A Million Miles Away by Huang Yi provides a beautiful and deeply thoughtful opening to TIFA 2019

National Theater, Taipei
February 16, 2019

David Mead

The dance programme at the Taiwan International Festival of the Arts (TIFA, 台灣國際藝術節) in Taipei kicked off with A Million Miles Away (長路) by local choreographer Huang Yi (黃翊). After a number of productions in the upstairs, smaller, black-box Experimental Theater and elsewhere, it’s his first show on the National Theater’s main stage.

Huang Yi is noted in Taiwan for his exploration of technology in dance, explorations that have at times suffered from the robotic or other wizardry swamping the human element. None of that here. This is about people, feelings and emotions, pure and simple. The latter gush from the stage in a torrent, and all with such depth and integrity.

A reflection on life and encounters, A Million Miles Away has a very personal feel. To describe Huang Yi’s own childhood as difficult, seems an understatement. He watched his parents go through suicide attempts after they became bankrupt, forcing the family to move from a large house to a simple 40-square foot room. Among it all, he says he knew he had to be the perfect child, obedient but detaching emotion and perhaps even without personality. There’s plenty of that here. Indeed, it gushes from the stage in a torrent.

Lin Jou-wen and Luo Sih-wei in Huang Yi's A Million Miles Away>/i>Photo Yan Cai-xuan
Lin Jou-wen and Luo Sih-wei in Huang Yi’s A Million Miles Away
Photo Yan Cai-xuan

As we peer into the mind, rewinding and replaying memories, it often feels like looking into a bottomless abyss. Relationships shown are frequently awkward. One often senses a deep sadness at the way things were. There is desolation and dejection, loneliness and self-doubt. all magnified by the surrounding blackness in which it all takes place. This is a life that has feels long and often difficult. Indeed, the direct translation of the Chinese title, ‘Long Road’, actually feels rather more apt than the official English version. Yet, there are moments of wistful humour too, and a brighter ending.

It’s all largely set on and around a 9-metre diameter circular, revolving platform designed by Chen Wei-han (陳暐涵). Apart from one moment, like time, it always moves in the same direction, forever onwards. The clock of life cannot be turned back, however much one may want to. Sometimes it crawls along slowly, sometimes it sprints ahead, sometimes it even stops, a feeling we may experience even if in reality we know cannot happen.

In a slow opening, black-clad dancers gradually emerge from the gloom as the platform creeps round. They disrobe, quite literally baring themselves, before dressing and disappearing again. In silence save for what sounds like rain but which actually comes from the creaking of the platform, it is appealing in its own way but it is very drawn out and the mind does start to wander. And always, the wheel of time turns.

Hu Chien and Chung Shun-wen in A Million Miles AwayPhoto Yan Cui-xuan
Hu Chien and Chung Shun-wen in A Million Miles Away
Photo Yan Cui-xuan

While that noise from the set is effective in the opening, it gets increasingly annoying, especially when the platform revolves at speed. It certainly affects the impact of Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte. It really should not have been a problem to silence it. A shame too that the pattern on the platform, reminiscent of tree rings, cannot be seen properly from most of the first level seats.

With the impressive Hu Chien (胡鑑) at its centre, A Million Miles Away thereafter unfolds gradually, scenes merging into one another easily. It’s deeply introspective, sometimes deeply enigmatic. The movement is pedestrian. There are lots of small trudging steps, stumbling and falling backwards. Lin Jou-wen (林柔雯), the single female performer, teeters around the edge of the platform as if treading a tightrope. Held by a rope, a man hangs off the edge, almost parallel to the surrounding floor. Always, the wheel of time turns.

We may be witnessing the merry-go-round of life, but we’re not in some fun-filled fairground. A beautifully judged duet for Lin and the tall, elegant, Lou Sih-wei (駱思維) depicts a relationship not without love and tenderness, but where those emotions struggle to be expressed. Another pairing, this time for two men connected by a rope, works less well. Apart from a hint of violence towards the end, it looks like little more than a couple of men falling around in the dark. But as ever, the wheel of time turns.

Childhood is referenced poignantly using a small cream suit attached to Hu’s own that he manipulates delightfully. It’s impossible not to smile as we see the imaginary youngster run and jump like a five-year-old. But even childhood has its darker and sad moments. Huang Yi appears as what one sense is the child’s father. But they are soon pulled apart, and when he steps off the platform, banished by its centrifugal force, the wheel of time pulls them ever further away however hard the youngster tries to keep up. There is solace in black balloons, and then one red balloon, a signal of hope perhaps. But then the child accidentally lets go, and they too have gone. Time still turns.

A sudden change brings a rumbling like thunder and flashes of light that illuminate the backstage rigging. Its unexpectedness makes it feel odd, but it is the signal for hope. Green shoots appear on the platform like grass released from its dormancy, sprouting from a barren desert after a storm. Also now free, the child plays and Hu and his imaginary youngster fly.

So, there is a way out. It’s not long before the cast all soar, everyone now united in joyous freedom. It is rather sugary sweet and a bit out of kilter with the mood of the rest of the work, but looking at the bigger picture it’s hard to argue with its inclusion.

A commission by the three theatres that now make up Taiwan’s National Performing Arts Center, A Million Miles Away made a super start to TIFA 2019, and an impressive big-house debut for Huang Yi. I suspect it could do very well internationally. It certainly deserves the chance.