Lai Tsui-shuang’s Mambo Rock

Lai Tsui-shuang Dance Theater (賴翠霜舞創劇場) at the Experimental Theater, Taipei National University of the Arts
October 21, 2017

David Mead

It does not start well. As the audience get settled, some are interrupted and invited to go up on stage and dance with the performers, who incidentally, didn’t seem the best judges of who might be willing and who not. Relevant or not, and it’s questionable here, it’s become a tired device best left alone.

Things pick up nicely, though, Lai Tsui-shuang’s (賴翠霜) Mambo Rock (曼波搖滾) proper getting off well, the cast finding themselves at a speed dating gathering where no-one has time to finish much more than a sentence, let alone get to know the person opposite. They maybe in the same room, but everyone is lonely.

As he starting point, Lai asks whether marriage is actually anything more than a piece of paper. Fairy tales may have happy endings (well, in the world of Disney maybe, but as originally told they often have a dark edge and quite often conclude sadly) but real life is different, she reckons. The theme running through Mambo Rock is that love can cause a great deal of hurt physically, as demonstrated during what amounts to a rape scene, as well as emotionally. And as for marriage? Well her point is made all too clearly when a wedding suit and dress are hung on a couple and then discarded like worthless paper decoration.

There’s clearly a lot of possibilities here, and Lai shifts around as she explores them, some more successfully than others with her dance theatre experiences in Germany are there for all to see. Elsewhere, there are references to homosexuality and a suggestion that, for some, marriage is basically about having children.

Over the years, I’ve looked forward to Lai’s dance choreography, but here she relies a lot on text. When she does get around to dance in Mambo Rock, it is actually very good, especially the final, very much contemporary dance, ensemble section that makes great use of tables, and that the cast looked very much at home with. Whether it fitted with the piece overall is another matter, though.

Whether the cast (the men especially) intentionally looked less comfortable with the largely ballroom-influenced choreography that runs through most of the work is unclear. It could be a deliberate reflection of the awkwardness that all relationships have at times, or real. It looked rather like the latter. The shining exception to all this is was Huang Xin-yu (黃芯瑜), who sashayed around beautifully in her heels; hardly surprising given her background and record in Latin American dance.

The biggest problem for me, though, was that Mambo Rock just didn’t engage, although the venue didn’t help. Everything looked a little lost and somewhat distant when set back on the Experimental Theater stage. The thin audience and frigid temperature of the auditorium that had me and others wishing they had taken a scarf and coat along were probably a factor too.