Taoyuan Performing Arts Center, Taiwan
December 2, 2016
In Crescent Spring (月牙泉), her latest production for Jade Dance Theatre (肢體音符舞團), artistic director Jade Hua (華碧玉) shifts through time as she brings some of the sights and mysteries of the Silk Road to the stage alongside striking contemporary fashions and music.
The place is set immediately. From amid few stylised sand dunes, dancers become camels setting off on their, and our journey. The mimicking of the animals’ movement is perhaps a little obvious, but the dancers do get the lugubrious nature of their walking off to a tee.
Established during the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD), the 4,300-mile Silk Road that ran from China to the Mediterranean flourished until the late 16th-century. Although primarily a commercial route, as always, with trade comes culture. But while it might have crossed a great deal of arid and barren land, it was never an endless stretch of sandy, lifeless, uninhabited desert. The landscape is colourful and varied, as are the people in it.
Crescent Spring was born out of personal experience and a visit to Silk Road that Hua made in 2011. The piece takes its title from the spring-fed Crescent Lake, which is situated in an oasis near the ancient merchant town of Dunhuang in Gansu Province, China; not far from the Mogao Grottoes (莫高窟), home to nearly 500 temples and many magnificent sculptures. It’s a very special place, says Hua, romantic, beautiful, yet also full of ghosts of times past.
Hua doesn’t take us on an end-to-end journey but rather reflects on a few sights and sounds she experienced, looking forward and drawing on modern design and technology, as well as looking back at what was.
She starts with the former as she treats us unexpectedly to a fashion show, turning her dancers and live musicians into models parading a catwalk. The simple, but great-looking white dresses and tight-fitting one-pieces by Weng Meng-qing (翁孟晴), all cut with a gorgeous low U-shape at the front, are impressive enough, but slowly more unusual fashions start to appear, all made from light-brown paper stiffened variously. Sometimes they are mere adornments such as paper flowers in the hair but often they are dramatic indeed. There’s a stole, a tutu made from concertinaed paper, and a wrap full of holes that looks for all the world like a very thinly cut slice of Emmentaler. One of the men sports a spikey headdress (like the statue of liberty) as if some warrior from a strange, past world. Shifting away from the paper there is a great-looking hooped, basin-shaped white skirt-cum-tutu.
The beauty of the region is reflected in a following section that takes place against the famous ancient grottos, the pastel-coloured sandstone cliffs and caves cleverly created by stage designer Cai Yin-han (蔡茵涵) using overlapping backdrops. The tunnels become a sort of wormhole to the past through which dancers appear and disappear, although they can often be seen in silhouette when inside. The dance here often makes reference to statues of Buddha and images of flying maidens. There is sometimes a sense that a woman in white is an outsider, perhaps from today, watching in awe the ancient dances and other strange and unusual sights and scenes around her. I particularly enjoyed a flowing duet between her and a dancer in green.
Unfortunately, things then start to go a little awry for a while. A snowy scene created with projections is fine until (as so often happens) the computer wizards overreach themselves. The zooming around and swivelling, and drawing of lines and patterns would have been distracting enough on its own had it been nice and smooth, but this was extremely jerky. Simple is so often best.
The section also included a duet with both dancers darkly clad that was almost lost completely against the dark background. It’s unclear, though, whether this was a nod towards the fact that the Buddhas, other statues and other treasures of the caves are slowly being eroded away or destroyed by man and lost, or a simple lighting issue at Taoyuan. While I quite like darkly lit dance, this was very murky indeed, although it shouldn’t take away from what, overall, is an excellently designed piece. In any case, all is redeemed as some light reappears and Hua rewinds and delivers a variation on that catwalk.
Top marks too, to the excellent cast who deliver throughout. They are always assured, whether it’s being modern catwalk models, all theatrical as they make occasional surprise expressions at the audience, or in the more expected flowing dance sections.