A trip into the blackness: Anthropic Shadow by YiLab/Su Wen-chi (人類黑區; 蘇文琪)

Experimental Theater, Taipei
October 20, 2019

David Mead

For her latest work, Anthropic Shadow (人類黑區), Su Wen-chi (蘇文琪) takes a break from her Rainbow Trilogy and her concept-heavy exploration of the interaction of bodies and technology, instead turning her attention to environmental issues. Along with well-travelled Japanese dancer Ruri Mito and former Cloud Gate member Danang Pamungkas, who both also had a hand in the choreography and who perform the work, Su meditates on civilisation, human nature, and the chance of surviving chaos and destruction for all living creatures.

Some types of catastrophic events make the existence of observers impossible. There cannot have been a completely catastrophic event on Earth in the last millennia or humankind would not be around today. While scientists can surmise about such disasters, they sit within the anthropic shadow, a region where our present existence prevents us from sharply discerning magnitudes of extreme risks.

The action is set in a bleak, black landscape made from sheets of thin black plastic designed by Liao Chi-yu (廖祈羽) and Zhang Hui-ming (張暉明). That it is plastic can be seen as a reflection of our world. That it is black is a reference to the anthropic shadow, and knowledge that is unknown and of which we are presently ignorant.

Ruri Mito in Anthropic ShadowPhoto Chou Chia-hui
Ruri Mito in Anthropic Shadow
Photo Chou Chia-hui

It’s dark, very dark. Peering into the gloom one can just about make about Mito and Pamungkas. To an ominous rumbling soundtrack by Lai Yun-de (賴宗昀) and Esteban Fernandez they roll and slide very slowly around the space, almost always in close contact. It feels like the end of the world or the aftermath of some cataclysmic event. Like humankind maybe, they cling to each other. Lost souls exploring the unknown, unable it seems to find answers to questions or anyway of moving forward.

It’s also very one paced. Time drags terribly. While there are occasional interesting shapes, the work doesn’t go anywhere for a good twenty minutes. That may be an accurate representation but it doesn’t make for great watching. Then, just when you are starting to wonder why you bothered, things very slowly start to change.

After waking, having split apart to ‘sleep’ amid air cushions created by pumping air under the plastic (a shame no-one thought to properly hide the pipes), there are hints of things to come. Mito surprises by adding split-second quick bursts to her dance. A dash of red and a splash of blue appear in the lighting. Now standing, both dancers shift with broken movement; limbs fail and bodies collapse as if strings have been cut. We see just how good the couple can be when, out of nowhere, comes a technically precise, appealing unison section. Perhaps it’s a momentary release, and brief sign of hope, but it feels odd and out of place.

Ruri Mito and Danang Pamungkas in Anthropic ShadowPhoto Chou Chia-hui
Ruri Mito and Danang Pamungkas in Anthropic Shadow
Photo Chou Chia-hui

As the pumped air is turned off and the set falls flat, Mito and Pamungkas stand and survey the devastation. Perhaps this really is the end. But then there’s a there’s a searchlight, and an array of bright reds, yellows and blues projected onto the dancers’ bodies that now move freely and with purpose to pounding music. Meaning is unclear, although it may have helped if we could have worked out what the voice is the soundtrack was actually saying.

It ends with the couple sitting amid the ruins of their world. In the pre-show publicity, Su asks whether, as we adopt measures to combat environmental crises including climate change, are human beings really being wise and forward thinking or just pretending to be?

She, and the superb Mito and Pamungkas do not come up with explicit answers, although I read the work very much as a warning. Su has always been big on concept but has struggled to communicate ideas on stage. Anthropic Shadow is by a long way the best and clearest work I’ve seen from her to date. That it’s such a strong topic must help a lot, as I suspect did having co-choreographers. It’s not perfect but it certainly provides some startling images and plenty of food for thought in a deeply meaningful hour of dance.