National Theater, Taipei
November 25, 2017
Ilha Formosa, meaning ‘beautiful island’ was the name given to Taiwan by Portuguese sailors when they first glimpsed the island in the 16th-century. It’s still a very apt description for large parts of it. Formosa (關於島嶼) is also the English title of Lin Hwai-min’s (林懷民) latest work for Cloud Gate Dance Theatre (雲門舞集); possibly his last work, as he announced just days before the premiere that he would be retiring at the end of 2019.
My island is a leaf
Floating along the edge of the Pacific Ocean
Some people say: She is a big whale
But most people love to say: It is a yam
Nurturing 23 million people like a mother
Excerpt from My Island by Lin Fuan Chan
Lin has referenced Taiwanese history a few times in the past including Portrait of the Families (家族合唱) from twenty years ago, and one of my favourites. Best remembered by many, though is Legacy (渡海). Made in 1978 and still regarded by many as the company’s signature work, it tells the story of the Han Chinese settlers who crossed the Taiwan Strait hundreds of years ago to escape famine and war and start a new life.
Whereas Legacy told a straight narrative, Formosa is a more reflective look at the Taiwan of today. The Chinese title literally translates as ‘About the Island’, which pretty much sums it up. In part, it’s a celebration of the open, multicultural society that Taiwan now is, but it also reflects the mixed-up feelings of today as moments of harmony rub up against moments of conflict. Sometimes there’s a sense of frustration, sometimes of hope.
Words are important. Large parts of Formosa are set to readings of contemporary Taiwanese poetry and other writings about the island, read by poet and calligrapher Chiang Hsun (蔣勳). Indeed, the work opens with a bare white stage and just the spoken words of Arriving and Departing Yushan by Chen Lieh (陳列).
Throughout Formosa, those words also provide a visual landscape as traditional Chinese printed (rather than calligraphy) characters are projected (designs by Chou Tung-yen, 周東彥, and Very Mainstream Studio). The words soon go their own way. Characters sometimes fall like rain, or fade and disappear, or simply drift like a slow-flowing river. Place names and phrases break up, and strokes drift apart. Sometimes they become huge, a single character filling the whole stage, threatening to overpower the dance. At one point they come out of blackness as if stars; a Milky Way of words that glow above. The projects never overwhelm the dance, though.
The spoken text is interspersed with music by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, local musician Liang Chun-mei (梁春美), and most importantly the singing of Sangpuy Katatepan Mavaliyw of the Puyuma people (one of Taiwan’s indigenous groups).
Formosa is a very personal look at Taiwan. Lin’s dance itself does not attempt to describe the spoken or sung text in movement but more reflect it and capture the mood. As the movement represents the beauty of the isalnd, historical events, the feeling of its peoples and their turmoil, the mood swings from upbeat to oppressive, light to dark. Conflict between different groups is powerfully represented as two groups square up to one another and in a couple of danced fights.
It’s a playground of images. There are representations of modern city life, all hustle and bustle, people going in all directions seemingly oblivious to one another. But there are also gorgeous duets, none more so than between Huang Mei-ya (黃媺雅) and Chou Chen-yeh (周辰燁) in the second section, in which they drift around each other gracefully, arms floating like the smoke of the accompanying poem. Rarely making contact, it’s as if they can’t see each other but somehow know each other is there.
And now we sit on the path between the paddies
Behind us, someone upwind is burning rice straw
The pale smoke wafts between us
Excerpt from Among the Rice Paddies by Yang Mu
Beautiful too, but simple with it, is London-based designer Apu Jan’s (詹朴) collection of different coloured tops, trousers and dresses.
Although the dance can be more than enjoyed without an understanding of the text, the words are key and a printed English translation was thoughtfully provided in Taipei. But extra Extra appreciation undoubtedly comes from knowing the island, its history and its peoples. It will be interesting to see how well Formosa travels.
It ends with a return to that empty whiteness, save for one man, looking out, looking to the future. To precisely what, who knows, but one can’t help but feel a deep sense of hope and , perhaps, for all the concerns one may have, of pride too.
Many will hope that Formosa is not Lin’s final Cloud Gate creation but if it does turn out that way, it’s a fitting end and a grand dance to go out on.
Formosa can be seen at Sadler’s Wells in London in May 2018. Visit www.sadlerswells.com/whats-on for booking and details.