National Theater, Taipei
October 15, 2017
In the programme notes, founder of Japanese multimedia theater company Dumb Type, Shiro Takatani, is described as a visual artist and director. Not, you note a choreographer. His ST/LL (靜/止), which opened the National Theater’s Dancing in Autumn (舞蹈秋天) season, is certainly full of arresting images. It’s a masterpiece of staging. Save for one scene some 50 minutes in, ‘dance’, in the conventional sense, is thin on the ground, though. With its sometimes unusual mix of live action and audio-visuals, ST/LL is perhaps best seen as a live installation; a meditation on time and space.
Everything is designed so that the action is mirrored in the shallow, square pool of that water fills the stage, and in which sits a long table, end-on to the audience. Behind the table, a white screen rises skywards. The table looks set for dinner, but when a camera hovers and we see it from above, it’s clear from the way wine-glasses are scattered, some on their side, that dinner has finished. A metronome ticks, a hint that ST/LL is at least in part about time, it’s sound audible even above the high-pitched soundscape.
Slowly the performers appear. Two women appear and sit before pretending to eat and drink unseen dishes (time past?), while a man clears the rest of the table (time present?). Later, one of the women sits on the table and swings her legs, another rests her head on the table. It feels claustrophobic. Everything is played out very slowly, very deliberately.
ST/LL evolves around what actually turns out to be four smaller tables. Soon, the four performers (Yuko Hirai, Mayu Tsuruta, Misako Yabuuchi and Olivier Balzarini) shift, writhe almost, in solo-motion. They are captured on camera and relayed to the screen with a few angular lines added for effect. Like the earlier camera close-ups, it gives the audience a view they would not otherwise have. It’s is simply a new perspective on what is already visible, though.
The surrounding blackness makes the humans sometimes seem very small. One of the cast reads a text and strikes a match, before ranks of bulbs descend from above like fireflies attracted by the flame. Later, another woman pushes a table and tells stories, rather amusingly doing all the voices. And still the water reflects all.
The one extended scene that can be seen as ‘dance’ features some clever interplay between the real characters and silhouettes on the screen. The mood here is more playful. They actors jump and splash in the water and have conversations in movement with their shadows.
Adding to everything is the aural texture created by Ryuichi Sakamoto, Marahiko Hara and Takuya Minami. Largely a mix of piano and electronic sound, but with sometimes a hint of a distant song, it comes from all quarters, including from behind. It engulfs the audience.
ST/LL is very cryptic, enigmatic; sometimes more so than others. Why do cutlery, glassware, books and a chair fall in slow-motion on the screen? Are they a metaphor for something? For life, maybe? Mood changes but meaning is elusive. But maybe that’s what Takatani is after. He leaves the audience to perceive, to imagine, to ponder, never confirming anything.
There may be no clear structure but stick with it and a narrative of sorts can be read into things. Have we been working back in time or maybe flitting around in time, dipping in and out of lives, of memories? That feeling is magnified by the end, which seems to bring us back to time present as the performers find themselves on a beach, to the sight and sound of waves breaking gently.
ST/LL has a unique atmosphere. The surrounding darkness helps draw one in. The multimedia staging is remarkable. Everything is done with precision. It does surprise, and occasionally delight. But is it really ‘dance’, even given that almost anything seems to go as such these days? I suspect many people would think not.