Globe Playhouse, Taipei Performing Arts Center
November 5, 2022
A stunning dance piece, The Cell, this year’s annual production by B.DANCE (丞舞製作團隊) of Taiwan, created by artistic director Tsai Po-cheng (蔡博丞) is a success in terms of both choreography and visuals. Extremely pure white is used in almost everything, including stage design, lighting, and costumes. The curious physicality suggests that the whiteness is not so much a sign of good however, but more a tyrant resulting from the pandemic.
The Cell is characterised by a surreal theatricality that immerses itself in one’s mind as if having Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) after being traumatized. It is like watching a dance version of the 2000 science fiction psychological thriller movie The Cell, or Daniel Keyes’ 1994 novel The Minds of Billy Milligan, in which the main character has multiple personalities.
In B.DANCE’s work, the initial self is played by a mysterious little girl who remains onstage throughout, and who looks like the crazy girl who appears in popular singer Sia’s music videos. She is passive, helpless, and weak and dissociated into several different personalities that together seem to assemble into a broken big family with a firm hierarchy but that then vanish or fuse back into the initial self.
The work features some exquisite group sequences, particularly when dancers’ hands form delicate shapes as if a white cell. At one point, as they stand behind the little girl, they fuse to generate tentacles. Along with the long sleeves of T-shirts gung behind, they appear like filopodia, the thin, plasma-membrane protrusions that function as antennae for cells to probe their environment, and that pull objects toward the cells for phagocytosis (a process for nutrition in unicellular organisms).
A gesture that appears throughout the piece has all dancers pose and contract their biceps like the classical stance of a bodybuilder, as they were white cells readying to repel the body’s invaders.
There are scenes that evoke compassion. When Claude Debussy’s Clair de lune escapes from the mixture of electronic music and a slight rainbow is projected onto the ground, the girl revives. It is the first time colour appears in the work’s white world. The subtle solo conveys both vulnerability and persistence, and finishes with her clapping hands cutely to herself.
Somewhere in the middle of The Cell, the little girl gains power, sitting on a throne of flesh made by other dancers and watching their show of many kinds of duets. Later, lit red, and in the only other section in the work with coloured lighting, she becomes like the Red Queen of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, who also hates white, and has a strong desire to control. Under her dictatorship, the dancers (personalities) gradually reach unity and synchronization. The use of colour, and her change make manifest the initiation of motion that drives one out of difficulty, enables one to proceed and grow, or to defend by weaponising ourselves.
“There is only one difference between a madman and me. The madman thinks he is sane. I know I am mad. “Salvador Dali’s famous quotation occurred to me at the end of The Cell, although here madness is depicted through sophisticated choreography rather than painting. But what causes the madness is the colour – white.
Since the outbreak of Covid-19, for many, white has become disassociated from light, innocence, safety and cleanliness, instead transformed into notions of isolation, stuffiness, claustrophobia, and suffocation. In first half of The Cell, we seldom see smooth lines, curves, or linear kinetic flow in group scenes. Instead, movement occurs with the upper body still and poses distorted.
Each dancer embodies the unique personality they are playing. Eccentric actions are pronounced in grotesque or recognisable behaviour including fighting, interrupting and tickling, all showing how they react to each other in the state of chaos caused by the soundless white horror. Skilful duets provide a compelling look at the complexity of relationships between the personalities: conflict, abuse, dialogue, collaboration, and overpowering.
Although The Cell tends to depict the mental state and change of self through imagery of DID, rather than personality, another interesting interpretation is seeing each dancer as an archetype of what Carl Gustav Jung called the ‘collective unconsciousness,’ something we all inherently share and that is a substrate in the human psychological structure that connects all human nature. The Great Mother, Tyrannical Father, Children, Hero, Old Wise Man, Trickster, Animus, Anima… These typical archetypes can really be seen in each dancer through their styled movement and vivid facial expressions. There is even an intense duet between Ego (the little girl) and Shadow (a strong male dancer).
With its many recognisable elements, hints, and gestures, and relatively easy-to-understand theatricality, The Cell is an excellent work to introduce or bring people closer to contemporary dance. Given that it links to the experience we have all shared, maybe it’s also a good reintroduction for those who have not been to live theatre for the past two years due to the pandemic.
Of all the forms of theatre, dance is, perhaps, the best to document human beings’ abstract feelings: how our minds struggled, suffered, and transcended. The Cell does that successfully with Its riveting choreography. By looking at the madness we and society have gone through, Tsai Po-Cheng invites the audience to let go, explore our deeper feelings, and find our way.