Connecting with the land: Bare Feet Dance Theatre in Tsiáh thóo

Space: #R13, Bali, New Taipei City
April 13, 2023

Bare Feet Dance Theatre (壞鞋子舞蹈劇場) is noted for works that draw on its field studies of folk rites, musical troupes, and ceremonial sites. Its productions often evoke the land and the presence of deities as they bring references to folk and religious rituals into their dance. All that is certainly there in artistic director Lin I-chin’s (林宜瑾) Tsiáh thóo.

Combining the traditional Pak-kuán music, and contemporary percussion and electronic sound, with dance that itself mixes ritual, animistic and animalistic energy and contemporary movement, it is a full theatrical experience as the work examines the relationship between humans and the Earth. It is what Lin calls, a conversation with the land, a dialogue with nature.

Bare Feet Dance Theatre in Tsiáh thóo
Photo courtesy Bare Feet Dance Theatre

It all takes place on a roughly 7-metre square area that’s initially covered by a black fabric sheet. Not fixed, it’s full of crumples and creases from the off. Against what sounds like trickling water, a small gong, clatters, clangs and taps, bodies crack and disintegrate. They thud on the floor as they are inextricably drawn to the earth. It feels very elemental.

Elsewhere, the four fully-committed dancers lean on each other for support. They run and fall. They hold statuesque poses that resemble images from temples. In an attempt to force a connection with the soil, they stomp. Later, they bounce lightly and skip. There is a sense of play. As they imitate different forms of animals and plants, the former in particular, it seems, they scamper ape-like. They scratch. They emit animalistic sounds.

In time, three disappear under the black fabric sheet, which could be seen as subsumed by, or totally at one with, the Earth; or both. As they do so, they cause it to rise like a new landscape forming around the remaining dancer. Think continental drift, the movement of tectonic plates and the formation of mountains and valleys.

Beiguan Tamusi playing for Bare Feet Dance Theatre in Tsiáh thóo
Photo courtesy Bare Feet Dance Theatre

One section is given over completely to the fabulous upstage musical trio from Beiguan Tamsui (南北軒), a traditional Pak-kuán music group founded in 1917. Totally integral to the performance, their music is strongly connected to the dance, not so much driving it or a response to it, but absolutely at one with it.

When the black sheet, which had been dragged to one corner, starts to reassert its presence, creeping back into the space, it looks like a slowly spreading oil slick. When a foot appears, soon followed by a body, it feels like a birth, or perhaps a rebirth. While some images in Tsiáh thóo seem clear, others leave plenty of space for interpretation.

It ends with a sense of peace but, as the lights go down, and night seems to fall to what could be the call of nature, Lin leaves us with a sense that this isn’t really the end. Another day will come, and what we have seen will continue.

Alongside the performance, the company set up an interesting display of choreographer’s notes, notation, dancers’ reflections, and other ephemera and objects connected with the work; another fascinating angle on a deeply thoughtful piece.