What is our relationship to the objects around us? If objects could speak, what would they say? We turn objects into possessions by imbuing them with sentiment and narrative. They become totems for our own stories.
Ten mannequin busts modeling dresses, frocks, and jackets surround the stage, which contains chairs and a round black table set with dinnerware and a vase with three spiral-bamboo. Two white screens hang in the background. Muna Tseng enters and seats herself in a chair on the side. She serves as our watchful eye.
STELLA is Tseng’s mother and the title of the performance. In the beginning, Isadora Wolfe and Rebecca Warner enter, each wearing a cropped black wig, a black bra, a lacey black slip, and crimson red lipstick. They move coyly, seductively, as they put on imaginary cheongsams and eventually real ones. Sometimes they pause or hold a self-conscious pose reminiscent of a Cindy Sherman self-portrait. Together, they are Stella. Stella is glamorous, snobby, and sharp-witted, equating self-dignity to luxury and class. She is proud and arrogant, and was once considered “one of the 10 beauties of Shanghai.” Spoken lines and audio recordings fill in the details of her life: an upper class childhood in Shanghai, a flight to Hong Kong in the 1950s to escape communism, a move to Vancouver where her extravagant lifestyle slid into working class, and then dementia, where her final days were spent in a nursing home in Toronto.
Tseng occasionally plays a recording of her own voice narrating details of Stella’s life. At one point, a projector is rolled out in front of one of the white screens for a slideshow presentation of “Stella’s Truisms,” which include the following phrases: “NO BAD TASTE,” “Read Emily Brontë, not Amy Tan,” and “Education is a girl’s best friend.” The text is witty and engaging, a sort of distraction from the movement, which is slow and poised as Wolfe and Warner dreamily drift across the space. Their motions mimic melodramatic fashion magazine gestures, accompanied with gazes that signify longing and regret. Although the movement is languorous, it feels forced, disingenuous when juxtaposed with the honesty of Stella’s life story.
One of Tseng’s more interesting decisions was casting David Thomson, a tall African-American man, as one of the Stellas, alongside Wolfe and Warner. In a memorable sequence, he effortlessly sways his hips, adapting them to the tempo of Frank Sinatra’s “Cheek to Cheek” intercut with raucous dance party music. Thomson’s movement demonstrates restraint and sophistication, the opposite of his speech, which bears an air of affectation. He then carefully sets a dinner table while reciting a monologue about life with her husband, and her favorite types of meals. The problem with STELLA is that all of these theatrical elements are competing against each other for the viewer’s attention: the language, physical gestures, objects (a wheelchair is taken out in one of the final acts), and visual text. What results is Tseng’s hazy imaginary world, highly stylized yet awkward in its execution.
I admire how much identity plays a part in Tseng’s work, and how objects are used to describe a life, to tell a story. As I listen to STELLA and see her possessions, I reflect on my own family relationships and heirlooms from my mother and grandmothers: handkerchiefs, sunglasses, nightgowns, perfumes, and coins—beginnings for my own stories. I consider my own Chinese American background and family history.
But connecting with and believing in are different things. Throughout the performance there is an unresolved relationship between the spoken narrative and the movement. The movement feels like an afterthought, and the most telling parts of Stella’s life are never experienced through the choreography. At one point, Tseng’s audio recording speaks about Stella’s difficult adjustment to her less glamorous life in Vancouver and the deep shame she felt when her eldest son, Tseng Kwong Chi, a gay photographer practicing in the 1980s, died of AIDS in his thirties. These human emotions are never elaborated on, making Stella a two-dimensional character, a fine veneer.
In the final scene, Tseng takes center stage, dressed in high heels and an ostrich feather vest. She proudly walks towards the entryway, strips off the vest, embraces it in her arms and dips it as one would a dance partner, before dramatically exiting through Danspace’s fog-filled vestibule. Just like that, Stella disappears.