Experimental Theater at the National Theater, Taipei
October 28, 2017
Su Wen-chi (蘇文琪) says she was inspired to create Unconditional Love and Fact (全然的愛與真實) by her 2016 artistic residency at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), which triggered questions about scientists, research, scepticism, beliefs and acceptance. Her programme note also observes that journeys, scientific journeys definitely but may all, seem to have neither a starting point nor an ending. They always come from somewhere or go somewhere else. So far, so good.
So, to Unconditional Love and Fact on stage. With the audience sat on all four sides, it opens with performer Lin I-fang (林怡芳), a Taiwanese Feldenkrais practitioner and performer based in Montpellier, walking round putting postcard-size cards on the floor. Close inspection revealed each had a different number or mathematical symbol on them. Talking about dance generally, the programme refers to the movement of the dancer’s hands being “like sea anemones’ tentacles while her feet are like fleeting comets.” If only. Instead, on her way round, the expressionless Lin gives us a few awkward-looking stiff-legged leaps and hoppity, skippety steps, but not much else.
It’s all done to a somewhat mangled version of Somewhere over the Rainbow, which at least provides a link (albeit a fairly tenuous one) to a story in the programme about a discarded sweet wrapper. The most interesting thing that happens is a lighting change revealing patterns on the floor cast by Chang Huei-ming’s (張暉明) overhead set, a sort of huge umbrella of triangular plastic panels. This all takes 15 minutes.
Lin then dons a huge ‘ball’ over her head. At first it looks like a huge flower, but when seen from behind, resembles a giant wig. Presumably, given the CERN connection, it’s actually meant to be an atom or similar. She shifts around a bit, often with her head on the floor, to an accompaniment of Chinese, French and English voices talking over one another. A lot of the text has scientific references that suggest the section is in part at least about weight. Apart from taking the ball off for a short breather, this takes up the next 18 minutes. Yes, I was looking at my watch. What became fascinating was not the content, but just how long each section could be spun out for.
When Lin walks off, the lights darken, and for around ten minutes we are treated to an empty stage and what apparently is called ‘phantom sound’, which the programme note tells us “eliminates space.” If you say so. Earplugs were provided to mitigate the effects of the high-pitched whines and grumbles (actually not particularly unpleasant), which rather begs the question why, if the noise is such an integral part of the show.
The final 15 minutes or so (by now I’d almost lost the will to look at my watch) is basically a rehash of the movement from the first part, albeit with slightly more freedom. Lin’s face now had a slightly pained look, her expression remaining fixed.
That’s it. What about those cards? Given most of the audience couldn’t actually see what was on more than two or three, or indeed, given the white floor, precisely where they all were, no-one would ever know if they meant anything or were used anyway.
When Su founded YiLab (一當代舞團), one of the concepts she had in mind was that, in any given work, there are a lot of similar by contradictory ideas. That may be so, but the choreographer’s job is to make them clear, not to bury them in mire. No doubt Su is sure in her own mind what she wants to convey. In practice, though, she fails to do so either on stage or in her and fellow ‘creative partner’ Chou Ling-chih’s sometimes obscure programme notes.
Academics can argue about ‘What is dance?’ all they like, I’ll even admit to having had conversations myself. But Unconditional Love and Fact is the third piece out of three in a season called Dancing in Autumn that the average person in the street (who isn’t in the least interested in that discourse) would struggle to see too much ‘dance’ in (ST/LL was at least a crackingly good piece of theatre). I’ve seen it elsewhere this autumn too. I’m all for expanding horizons, and dance has always had some pretty vague boundaries, but that does leave me concerned.
Dance is most definitely not all about steps (equally, not all movement is dance), but it’s as if in trying to advance (which it must), technique even in its loosest sense has become a dirty word in some quarters, to be avoided at all costs; or perhaps it’s just that some artists are unable to be creative with it, which raises a few other questions. Trust me, you can be just as innovative and cutting edge with contemporary technique, even classical ballet, as you can with pedestrian movement, supposedly clever technology or anything else. Maybe, it’s simply that what I’m seeing is not really aimed at ‘dance’ people. Still, ten out of ten for posing questions.
There’s a story about the Emperor’s new clothes. Precisely. Going back to that rambling programme note, Su concludes by saying, “We let the production be ‘what it is’.” The response is, ‘not a lot’ other than a dull, self-indulgent, seemingly pseudo-academic exercise (Su is presently a PhD student in London, significantly in her university’s Drama, Theatre and Performance Research Centre rather then its Dance one). I live in hope that her contribution to next year’s TIFA is rather more engaging.