Women caught up in the cycle of family drama and violence was a common theme on Saturday on both stages of the National Theater, where women’s bodies being manipulated by their male partners, sometimes lovingly, often much more violently, were a frequent sight.
While the Geneva Ballet’s performance of Joelle Bouvier’s Romeo and Juliet was beautifully performed on the theater’s main stage, Lai Tsui-shuang’s (賴翠霜) Home Temperature (家‧溫 ℃) upstairs in the Experimental Theatre packed more of an emotional wallop. A physical wallop as well, as it was filled with punches, face slaps, throttlings, shouting, tears and a couple of rape-like couplings.
Bouvier’s version of the young Verona lovers’ story is not only minimalist in its setting, but it has lost much of the passion as well. If not for the title, a viewer would be hard-pressed to figure out what is happening on stage.
The leads, Nathanael Marie and Sarawanee Tanatanit, are very fine dancers, but there was little chemistry between them. It is hard to know if that was Bouvier’s intention, or yet another example of the inability of many dancers nowadays to act out a story because so much of the modern ballet repertoire is abstract, not narrative, so they do not get enough practice.
The ballet opens with the charismatic Loris Bonani, who portrays Tybalt, clad only in a floor-length skirt, spinning a long pole around until he is whirling like a fan. It was lovely to watch, but the connection to the rest of the piece is left to the audience’s imagination. It was the first of many striking images Bouvier staged.
The first sight of Marie and Tanatanit is as they are borne onstage by other dancers, who move and manipulate their apparently lifeless bodies, bringing them together only to break them apart. This manipulation is echoed later in the death scene, as Romeo moves Juliet’s limp body around, trying to will her back to life in a horrible parody of their earlier bedroom duet.
There was much more life in the fight scenes between Mercutio (Vladimir Ippolitov) and Tybalt, and Tybalt and Romeo — very physical brawls, with the latter grappling shoulder-to-should like a pair of bulls.
Overall, however, Bouvier’s ballet was pretty, but as insubstantial as a meringue.
While the physical confrontations in Romeo and Juliet were mano a mano, it was largely man against woman in Lai’s Home Temperature, though in one instance a young girl mimics the violence she sees around her by bashing at a doll, and in another, a mother lashes out, striking and kicking a child.
It was a powerful performance about something that all-too-often remains hidden behind the front door of a home or the frozen smiles in a photograph: domestic abuse. In the world Lai created, home is anything but happy: It is a nightmare where talking can quickly escalate into shouting, a hug into a stranglehold, punches into tearful apologies.
The set was dressed with the trappings of a home — a sofa, a bed, a dining room table, a vanity and chair, a toilet, a window — each a setting for violence.
The piece starts with a couple lovingly, playfully, embracing on the sofa. A few minutes more, the woman is all over the man — atop his shoulders, hanging on him — then the scene shifts and it is the man oppressively dominating the woman, riding on her back as she crawls around the floor; shift again and the woman stumbles dazedly about in a circle while the man sits on the sofa and cries. Then all four women are circling around on one knee, scrubbing at it as they go, as one of the men walks around yelling.
The characters crumple when they can no longer maintain a happy facade — aptly demonstrated as the six dancers pose again and again on and behind the sofa for a “family portrait,” with the three on the sofa sliding off it to the floor and the other three collapsing as soon as the picture is taken each time, only to regroup and try again.
People talk, but no one appears to be really listening. There is a lot of shouting as well. One dancer, pacifier in her mouth and doll clutched to her chest, spends much of the final minutes hiding, crouched under the dinner table — but only after repeating the violence she sees around her by abusing the doll.
In between the punching there is some great choreography, with an emotional breather provided by the six dancers pairing off for some cha-cha-cha-ing.
The casting was exceptional, with strong performances from Yu Yen-fang (余彥芳), Ku Chu-ying (古竺穎), Lu Chen-hsuan (廖宸萱), Uma He (何姿瑩), Ray Yeh (葉百恂) and Chang Chih-kai (張志凱).
As disturbing as it was to watch Yeh and Chang slap, strangle or pound the women’s heads into the floor, I was disappointed when the stage went black. The actual choreography was great and I wanted more.