Eisa Jocson’s Princess is a masterpiece, and a masterclass in postcolonial artmaking. Accessible at multiple levels, it manages to ask heavy questions about power dynamics and systemic oppression, while being simultaneously delightful, humorous, and hugely entertaining. The dance’s simple construction reads like an open book. Its elegant simplicity led me to find myself asking quite a range of complicating questions: Who gets to play the princess? Why is the princess fantasy so enthralling? Why is she tripping and falling so much? Why does Snow White recover so quickly from crying? Why do the performers recover so quickly from their anger? Do I also recover so quickly? What’s that on their socks, what sound is that in the music?
As the show progressed, I found myself wishing more and more that I had brought my family and friends along, so that we can discuss the work and the issues they point at. This is a really rare experience for me. Having watched lots of postmodern performance, and plenty of concept-driven contemporary dance — it seems anecdotally true that such pieces resonate more often with a niche audience who enjoy going to the theatre to be challenged. Yet this was a work that gently, lovingly, drew us into a fantasy world of pleasure and joy, even while it sought to question the political and cultural structures within which we play out our relationships with each other.
When the audience enter the theatre, this is what we see: a white dance mat slopes from the ceiling, like a rolling hill. Audience seats are on three sides, though the slope only goes in one direction. I feel like I’m in the Alps somehow, and decide I’d want to sit at the base of the slope — where, if someone were to ski, they would come towards me. I imagine that this is the front and place myself there — the privileged seat in the theatre, for kings and queens.
Two dancers dressed as Snow White enter from two sides of the slope. They are in heels, wigs, and are made up in glitter. For most of the performance, they dance in perfect, awe-inspiring unison. One man and one woman, mimicking the affectations of the very first full-length Disney princess movie. They’ve captured her image so well, it seems as if the room could be full of copies of this same, giggly, smiling, alluring, princess.
Chances are, if you love Disney, or loved Disney growing up, the show will conjure up memories from childhood. As the dancers begin to move and sway, their incredible imitation feels almost sincere, not ironic. Part of the pleasure of this show lies in that tenderness — my adult self recognises fully the problematics of these images we show children, representing women in very narrow ways (cooking, cleaning, being outrageously happy, or a damsel in distress). And yet, I find myself swept along by the fantasy, even though I know full well that the show comments upon it. Could it be that their high-pitched voices simply have that primordial effect? Could it be the consistent, persistent smiling? Could it be their constant effort to be pleasant? I enjoy it, am entertained by it — even as I know how exhausting, even painful, it can be, for the performers. You see it in their sweat, the slight strain in the facial muscles.
The artists have condensed the movie Snow White into its purest form — they repeat and loop key phrases and gestures, capturing the naïveté and absurdism of wishing apples and living happily ever after. As the movement and music grow increasingly dissonant, they begin to talk to individual audience members. Always respectful, like stereotypical Filipino service staff. (During the post dialogue, we learn about research that talks about the higher Filipino performance of happiness compared to global averages.) They talk with people about cooking, shoes, whitening creams (with a white man who uses no such thing). The show must feel very different, depending on the audience. In ours, we were often laughing, sometimes a little uncomfortably, but mostly as people sharing the same side of the joke. Russ Ligtas (as Snow White) weeps in the lap of a group of fellow artists. Eisa Jocson (as Snow White) asks a man how his day was, and reassured him “it’s okay” when he expresses discomfort at being implicated in the show. They are always respectful as they activate this web of situations across three sides of the room. Suddenly they break into “Filipino conference” and speak in Tagalog, throwing out words like “domestic helper”, “intersectionality” — words performing their wokeness, underscoring a liberal slant, but also revealing the impotence of such words in a theatre.
They go back to speaking like Snow White. Perfect constructions of a fantasy figure who, as a princess, finds herself cleaning up the mess of 7 tiny men. As they repeat gestures and choice statements from the film, their higher-pitched speaking shifts to seething with pain/anger/shame. It hit me, in the gut, the heart, the mind. My tear ducts activate.
There is nothing like live performance that brings home the deep emotion behind political and intellectual debate. There is nothing like watching two Filipino artists introduce themselves as “White. Snow White.” to a roomful of people in a country where domestic abuse, and abuse of (Filipino and otherwise) maids persists. There is nothing like a work of art that can give pleasure while telling a confronting truth.