An East-West dialogue about love

Christian Jost, U-Theatre and the Rundfunkchor Berlin at the National Theater, Taipei
February 28, 2016
David Mead

Directed by U-Theatre (優人神鼓) founder Liu Ruo-yu (劉若瑀) with music composed by German composer Christian Jost, performed by Taiwan’s U-Theatre and Berlin’s Grammy Award winning Rundfunkchor Berlin, Lover is a fascinating and totally absorbing East meets West meeting and look at that most eternal of human emotions: love.

The 50-strong choir’s near liturgical singing of texts from ancient Chinese love songs and 20th-century poems by American Edward Estlin Cummins, at times seemed to transform the National Theater into a cathedral. It was impossible to make out the words (texts were thoughtfully provided) but that didn’t matter. When combined with the Zen-inspired drum rhythms, the atmosphere created was heady indeed. Add to it choreographed taiji sanshou (太極散手) movement by U-Theatre drumming master Huang Chih-chun (黃誌群, Adan) that depicts different aspects of love and desire, and  desire, and the result was spellbinding.

In the Cummings-poems, which form the second, third and fourth of the six-part, 70-minute, work, the relationships are clear. There’s even a sense of a story. In the second part (text from May I feel said he), a couple split up as the man is attracted to and meets another woman. Both women are dressed in scarlet dresses, but his new partner’s is brighter, as indeed is she. The sense of meeting for the first time and of sounding each other out is clear while, to one side, the first woman dances out her pain and anguish at losing him. In the third part (I like my body when it is with your body), the attraction grows stronger, while the fourth (In spite of everything) is a more delicate and subtle reflection on their meeting. Here there is much nestling of heads against one another, and from one couple a slow, serene, fluid duet full of tenderness, their arms forever reaching around each other as bodies intertwine.

LoverPhoto Zhang Zhen-zhou
Photo Zhang Zhen-zhou

The Chinese poems used in the opening and closing sections, use nature as metaphors. The dance is similarly more uncertain in meaning. The text of the first, Guan ju (關雎, ‘guan’ call the ospreys) from the 11th to 7th-century anthology Shi Jing (詩經, Book of Songs) indeed speaks of ospreys and of water plants in the river. The dance, for two men and two women, the latter in startlingly beautiful pink dresses, is at times explosive (like birds taking flight, maybe), at times slow and meditative (on the river perhaps). The Han Dynasty poem By Heaven (上邪) closes the show. A prayer for eternal love, it speaks of streams that run dry, of snow in summer and of thunder, but makes the point that love lasts “until the earth merges with the sky;” the now returned two performers in red dancing as a stylized curtain of white feathery fabric descends and embraces them.

The sections are brought together via the symbolic image of a river; a blindfolded man with a long rod, a master, a boatman perhaps, guiding us through the work. As with all love, all relationships, it is a river of many moods, one that sometimes runs smooth but at others tumbles and cascades, when it does, his rod quivering with all the force of the accompanying pounding drums.

Jost combines the choir and drums so magnificently they sound natural bedfellows. He clearly respects both cultures, and indeed gives both moments on their own, most notably in the wordless fifth section. Unexpected moments surprise. Huge gongs are used for small sounds; the biggest drum is made to sound tender; and although percussion and voice work largely in harmony, there are moments when the soaring elegy of the choir is torn up by the drums, who appear to yell “enough!”

The action all takes place against a black background that somehow seems to draw you in even more. For that, top marks to noted Taiwanese theater designer Lin Keh-hua (林克華). The excellent costumes are courtesy of in-vogue London-based Taiwanese designer Johan Ku (古又文), perhaps best known previously in dance for his designs for Kafig Company’s Yo Gee Ti (有機體), a Taiwanese-French collaboration for the 2012 TIFA.

A great way to open the eighth Taiwan International Festival of Arts (TIFA, 台灣國際藝術節).

Lover has now finished its run in Taipei, but can be seen on March 5 and 6 at the Hong Kong Arts Festival (