Inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, actor-director Edith Podesta breathes new life into the classic fairy tale with a contemporary dance work that charts the transition of a girl becoming a woman. The Immortal Sole features the talents of Dapheny Chen, Koh Wan Ching, Ma Yanling and Yarra Ileto, and explores traditional female gender stereotypes in society. We dive into a deep conversation with Podesta on what inspired her latest piece and her personal transition from girlhood to womanhood.
What is it about Hans Christian Anderson’s classic tale The Little Mermaid that inspired you to make this piece?
I was inspired by this quote from Amanda Heng regarding the behaviour and spending habits of women during the recession in Singapore: “A lot of Singaporean women were ‘upgrading’ themselves, going to beauty salons, having plastic surgery and so on to keep their jobs. A woman’s looks are still worth more than her abilities.” I thought the journey of The Little Mermaid aligned with the reality Heng's referring to in the above quote. The Immortal Sole focuses on how concepts of beauty and the perceptions of traditional women’s roles are fostered in the fertile minds of young girls and then manifested through puberty. The body has always been a battle for women, what better way to explore the body politic than through dance?
Growing up, did you have an attachment to the story?
My parents gave me a copy of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid with illustrations by Edmund Dulac when I was very young. The story disturbed me so much that whenever my parents mentioned mermaids I would burst into tears. I was too old to have much of a connection with the Disney version, but have fond memories of Daryl Hannah and Tom Hanks in Splash.
"If fairy tales are the first stories we hear, then perhaps they are the best place to start to find out where girls get their ideas about what it takes or what it means to be a woman"
The Immortal Sole explores the transition from girlhood to womanhood – was it based on your personal experience?
The transition from girlhood to womanhood feels fast for every female I think. I was especially taken by the way pop stars make the overnight transition from wholesome Disney Mickey Mouse Club good girls to exploring their newfound womanhood; Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Miley Cyrus have all had to make this transition in the public eye. I have taken the speed, severity and similarity of this transition as my starting point for The Immortal Sole – from one day having a family, a tail and a voice, to growing legs, living on land, and loving a prince.
What was it like growing up for you?
It was a shock when it dawned on me that I was actually going to grow up to be a woman. I was such a tomboy as a young girl that it never occurred to me to ‘act like a lady’. I guess I’m lucky in that respect – I got to run a lot more before having to learn to walk in high heels.
Why do you think it’s important for you to share this piece?
If fairy tales are the first stories we hear, then perhaps they are the best place to start to find out where girls get their ideas about what it takes or what it means to be a woman. In this retelling, I've been heavily influenced by today's fairy tales: music videos, the images of young women in advertisements, the male gaze, and selfie culture. We swim in images of ‘the perfect women’ every day, but it's important to get our heads above water every once in a while and interrogate the authenticity and the influence these images have on us.
"We swim in images of ‘the perfect women’ every day, but it's important to get our heads above water every once in a while"
What was it like working alongside talents such as Dapheny Chen, Koh Ching, Ma Yanling and Yarra Illeto?
It’s amazing working with such talented performers! We laugh a lot in rehearsals, and I’ve always looked forward to spending time in the studio with them. My process calls for a lot of devising during the creation phase, so these dancers are as much co-choreographers as they are performers of the piece.
What would you like the audience to takeaway from this piece?
I would love for mothers to bring their daughters (young women aged 14/15 and above) to the show. Mothers can use the themes and images explored in The Immortal Sole to initiate discussions surrounding body image, popular culture, and womanhood with their daughters. There is a post-show discussion after every performance so this can kick-start the conversation.