Shulin Arts Center, Taiwan
October 25, 2019
In his novel, The Stranger, Albert Camus observes that, “We are all strangers, strange to ourselves and to the world around us.” In these fast-changing times, you can easily feel like a stranger in your home town, but it’s migration and moving to somewhere new that people usually think of. However much you try, however near or distant your new home, there’s the reality that you will remain an outsider for a long time. However well you speak a language or assimilate, there will be little things that give you away to those already there, even though they may well be descendants of immigrants themselves. So to Stranger (異鄉人) by Lai Tsui-shuang (賴翠霜) and her take on what is a very popular topic for choreographers at the moment.
It opens with the excellent cast of four dancers (Chen Jia-hong 陳佳宏, Chen Ying Qi 陳盈琪, Chen Zhi-lei 陳芝藟, Huang Yu-fen黃郁棻) each in their own circle of light. They run, they are people on the move. Yet while together in purpose, they are alone. There are more references to travelling later when luggage gets used extensively. In one scene, a suitcase is passed repeatedly between people. In another they are pushed along by prone bodies.
The dancers are well-supported by Zhao Zi-zai (趙自在); Wu Ting-yi (吳亭儀) and Lin Yu-tong (林禹彤) on guitar, violin and flute. They contributed hugely to the mood, although it was unfortunate that, while we watched them play down on the stage, the mic-ed soud came from high above. It really was most disconcerting and is a poor piece of theatre design.
As Lai drops in on various aspects of her theme, the dance is always innovative, although sometimes the connection is more obvious than others. One powerful scene sees individuals being ignored; people quite literally looking the other way. It hits hard. Human nature can be truly ugly at times although prejudice and discrimination is not always overt, of course. I could have done
Another strong moment has dancers crashing across the stage as if tossed by waves (and we do indeed hear waves in the music). Hints at modern issues of migration across seas and lost lives, or a more subtle reference to the mixed up, conflicting thoughts and emotions going on in a newcomer’s mind. Maybe both.
Sometimes connections are less obvious, however, as when one dancer clings onto the violinist’s coat as a version of Saint-Saens The Swan is heard. Her semi-miming playing to guitar music is also decidedly unfortunate.
Towards the end, a map of sorts is drawn on the stage by Chen Jia-hong. Landmarks are obvious, a bicycle, a ship, a church. It’s intriguing, presumably a map for himself og hsi new place, which he then travels through. He also writes words, although they are upside down to the audience and near-impossible to decipher.
Although Stranger generally hits the mark, I only occasionally got much sense of loneliness, alienation and not belonging, although I suspect I may have felt more in a smaller venue. The new multi-purpose space that is the new Shulin Arts Center did the work few favours. It feels cavernous; a cold barn of a place in atmosphere and temperature. It’s not only wide, but the back of the stage, where you could see seating used for other layouts retracted, is so distant that when those seats were used by the three musicians, they felt disengaged from the action in front. Chairs in front of a black curtain may have been a solution.
All round, a good evening, though. Given Lai has worked in Germany a long time, I feel sure there’s more than a dash of personal experience in Stranger; another intelligent work looking at an important social issue by an always interesting choreographer.