To Grin Like a Cheshire Cat (70種笑): revealing the truth behind laughs and smiles

Jade Dance Theatre youth section at the Shuiyuan Theater, Taipei
November 11, 2017

David Mead

Laughs and smiles are generally associated with happiness, but that’s not always the case. They can also be a mask that covers embarrassment, fear, grief, helplessness, sadness and more. They can become a means of survival; a way of getting through. It’s that second aspect that’s largely to the fore in Lin xiao-de’s (林小得) two-part To Grin Like a Cheshire Cat (70種笑), which literally translates as ‘70 kinds of laughs’) for Jade Dance Theatre’s (肢體音符舞團)’s youth section.

The cast of five were all rather impressive as they pulled back the curtain, revealing the truth behind their laughs and smiles. And there is a lot of both, right from the off. It’s immediately apparent that the laughs are not happy, though. There’s a lot of hands and forearms over mouths as if trying to hide them.

Four against one is a common theme. One section sees a dancer folded by the others as if they were manipulating a mannequin. Sometimes she is shifted more dynamically across the space. A particularly hard-hitting section again sees four gang up on the other like playground bullies. Another sees them use torches to highlight mouths and teeth (smiling teeth, of course). It is a bit of a collection of ideas but it works rather well with the joins well disguised.

A key part of the first half is Daniel Cheng’s (鄭乃銓) music and digital designs, created using the facial recognition program, FaceOSC, which recognises different facial movements (mouth width and height, eyebrow height, eye openness and so on) of the five dancers, each triggering the software and changing the tonality of the sound. It was effectively demonstrated with volunteers from the audience before the show started. While its use in the performance is only occasionally clear, Cheng’s soundscape of assorted gurgles, clunks and what sounds like heavily distorted voice works a treat.

To Grin Like a Cheshire CatPhoto courtesy Jade Dance Theatre/ Lin Xiao-de
To Grin Like a Cheshire Cat
Photo courtesy Jade Dance Theatre/Lin Xiao-de

Part two brings clowns, of a sort. Has designer Weng Meng-qing (翁孟晴) been overdosing on Tim Burton’s ‘Alice’ films and their strange characters, I wonder. Whatever, her stunning black and white costumes are terrific. One dancer has black playing card symbols on one leg of her tights. Another’s costume is dominated by diamonds, another by hearts, complete with huge heart shaped ruffles on each arm. Almost all had huge pantaloons. And then there was the very clever headgear including, I’ll swear, something very akin to rabbit ears.

At first, they dance as if clockwork dolls. As things develop, again, one seems to be the outsider. A solo is danced with a smile but, like all the best clowns, there is a hint of darkness, a slightly sinister feel to it all. And then, weirdly, it all changes. Like we have suddenly woken up to find it was all just a dream, the music shifts and the smiles seem genuine as the cast bounce and sway gently to the now easy rhythms. While it certainly provides a contrast, and shows another aspect to laughs and smiles, it does rather lack the impact of the rest of the show.