Last month, when U-Theatre (優劇場), Taiwan's Zen drumming group returned to the Laoquanshan (老泉山) compound after a two-year absence due to renovations, it celebrated with a "mountain festival." Being back on the mountain, which has been the troupe's home for 15 years, led U-Theater founder-director Liu Ruo-yu (劉若瑀) and drumming director Huang Chih-chun (黃誌群) to think about doing a performance about and for the mountain.
"Ten years ago we did Sound of Ocean, but we didn't talk about the sounds of our own mountain. This work is about 'our mountain,'" Liu said in a recent interview with the Taipei Times at the teashop on the ground floor of the National Concert Hall.
She said the group began thinking about the new work early this year, although she was busy with another project at the time.
"I was working on A Touch of Zen [which was performed at the National Theater in May] and Huang started to think about the mountain ... . Right away he had a very strong, very special feeling ... especially about the fog that comes in at night," Liu said.
"For example, in 1999 we did Sound of Ocean on the mountain and during one performance there was a moment when the fog rolled in and the actors were waist deep in it. It was a really beautiful moment," she said. "So the title comes from a poetic way of describing fog - shan lan (山嵐)."
As is often the case with U-Theatre pieces, Mountain Dawn (入夜山嵐) is based on Huang's poetry.
"He wrote a poem about the night fog and then he started to write poems about the other parts, like listening to the bamboo when the wind blows around it," Liu said. "For this part [the bamboo], we use gongs, 13 huge gongs. We use women to do this part because we think the mountain is the mother, more solid, more grounded ... . We do some movement, slow like taichi to turn and strike the gong."
The troupe's female members are taking a more central role in this production.
"For Sound of Ocean and Meeting with Vajrasattva, it's all about the men … all about strength. So we do this part for the women," Liu said with a laugh.
"Five women on the inside, men on the outside," she said. "And we asked the men to do the small drums this time."
The show is divided into five parts that reflect a day in the life of the mountain, the changes to the scenery and environment wrought as the day progresses.
Mountain Dawn begins, of course, with the dawn, when the mountain comes alive.
"This part is all drums … but it's different, it's happier, more conversational. The drummers are talking to one another … just like things [creatures] do at sunrise," Liu said. The second piece is the bamboo segment, the third is about a big rainstorm, the fourth is about sunsets and is a solo by Huang and then the finale is about the night mist.
U-Theatre has invited five guest musicians play: a flautist, a reed pipe player, an erhu player, as well as a musicians to play the chimes and a cellist.
There will be four nighttime performances of Mountain Dawn, starting on Thursday, Dec. 13. Given the time of year and the outdoor venue, audience members should bundle up. It would also help to bring flashlights, as the path to the compound from the road is little more than a trail and the lighting is sparse. One of the great joys of last November's mountain festival was watching the members of U-Theatre's youth group perform with their adult counterparts.