I kept thinking about Sandra Bullock’s new movie Gravity while watching dancer-choreographer Chou Shu-yi’s (周書毅) show About Living (關於活著這一件事) at the Shuiyuan Theater in Gungguan on Saturday night. Which was strange, because one, I haven’t even seen the movie, only heard about it. Two, it wasn’t as if Chou’s piece wasn’t gripping.
Bullock reportedly is fighting for her life in the movie, which is set against a Technicolor backdrop of Earth. In his piece, Chou appears to be dancing for his life on a bare set with a black backdrop. In both cases, it is an intensely personal experience — one person alone in a vast void — and it is not an experience you would wish on anyone else. In Chou’s world, staying alive appears to be a never-ending struggle.
About Living is an expanded version of the 30-minute solo that Chou performed at last year’s Hong Kong Arts Festival and took to Seoul and New York this year. He had been invited by the festival at the end of 2011 to create a work for its Asia Pacific Dance Platform and decided to build upon his short solo Start With the Body, which premiered in 2007, in which a table lamp played a crucial role.
A 30-minute solo is hard enough to sustain, so going into the theater you have to question how one artist can keep the audience’s attention for 70 minutes, even if he is a wonderful dancer to watch.
But Chou manages it. With more than a little help from friends, it turns out. The Chinese subtitle for the work is “The Sparkling Conversation of Dance Poet &Visual Artists,” and Chou’s collaborators were Chou Tung-yen (周東彥) as director and video designer, visual artist Wang Chung-kun (王仲?), lighting designer Kao I-hua (高一華), composer and sound designer Wang Yu-jun (王榆鈞) and costume designer Lin Ching-ju (林璟如).
Wang Yu-jun provided Chou with silence, electronic rumblings akin to those made by spaceship engines in sci-fi movies, shuffling paper sounds and some beautiful piano segments. Wang Chung-kun created the lamps that were used by Kao to such effect: Each looks like half a giant light bulb, with a silver lining and the outside shell painted black.
However, it was really Kao’s lighting that not only set the mood and created the space, but was almost another character in the story. The frequent shifts between degrees of light, depths of deepest black and Chou’s shifting body were captivating.
About Living is divided into several segments. Chou first appears, striding onto the floor from behind the audience, barefooted and clad in black pants and sweater. For a few minutes he paces, rolls or flails along the floor in silence. After a blackout, he reappears, shod, with his black sweater exchanged for a gray one and a buttoned-up black coat. He seats himself before a black wall on which he chalks his outline. By the time he has tipped his chair over, the scrawled lines look like the echoes of movement. Another, longer blackout is filled with the sounds (and vibrations) of Chou pacing back and forth in front of the audience or moving up and down the stairs.
However, the bulk of the work consists of Chou dancing with one of more of the lamps. Sometimes only his hands can be seen; sometimes his whole body is moving frenetically through the void of space, sometimes he appears to be desperately reaching out for a connection with something, anything. The tension builds incrementally with each segment.
It is not just Chou who is dancing, but the shadows, the light and the darkness as well. In one particularly beautiful section, one of the lamps, hanging just out of reach, slowly clears a path for him across the floor. When all five lamps are lit, it is as if Chou is moving among a constellation of stars, just another plant floating through space.
The mood shifts as a patter of raindrops is echoed in a torrent of drops of light pouring down the back wall and across the floor toward the audience. As Chou slowly walks along the back wall, the drops of light intensify into a torrent so that he appears to be walking under a waterfall.
It was a beautiful scene, and after all the tension that had built up, it felt like a deluge would prove to be the fitting end to the work. However, after yet another short blackout, Chou was back for about 10 minutes. This portion was lovely, but the section did feel a bit anti-climactic.
Even if About Living did feel a bit too long, Chou is an incisive dancer and always interesting to watch. The piece is the culmination of almost two years of work on the part of Chou and his collaborators and overall their hard work has paid off.
Chou and his dancers headed to Hong Kong yesterday, where they will perform his award-winning 1875 Ravel & Bolero as part of the Taiwan Culture festival this weekend, and then at the Macau Fringe Festival the following weekend, the culmination of this year’s Dance-Travel Project.