National Theater, Taipei
November 24, 2019
Ho Hsiao-mei’s (何曉玫) latest work for her Meimage Dance (何曉玫舞團), renaissance of its ashes (極相林), is quite unlike anything I have previously seen from her. The culmination of two years’ development that has included major changes of music, choreography and cast numbers, it is full of intriguing and striking images.
A constant is that the versions have all been about pain, which the programme notes describe as a “ceremony without rituals.” The first half certainly depicts the latter. It opens with the cast in white modernist takes on ceremonial garb making their way through the first floor (stalls) seats by perching precariously on the seat backs. It reminded me of a never-to-be-forgotten Dave St Pierre evening at Sadler’s Wells in London, but at least this time the dancers were clothed, it was tasteful, and it only took ten minutes not thirty. Many on the upper floors were denied seeing much of this but they should worry not since the lone figure crouched on a huge table on Wang Shih-hsing’s (王世信) otherwise stripped back stage was far more alluring.
Once on stage and now all in skin-coloured leotards, the dancers gather on the table. Sat so we can’t see their heads, they look like huge joints of meat waiting to be devoured. Soon, however, the performers furl and unfurl around each other like a serpents’ nest of ever-shifting limbs. The pace is slow, the movement viscous. The religious music adds to the sense of ritual, but more in the sense of trance than anything formal. As they fall off the table, the scene suggests death. Any sense of pain, emotional or physical, as suggested in the programme note was harder to discern.
The Chinese title of the work derives from the term, “climax community,” a place where the ecological development of vegetation in an area over time, has reached a steady state. Far from that, and despite Teng Cheng-wei’s (鄧振威) warm lighting, if the scene reminded me of anything it was Dante’s Inferno and Rodin’s Gates of Hell, a thought magnified by a red pathway created with lasers that stretches above the audience.
Once back on the floor, and with the table now rather neatly disassembled and spread around by the crew, that previous essence is counterbalanced by sudden, sharp scurrying. Frequently, the performers come together to form strange, hybrid, two-headed, four-limbed beings like something from the underworld, or perhaps the microscopic world under that vegetation. But while Ho and the dancers create many interesting forms, the idea is played with for too long and things start to get predictable.
Having changed the space, Ho now halts everything to have the performers strap up limbs, thus having previously changed the space, she now changes the bodies. If the intent was to destroy the mood and flow of the piece, it does so magnificently. And magnificently pretty much sums up how the dancers cope with their now ‘disabled’ bodies. Is Ho trying to say that there eventually comes a state where the pain of disability disappears? If so, what she shows is not so much a state of equilibrium as one of positivity. All it actually demonstrates is that anyone with missing limbs can dance just as effectively and indeed as aesthetically pleasingly as anyone with the usual number.
Apart from the question of ‘why?’, the scene made me think about the ethics of faking disability and using it in this way. No-one is saying that ‘able-bodied’ dancers should only portray ‘able-bodied dance’ or that ‘disabled’ dancers should only be expected perform ‘disabled dance’ (however you define any of those terms), but context is all-important and I’m not convinced that Ho could not have achieved similar another way. I wouldn’t go any further that saying it was questionable and unfortunate although I am sure some would find this part of renaissance of its ashes distasteful and even offensive. Next year’s TIFA has the fabulous Candoco with its inclusive roster of able-bodied and disabled coming from England. I suspect they might have a view on this.
But parking those thoughts for now, renaissance of its ashes is an appealing feast in so many ways. It was also very different and very unexpected, and in a very positive way.