Song Yan Creative LAB, Songshan Cultural and Creative Park, Taipei
September 22, 2017
The concept of purgatory crops up in most religions. Although often referred to as a place, in religious teaching, it’s usually seen as a sort of in-between state of existence somewhere between life and death.
Hsu Chen-wei’s (許程崴) family were engaged in the funeral industry. When he was a child, Hsu used to play around the funeral parlour and the graveyard. It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that traditional rituals and death are areas he should explore in dance. As he says, the world after death is also something we are all curious about, since no-one who has been there can come back and tell us about it.
Hsu’ Purgatory (肉身撒野) was particularly inspired by Hieronymus Bosch’s creation and damnation triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights (actually a modern title), which starts with Adam and Eve and ends with a highly imaginative view of Hell. What Bosch intended to say is unclear. Indeed, the work has been described as an “attempt to describe the indescribable and to decipher the indecipherable – an exercise in madness.”
Hsu takes the view that purgatory might prove as attractive as heaven. His is certainly not a hellish place of fiery punishment or eternal damnation (even if some red lighting at one point might hint at that). It opens with his four female dancers clad in black. He explains that the use of an all-female cast represents the role of women in creating life, and is also a nod towards the fact that the Chinese words for ‘four’ and ‘death’ sound similar. It’s the least appealing part of the work, overlong, and with little to grab the viewer. A funeral journey or the journey from the funeral to purgatory, take it as you will.
Things pick up enormously when the dancers change to one-piece skin-toned body stockings. They look grubby, as if they’ve just emerged from some long journey, the dirt and dust of the road plainly visible. There’s a lot of individuality, everyone doing their own thing, twitch violently or writhe as they are buffeted by unseen forces. undergoing their own cleansing or reliving, however you want to see it.
For a while, there’s a little too much and not enough linking together, even if only momentarily. But purgatory seems to improve and a greater sense of calm and peace prevails. maybe, as Hsu says, it’s not so bad after all. Now the quartet come together much more, and it’s here the dance is at its strongest with not a spare movement. There are a few powerful pictures too, the best of which is when the foursome forming a pile of unmoving bodies.
While Purgatory is increasingly compelling, it doesn’t have the intensity of The Sacrifice of Roaring, such a success at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2016. In part, that is at least down to the Creative LAB’s wide, if somewhat shallow, performance area and Hsu’s desire to use all of the space. Too often the lighting also bathes the whole stage rather than focusing attention on the action, although his use of uplighters on the back wall is extremely effective. Overall, though, this was one of those rare occasions when I found myself wanting less light, not more.