Film of performance at the Experimental Theater, National Theater, Taipei
January 1, 2021
While in the West we often talk about the heart ruling the head or vice-versa, Eastern ideas tend to see the two as inseparable. That is very much the case in Heart Scenery (心之景), the latest work by Wu Tsai-lin (吳采璘) for Tai Gu Tales Dance Theatre (太古踏舞團), a piece that reaches into the soul as it explores the heart; the turbulence, anxiety and even panic that can lie within, and its influence on body and mind.
Heart Scenery is very much a fusion of different cultural influences and practices, something the company, founded in 1988 by Wu’s mother, Lin Hsiu-wei (林秀偉), has long been known for. That is seen in ideas, movement and music. Among the dancers is Chu Po-cheng (朱柏澄), a member of Contemporary Legend Theatre (當代傳奇劇場), Wu’s father Wu Hsing-kuo’s (吳興國) company, noted for its modern Chinese opera versions of Western classics, including several Shakespeare plays, among them the most hilarious A Midsummer Night’s Dream I have ever seen.
The marvellous live accompaniment is also a synthesis of styles, and features Ho Yi-ming (賀毅明) on Japanese taiko drums; the amazingly versatile, well-known Taipei jazz musician Derrick Lin (林克安) on double bass, and Guinea-born Moussa Mao Camara, who plays an African kola (a sort of lute) and drums.
Much of the work is quite compelling, especially the two long solos that make up the central section. It does take a while to get into its stride, however. A face surrounded by hands is seen through a hole in red fabric that turns out to be a dress. Presumably it’s a window on the heart, but it’s not very subtle. Much wringing of hands suggests anxiety. Disjointed chords and scratchy notes from the Lin’s double bass reflect her struggles superbly. Later movement has the pulse of the heartbeat and more torment. A silent scream is particularly effective.
Somewhat ironically, given that Heart Scenery considers matters from a female perspective, some of the best choreography comes with the solo for Chu, the sole male dancer. He immediately has presence. A powerful figure, he also brings a sense of calm, although that doesn’t stop him being first set upon by the women in what might be a commentary on man.
The solo that follows sees Chu symbolically held down by a long rope that represents shackles, difficulties, scars, and simultaneously, strength. The near silence emphasises the atmosphere. As the dance builds, his arms circle, and he tumbles and rolls. It’s all in perfect time with Ho’s taiko drumming; movement and music coming together to allow us to see the dialogue between the inner feeling and outward expression. The rope beating on the stage not only adds a further layer of percussion but leaves traces of black as it brushes the white floor, creating a striking artwork within an artwork. Chu does finally cast his ‘chain’ off, only to put it back on as he exits, suggesting that perhaps some scars can never be removed.
What follows is just as good. In a black dress, Shih Min-wen (施旻雯) is drenched in black ink that falls from above that represent black tears of hurt. As her stained, messy-haired body falls, rails, arches, shakes and trembles, there’s a sense that she’s desperate to explode but something is stopping her from releasing fully. The most memorable moment is a quieter one, however. Sitting on the floor, Wu almost tenderly reaches for the ink before cradle it to herself. It may represent past scars but are there still just a few tender memories that are just as difficult to let go of?
The final section brings a change of mood. The opening sound of running water washes away the darkness. With that black-and-white inky art now raised as a backdrop, and to the sound of the kola and voice, the dance is lighter and brighter, swirling and flowing gracefully. Peace has been found, it seems. A pleasing duet for Chu and Shih adds to the mood, emphasising tolerance, acceptance and support, literally and metaphorically.
There’s more lightness in a joyful dance full of skipping, turning movement that really does bring the whole body into play. Perhaps it was the kola and the drumming, but I couldn’t help seeing a West African influence in there. A more thoughtful few minutes closes things out.
It could perhaps do with a little editing here and there, especially in the final section, which does feel a little too long, but, in its best moments, Wu Tsai-lin’s Heart Scenery is an absorbing work that reaches out, grabs you, and draws you in fully. It certainly visits many emotions.
Tai Gu Tales Dance Theatre were an early British casualty of the coronavirus pandemic, having been selected to appear at the cancelled 2020 Edinburgh Fringe. When the next live Fringe will be, who knows. Quite possibly, it’s several years away, but let’s hope they do make it, whenever it might be.