On a September night 15 years ago I sat in the National Theater and was blown away by U-Theatre’s (優人神鼓) River Journey (與你共舞).
One of my sisters sat next to me, and she still ranks the show as one of the all-time highlights of her stays in Taiwan.
As I, and many others, have said, one of the many benefits about being in Taiwan during the COVID-19 pandemic is not only that theaters and other entertainment venues have been largely able to stay open this year, but local companies, unable to fulfil their international travel commitments, have had the time to revive or restage some of their classic works.
Photo courtesy of U Theatre
For the famed Zen percussion group, that has meant a revival of River Journey, which premiered on Sept. 21, 2006, and which returns to the National Theater on Friday next week, making it the perfect Christmas present for U-Theatre fans.
The piece was inspired by poetry written by musical director Huang Chih-chun (黃誌群) during a trip to India in 2001, his fourth to that nation, which included a visit to Lumbini, the birthplace of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha.
He wrote the poems, many of them in stream of consciousness form, about the people he met and his experiences, as well as his reflections on the company. He sent them to his wife, U-Theatre founder-director Liu Ruo-yu (劉若瑀), and other members of the company.
Photo courtesy of U Theatre
For Huang, the trip reinforced the idea that concentrating on living in the moment was key, something that he, Liu and other company members have sought to practice in their mediation and training, as well as performances.
“We decided to make this India journey, these poems, into a performance — each dance comes from a poem,” Liu told me in an interview ahead of the 2006 premiere.
Liu and Huang also saw an opportunity to utilize their interest in Gurdjieff’s Sacred Dances by putting the techniques into the core of the new work.
Georges Gurdjieff, the Russian philosopher and mystic, created what became known as Gurdjieff Movements, a combination of exercises, meditation concentration and music that were based on traditional and sacred dances that he saw during his travels in the early years of the 20th century through Central Asia, including Sufi and Buddhist traditions.
Luo and Huang first encountered the dances during a visit to the Osho meditation center in Pune, India, and began to incorporate the movements into their martial arts and drumming practices in the mid-1990s.
The Chinese title of River Journey — Yu ni gong wu — can be translated literally as “dancing with you,” and was taken from the final line in one of Huang’s poems, where he described the feeling of turning around to feel heaven and earth dancing with him.
The images of U-Theatre members spinning in the final segment of River Journey, much like Sufi dervishes, the tails of their long tunics flying out around them as they are gradually joined by other performers until the stage of the National Theater becomes a sea of swirling bodies, ranks as one of the most memorable climaxes of any show I have ever seen.
The fluid garments were created by Oscar-winning designer Tim Yip (葉錦添), one of the company’s frequent collaborators, while the stage and lighting were designed by Lin Keh-hua (林克華), with videos by Ethan Wang (王奕盛).
River Journey runs approximately 75 minutes, and tickets for the Taipei shows have been selling fast.
However, do not despair. If you miss out on the National Theater performances, the company is taking the show to the National Taichung Theater in the middle of March and the National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts in April, and there are still plenty of tickets left for those performances.
WHAT: River Journey
WHEN: Friday and Saturday next week at 7:30pm; Saturday and Sunday next week at 2:30pm
WHERE: National Theater (國家戲劇院), 21-1 Zhongshan S Rd, Taipei City (台北市中山南路21-1號)
ADMISSION: Remaining seats priced between NT$600 and NT$2,500; available at NTCH box offices, online at www.artsticket.com.tw and at convenience store ticketing kiosks. The Saturday matinee is almost sold out
ADDITIONAL PERFORMANCES: March 13 and 14 at 2:30pm in the Grand Theater at the National Taichung Theater and April 24 and 25 at 2:30pm at the Opera House at the National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts — Weiwuying (衛武營國家藝術文化中心); Tickets are NT$600 to NT$2,500, and available at the theaters’ box offices or as above
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