Magic, beauty and darkness: Riverbed Theatre and Formosa Circus Art in Dreams and Shadows

National Theater, Taipei
April 7, 2023

“I keep having these dreams,” we hear. “It’s OK,” we are assured. “We all have dreams.”

When the National Theater approached Riverbed Theatre (河床劇團) director Craig Quintero (郭文泰) two years ago with an invitation to collaborate with Formosa Circus Art (FOCA, 福爾摩沙馬戲團), he responded enthusiastically. It’s easy to see why he thought it could work. Riverbed Theatre has long been known for its deeply metaphorical productions that live somewhere between the real world and subconscious, while FOCA merges contemporary circus with traditional and street culture, its members coming from dance and drama as well as the likes of acrobatics and juggling. Thank goodness Quintero saw the possibilities because the result, Dreams and Shadows (夢與陰影), is sixty minutes of the beautiful theatre.

There are any number of contemporary circus ensembles around who try to hang their productions on the hook of a theme, or occasionally even a narrative. But those links are usually loose at best and almost always left behind as the spectacle acrobatic acts dominate. Not so in Dreams in Shadows. Here, while the superb physicality and technique of the FOCA performers is plain to see, the circus merges seamlessly into the theatre and a work that has a deeply thoughtful, emotional core that pulls you in and never lets go.

Dreams and Shadows by Riverbed Theatre and Formosa Circus Art
Photo Zhang Zhen-zhou

With dreams, the possibilities are infinite. They come in all shades. Sure enough, this shadowy space becomes a place where people fight, make war and die. They revisit memories and hold on to friends who have passed away. But they also fly high, defy gravity and walk in the air and play.

The work effectively follows Zhang Jia-zhi (張佳芝) as she journeys through her dreams. She’s the strong thread that ties Dreams and Shadows together. Dressed in white, she provides a striking contrast to everything around her. But in many ways, it’s a journey through our dreams too. We may not recognise specific pictures that Quintero conjures up, but most of us will have dreamt something similar at some point.

The strange and surreal is everywhere. The opening image of a woman carrying a lamp, but dwarfed by a massive elephant, strung up by its feet but which then crashes repeatedly to the floor, sets the tone. Elephants don’t forget, so a metaphor for memories, perhaps. It’s far from the only time symbolism and allegory takes over as logic, reason and even morality flies out of the window.

Dreams and Shadows by Riverbed Theatre and Formosa Circus Art
Photo Xu Yu-xin

There is magic, not least when a house descends from the sky and a man loses his pyjamas in an instant. There is fun, not least in a race with oil drums that are walked on. There is calm and peace in a moment with a giant pillow. There is plain weird, when humans become barking dogs, performing tricks and even fighting on command.

Dreams are a place where we realise subconscious desires but also face dark fears, perhaps none more so than death. Is Little Red Riding Hood really murdered? What does the sight of a man being heavily beaten in slow-motion with juggling clubs actually mean? Both scenes are simultaneously beautiful yet incredibly disturbing. Later, there are scenes of war, of refugees, of a big fence that could be a prison. All incongruously backed by a man forever heroically waving a giant red flag.

A particularly appealing yet incredibly surreal scene comes with the reveal of an artist’s studio, him painting a mural with a very long handled brush as other performers balance in handstands, or later play with red balloons.

Dreams and Shadows by Riverbed Theatre and Formosa Circus Art
Photo Zhang Zhen-zhou

Clubs are tossed on, so many and so fast that a man cannot catch them all. Life is a juggling act and sometimes there is so much going on that we do drop things. Maybe. Dreams and Shadows is an hour where metaphor follows metaphor, with plenty of room to find your own meaning.

It’s all gorgeously lit by Wang Tien-hung (王天宏) with music from Blaire Ko (柯智豪) and singer-songwriter Chen Xin-qi (陳歆淇) that matches every scene perfectly.

And then we wake. A giant eye opens and blinks. Reality returns. Fragments remain. And we wonder.