The National Theater’s curtain came down on Friday night — seemingly slower than usual, as befitting a Legend Lin Dance Theatre (無垢舞蹈劇場) performance — and you could feel the audience collectively exhale the long breath they had been holding before bursting into frenzied applause.
Song of Pensive Beholding (Chants de la Destinee, 觀), which had its world premiere on Friday night, is the final part of the trilogy Lin Li-chen (林麗珍) began almost 15 years ago with Mirrors de Vie (醮). Like Mirrors and the second part of the trilogy, Hymne aux Fleurs Qui Passent (花神祭春芽), Lin created a mystical, magical portal for Song that transports the audience, even as it creates strong links to our own world.
As the audience enters the theater, the stage curtain was up and a primitive altar — of polished driftwood and dried sheaves of corn or rice and water — was placed on the raised floor of the orchestra pit. Flickering candles lit the side wings of the stage.
The Song opens with childish giggles, as two little boys and a woman enter from one of the doors off to the side of the stage and walk to the altar for a ritual water blessing. As the boys scamper off, the two ceremonial drummers take their places on either side of the stage. With the sound of a gong, the altar is slowly lowered into the orchestra pit (all too audibly, unfortunately, it sounded like some gears need oil) and the performance commences.
In the beginning, most of the stage is dark, the only light coming from single spots up in the batons, making the stage look cavernous — think Notre Dame or any medieval cathedral.
Two women start to move slowly from either side of drapes in the back to the front of stage, walking half bent, holding two dried sheaves in front of them, lifting one foot, dragging the big toe along the floor until it is a footstep ahead, then placing the full foot down and lifting the other foot. More women enter, some, like the first representing the god of Crops, others the God of Water. Two men, clad in bodypaint, loincloths and painted faces, advance half-crouched, holding lit candles before them — they represent the God of Fire.
Then the figure of a woman — the White Bird — with a striking black cloth headdress, white bodypaint and a big black skirt with Hmong or Miao designs makes her first appearance.
A large part of the eight-part Song is taken up with these slow, meditative walks, criss-crossing the stage, first vertically and later horizontally, with the dancers moving so slowly that they often appear not to be moving at all. The dancers’ half-crouched or shoulders-hunched positions look painful — the secret I’m told, is the hips. Lin believes all the power should be centered in the hips, with everything else relaxed, even if, like White Bird, you do a slow backbend from a kneeling position, arms outstretched until the hands reach the floor and then slowly swivel the body.
The slow pace underscores the meditative core of Lin’s work. Time passes imperceptibly. Nothing happens and yet the world changes before our eyes.
The meditative feeling is enhanced by the score, with large segments of chanting taken from two albums: Dhyana Aman: Meditation of No Mind and Naked Spirits. The beautiful voice of Hsu Ching-wen (�?E) comes in about halfway through the program, as the voice of the “Primordial Soul,” singing in a made-up language, accompanied by Wu Chung-hsien (吳宗憲) on the flute.