The dance programme at the 2017 Taiwan International Festival of the Arts (台灣國際藝術節) in Taipei got off to a visually striking start with a very much home-grown offering, the curtain rising to reveal a series of huge white silks hanging to the floor. Clouds perhaps, rain falling from clouds perhaps, or maybe just the effect of a seed having been planted in the mind by the programme, which tells us that The Eternal Tides (潮) by choreographer and Legend Lin Dance Theatre (無垢舞蹈劇場) artistic director Lin Lee-chen (林麗珍) is a visualisation of the life cycle of tide, and indeed water as a whole, from droplets in the high atmosphere to clouds to rivers to the sea. A musician off to the right strikes a gong slowly, very slowly, and very methodically, as if summoning us, the spirits we are about to see.
The tides of the title are, in fact, merely a metaphor for the cycle of life, and sure enough eventually you realise that there’s the small white figure of Wu Ming-jing (吳明璟), hidden under those silks. As she starts to move there is a sense that we are witnessing a birth or an awakening. Near-naked, she spirals her head and her upper body for an age, all in accord with the drum, her very long hair flying through the air slicing through the space like a whip being swung continually around and around. For 20 minutes and more she circles again and again. It’s an impressive feat, and yet the expected feeling of a trance-like state never materialises and, despite occasional changes in tempo, it does start to drag rather.
The Eternal Tides is a follow up to Lin’s ‘heaven, earth and man’ trilogy of Mirroirs de Vie (觀, 1995), Hymne aux Fleurs qui Passant (Anthem to the Fading Flowers,花神祭, 2000) and Song of Pensive Beholding (醮, 2009). Although described in the programme as a continuation of the legend of the eagle brother and White Bird of Song of Pensive Beholding, Lin prefers not to give a clear explanation of the work, and would rather people see and feel whatever message it brings to them rather than be constrained by textual explanation. As such, Wu, as the White Bird, is the only named character.
Lin is unique in the way she draws local and national culture and an overwhelming sense of ritual into her dance, and there is certainly plenty of that as the work unfolds. Typically, Lin is not afraid to let everything take time, and take time it does. Nothing is rushed. The dancers mostly move very, very slowly, more deliberately than you could ever imagine, half crouched, bent forward. Far from being boring it actually enhances the tension.
Lin may be a choreographer, but she has a master painter’s eye for image and detail, and she certainly paints some starkly beautiful pictures. The dance combined with the austerity of design makes the whole feel like one of those Chinese ink paintings that are filled with white space come to life. It is quite exquisite.
A couple of moments are especially gorgeous. First is the meeting of Wang Chien-yi (王芊懿) and Cheng Chieh-wen (鄭傑文) in ‘Thought’. When she puts her head against his chest before their bodies fold around one another, Lin doesn’t need to say any more. Second is the death of the White Bird, a picture of stunning contrasts. Wu centre stage, her hair now as a huge black headdress, is all monochrome, but around her stand four golden lit men in black skirts and red bandanas, their bodies glistening in their golden light. Marvellous.
It’s not all quiet and slow, though. There are moments that will make you sit up with a start. That long opening solo ends with a series of violent screams. And then, after the mood darkens and becomes menacing, there is the ‘Fight’ in which the dance bursts into violent life, the combatants led by Cheng and Chen Chi-shun (陳啟順) shaking with rage and screaming to the powerful urging of the drums.
And yet, for all the intensity, superb imagery and mood that is conjured up The Eternal Tides, I couldn’t help feeling that I had seen it all before. Too often it felt like a repeat rather than a new episode; not quite a collage of fragments of previous works, but heading in that direction. It’s not so much the movement vocabulary as the narrative, designs and whole mood. That includes the end that has a dancer painstakingly laying out stones from a bowl along a path, although I do understand the metaphor. I can’t help wondering whether the trilogy (should that now be tetralogy?) has somehow taken over, and whether this is now it, and whether there is anywhere for Lin and her remarkable dancers go next.
For anyone wanting to learn more about Lin Lee-chen, her story and her choreography, I heartily recommend Singing Chen’s (陳芯宜) documentary film, The Walkers (行者).