the project beginning to form, the Australian Government’s Cultural Diplomacy Arts Grants program invested in the concept, supporting an outbound creative development to Singapore.

Saulwick described this meeting as a ‘blind date’ hosted by arts producing, management and consulting agency CultureLink Singapore.

"It was always going to be important that it was the right people to make this work for Margaret" said Saulwick, "because really in a way it was for her."

Dragon Ladies Don't Weep Rehearsals

The team challenged Tan to move beyond her vision for a staged biographical memoir, to achieve her objective of creating a work with broader appeal for international audiences. "What she came in with and what we proposed to her after those four days were two very different projects" said Saulwick.

Ultimately, Tan had the option to continue creating a work closer to her original vision, or a new concept proposed by Heng Leun and the Australian collaborative team. Saulwick explained, "We went to her at the end and said, we think there is a really interesting work here, but the choice is yours, this is what we’re pitching, have a think about whether you want to go on that journey…she did and she said I’m up for it! That meant her actually letting go of a lot of ideas, a lot of preconceptions about what the work would be."

Facilitated by Chamber Made, The PlayKing Foundation, in conjunction with Arts Centre Melbourne and National Arts Council Singapore, then supported an intense two-week creative development period hosting the creative team and co-producers together in Melbourne to begin making the work.

On the basis of those creative developments, Asia TOPA Creative Director Stephen Armstrong committed to co-commissioning and presenting the work in the 2020 festival. "Programming a concept as formally ambitious and as personal as Dragon Ladies Don't Weep would normally be an anxious process" said Armstrong, "but not at all in this case because the team were so astutely assembled by Chamber Made and CultureLink Singapore - and director, Tamara Saulwick and Margaret were clear about what the production set out to express."

The initial investment enabled both Chamber Made and CultureLink Singapore to leverage additional partners, including Creative Victoria, the Australia Council for the Arts and Robert Salzer Foundation.

Asia TOPA and CultureLink Singapore jointly advocated for the work, securing the final investments required through the National Arts Council Singapore, Singapore’s Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, and Singapore’s Esplanade– Theatres on the Bay as co-commissioning partners.

Reflecting on the extensive collaboration between funders, Saulwick said "I think this project caught a [zeitgeist in the] popular imagination. I also think having the Australian Government funding right from the start gave us a good leg up to leverage more support as it struck a chord with Singaporean partners."




Presentation

Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep premiered at Arts Centre Melbourne, featuring Tan performing on prepared piano, toy piano, toys and percussion, with spoken and recorded text, projected images and video. Counting was a recurring thread, with underlying themes of memory, time, loss and control.


Watch Dragon Ladies Don't Weep short documentary


Under the direction of Saulwick working with Singapore dramaturg Kok Heng Leun with original compositions by Griswold, the work provided audiences with a rare dramatic self-portrait of a singular artist, the forces that drive her, and the ways in which music has been her passion and her refuge.

For Asia TOPA, Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep was presented as part of the SUBSONIC series together with Double Phase, also a world premiere, and a first-time collaboration between Japanese film maker Makino Takashi and Australian composer Lawrence English.

A regular performer in Australia, Tan said that she always finds Australian audiences highly-expressive, compared to more reserved audiences in Asia. With her high-profile, the one-night-only performance in the Playhouse Theatre drew significant media attention.

ArtsHub Australia said "At 74, she cuts a figure of elegance, grace and ferocity."

During their Critical Residency at Asia TOPA, South-East Asian digital arts platform Arts Equator wrote "She ekes out meaning from a toy mobile phone, a toy rotary phone and a toy gun. These aren’t just sounds that entertain. Coupled with her lines of spoken word, they’re sounds that stir emotions and jolt the senses."

Always intended as a touring work, the performance was specifically scheduled as a featured event for international delegates of the Australian Performing Arts Market hosted in Melbourne during Asia TOPA. Attended by visiting artists, curators and artistic directors, post-show celebrations were punctuated with animated discussions as presenters from North America, UK and Asia sought out more detail.

With advocacy from Asia TOPA, before its Melbourne premiere in February, Sydney Opera House had confirmed presentations of the work in March, 2020. In light of pandemic travel bans, both this season and its Singapore premiere at Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay are currently postponed.




Legacy

A vital figure in avant-garde music, Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep enabled Tan to reflect upon the cultural, geographic and personal forces that have shaped her life – while also exploring new frontiers of creative expression.

She said, "It really is quite a miracle, what Singapore has accomplished, and we should not take it for granted. You have to be away and come back to appreciate the little things that work here that don't work in other places."

Throughout the highly personal creative process, Tan shared extensive childhood and musical memories, recordings, photographs of her mother, newspaper articles and diary entries. A percentage of National Arts Council Singapore funding has been apportioned to formally document these materials, creating a lasting portrait of a highly-respected and historically significant artist. Asia TOPA invested additional resources to allow Chamber made to create a mini-documentary to keep the production at the forefront during the COVID-19 shutdown.

In creating this new work an extensive network of creative partners in Singapore, Australia and North America were engaged, forming strong relationships, in particular, adding depth to cultural collaboration between Australia and Singapore.

Early funding was critical to leveraging further support from funders and commissioners. The project gained a significant list of partners who were integral to development of the work.

Marking the initiation of a new co-producing relationship between Chamber Made and CultureLink Singapore, Executive Producer, Kylie McRae said "In terms of capacity building, presenting at Arts Centre Melbourne during the Australian Performing Arts Market was a significant opportunity and we made a lot of new connections and relationships."

Conceived with touring in mind, and following its successful premiere at Asia TOPA, Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep has attracted interest from festival directors and presenters including:

  • Sydney Opera House
  • Salihara Jakarta
  • PuSh International Performing Arts Festival Vancouver
  • The National Theatre and Concert Hall Taipei
  • Southbank Centre, London

While ultimate outcomes are unknown due to restrictions on travel, Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep reinforces the role arts and culture continue to play in international engagement, and the importance of networking exchanges such as the Australian Performing Arts Market – formally and informally brokering collaborations that create international market opportunities for Australian and Asian creative talent.


Images credits:
Pia Johnson – Main image, Gallery images 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7
Pier Carthew – Gallery images 6, 8, 9
Pier Carthew – ‘Creation’ embedded image