August 12, 2021
The Back of Beyond (無盡胎藏) by Tai Gu Tales Dance Theatre (太古踏舞團) is not only the longest of the four productions that make up this year’s Taiwan Season at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, it’s also the only one that was not re-filmed for streaming online. Choreographer and artistic Director Lin Hsiu-wei (林秀偉) instead preferred to show a recording of a 2019 performance in Keelung.
Watching the work, it seems an understandable decision. The film of that performance already contains close-ups and it’s hard to see what a re-staging and re-filming might achieve. The Back of Beyond is a very measured piece that certainly does not call for clever videography.
As engaging at it is online, I also suspect that it’s a work that really needs to be experienced rather than watched; one where you need to put the outside world to one side and immerse yourself in fully. That is difficult at home with all its distractions. My advice would be to put it on as big screen as possible and close the curtains to shut everything else out.
Founded in 1987 and one of Taiwan’s longest-established companies, Tai Gu Tales has always been noted for making connections between life and nature through contemporary dance infused with Eastern cultural tradition, physicality (the male dancers are all trained in Beijing Opera movement) and philosophy.
The Back of Beyond, created in 1991, is specifically concerned with how people co-exist with each other and their environment. Almost trance-like at times, it inhabits that incredibly potent place that exists somewhere between dream and reality (I know you can argue that dreams are reality) as it deals with elemental forces and the cycle of birth, death and rebirth, although there is no linear narrative.
The work opens with what look like statues, in fact bodies wrapped in Egyptian mummy-like bindings. Having slowly unwound themselves, Lin presents the dancers in a series of moving pictures that appear from and disappear into the darkness. Dressed in close-fitting minimal skin-coloured costumes, they are plainly not nude. Both the men and women exude an inner strength and a remarkable unity of spirit.
Sculptural friezes form and dissolve smoothly. Lit in red, a woman is held high by the rest of the cast. Another explores her hands and feet like a new-born might; another twists, contracts and shifts on the floor as if in anguish, and yet another is almost balletically lifted as she holds a small light. Sometimes the imagery is easy to place meaning on (the lights, which appear elsewhere too, are surely a nod to the fact that life, like those delicate flames, must eventually flicker and die) but Lin always leaves it for the audience to decide for themselves.
The most beautiful section is that which most suggests ritual. Five dancers, each with a light on their head, emerge from the shadows. They move gracefully and purposefully as they weave in and out and create yet more living sculptures, all inside a structure created with five lengths of fabric hung from above that can be read as a temple, cathedral or other religious place.
It ends back where we started, except that now the dancers are re-wrapping themselves. A fresh cycle of life and death begins.
Internal, spiritual, sensual. The Back of Beyond is a beautiful and mesmeric work of light and dark, or movement and stillness. It is outstandingly danced. I just wish we could have lived it live.
The Back of Beyond by Tai Gu Tales Dance Theatre is available on demand via www.summerhall.co.uk until August 29, 2021.
For details of other Taiwan Season productions and the online symposium, visit www.twseason-edfringe.com.