Mathias Woo (胡恩威) of Hong Kong’s experimental theater company Zuni Icosahedron (進念 二十面體) says he believes in “empty esthetics”and “no choreography.” Based on Dream Illusion Bubble Shadow (如夢幻泡影) at the National Theater in Taipei on Saturday night, he believes in “no editing” as well. The show, which Woo created for Dance Forum Taipei’s (舞蹈空間) 25th anniversary and the Taiwan International Festival of Art (TIFA), has a few good points, but it wastes its best resource — the talents of Dance Forum’s 10 terrific dancers.
In an interview last week, Dance Forum founder and director Ping Heng (平珩) said Zuni had never collaborated with an entire company before and it certainly looked as if Woo was at a loss on how to incorporate the troupe in his mathematically based piece — he used a lot of solos, which were mostly improvised, and some trios. However, his repetitive use of movements, lines and format became mind-numbing.
The show was inspired by Buddhism’s Diamond Sutra, the concepts of nothingness and the endless search for the unachievable. It succeeded in conveying those ideas, though only in the negative.
Reading the two-part program Zuni created did not help. One part was a large folded sheet of paper with the National Theater’s schematics: one side had the theater’s floor plan, while the other showed the placement of all the stage lights and fly rigging. The second part, a booklet, looked like the instruction manual that comes with appliances, and was about as easy to read. However, the program did provide a translation of the opening monologue delivered by actor and Zuni collaborator David Yeung (楊永德) — in Cantonese — that left the uncomprehending audience at a loss, even though Yeung’s delivery was admirable. His one line in Mandarin came at the end — when he explained that the whole point of speaking in Cantonese was so that no one would understand him.
His monologue reinforced the impression given by the immense yellow inflatable duck that was deflating in the back of the stage as the audience took their seats — it was going to be a strange night. Unfortunately, it did not count toward the show’s 80-minute running time.
What I remember most about the show are the elements that annoyed me — the soundscape by composer Yu Yat-yiu (于逸堯) with its ear-piercing endings; Yeung and another man carrying hand-held lights that they shone out into the theater or at the reflective panels onstage, blinding the audience; the excessive smoke effects that left the viewers searching for the dancers, who appeared like wraiths out of a horror-movie fog only to disappear again.
There were some rewarding moments, such as the minute-long individual solos in the first act. Another section featured trios of dancers strutting back-and-forth or across the stage to almost a tangoish-percussive beat as the numerals 1 and 0 flashed on panels above their heads; always grouped as a pair and a single, the pattern was repeated with one dancer coming onstage as another left until the entire cast had cycled through. Toward the end of the show, four male dancers have a brief burst of exuberant action, before the mood shifts and three of the men retreat to the back of the stage, where they strip down to flesh-colored supports. Moving into the barely lit center of the stage, they undulate around one another, while the fourth man stands at the front — next to guitarist Ellen Joyce Loo (盧凱彤) — going through motions that are completely at odds with the trio.
Over the years, the TIFA programmers have invited foreign companies, directors or choreographers to collaborate with local troupes. Some productions have been outstanding, such as French choreographer Mourad Merzouki joining forces with London-based Taiwanese fashion designer Johan Ku (古又文) for 2012’s Yo Gee Ti (有機體). There have been a few almost great pairings, such U-Theatre (優劇場) and US director Robert Wilson 2010 show, 1433 — The Grand Voyage (鄭和1433). And there have been misses. Dream Illusion Bubble Shadow falls into the last category.
Dance Forum Taipei and Zuni plan to take the show to Hong Kong. Woo will undoubtedly have to make some changes to take into account the stage differences. Hopefully, his tinkering will improve the production.