Taiwan's Legend-Lin sets world to rites

"Eternal Tides" @ QE: ceremonious finale for PuSh Fest 2018

Red tide on white shoal -- welling up to 高潮. Photo: Michel Cavalca

Lin Lee-chen, doyenne of Taiwan choreographers, had already retired from the stage a quarter century ago at the height of her fame.

But, within the past decade, now well in her 60’s, she has “felt compelled to return” to forestall the “decline of Taiwan’s traditional arts in the face of a growing invasion of Western cultural forms,” according to the programme notes for her latest extravaganza, Eternal Tides.

Offered as a grand finale for this year’s PuSh Fest, Eternal Tides certainly did fill up the cavernous QE theatre with colours, rhythms and even smells of Taiwan. Whiffs of incense wafted all the way to the jam-packed topmost balcony; stage smoke curled into the audience; vigorous sprinklings of Chinese Silvergrass pollen set off minor volleys of sneezing in the first few rows of the orchestra.

At one time or another in Eternal Tides the tall plumes of grass (miscanthus sinensis, 芒草) figured as processional banners, scene-dividing curtains, battle weapons, connubial bedposts or celestial clouds. Other bits of endemic Taiwan vegetation got pressed into service as well: joints of bamboo, quiffs of rice straw, seed rattles all become resonant props in the hands of onstage dancers/musicians.

Endemically Taiwanese, too, were the production’s sound textures, costumes and body language, all drawing freely from the island nation’s blend of Han ethnicity, Japanese colonial overlays and proto-Malay “aboriginal” antecedents.

Such elements may strike non-Taiwanese audiences as mysterious exotica. Yet Lin turns them into intuitively accessible conduits to archetypal human moods, fears and longings. Along the way, she sheds new light on familiar tropes for Taiwanese viewers, too, I’m assured by my Taiwanese wife and co-reviewer, Hsu Mei-lang.

To this end, Lin offers us more of an impressionistic tone poem than a brisk, programmatic narrative. The whole show feels like the solemn, stately ritual of an unknown – but somehow recognizable – cult. We never quite learn just what it’s all about – something moist and tidal and cosmic, it seems. But it’s up to us to free-associate our own overtones.

Lin won’t be rushed and it can be a bit of a challenge, at least initially, to synchronize with her rather portentous pace. The houselights dim to the achingly slow throb of a solo gong, stage left. Not a dancer in sight – just floor-to-ceiling cascades of white silk drapery.

The curtains gradually lift, like sea spume ebbing from a beach. At first we dimly perceive the figure of singer Hsu Ching-chwen, lotus-poised center stage rear. Then the last silk shroud draws away to reveal lead dancer Wu Ming-jing, blanched and inert, like some moon-slicked bracken left by a receding tide.

Or maybe like some elegant seabed annelid, as she slowly – so, so slowly – unfurls her near-nude body, unleashing a floor-length flow of hair. The jet-black tresses swing faster and faster as the shell-white dancer fends them aside, shoulders her way through them or thrashes them on the ground, all to the accelerating tempo of syncopated Taiko drums stage left and right.

She’s a kelp forest in a riptide. She’s a limpet, clutching the seabed, fighting for its life. After 20+ minutes of this frenzy, Wu falls to the floor, panting and screaming like someone in the climactic throes of childbirth.

As she backs off the stage in a crouch, the arc of her scream is taken up by the piercing yelp of a bamboo flute. But the woodwind presently modulates down to a gentle soprano line. A tenor flute joins in for a lyrical duet to match the gliding entry of the troupe’s other lead dancers.

Wang Chien-yi sails in, bare-breasted, her back impossibly arched, like a ship’s figurehead carved in ivory. Daubed cinnabar red, with day-glow face paint and an aboriginal turban, Cheng Chieh-wen looms out from the opposite wing to enfold her like a glowing, seaborne sunset. They meet center-stage, ringed by a quartet of miscanthus-wielding acolytes, for a subtly erotic pas de deux that’s crowned at its climax with a suggestive dusting of sneeze-worthy silvergrass fluff.    

And then it’s Wu again, her hair by now gathered up into a pleated, reptilian frill and her elongated fingernails clattering like some scaly insect wing. Her hands join together, waft akimbo, snatch the air and scrabble aground, incessantly twitching all the while. At last she succumbs to her own hypermetabolism, only to be dragged away into the wings in a cocoon of white silk…

…ceding the stage to male lead Cheng and his co-star, Chen Chi-shun, who duel in leaping arabesques of kungfu combat, armed with – what else? – silvergrass fronds. The battle builds until it crests in a grim processional of three red-daubed fighters.

The foremost warrior doffs his now-limp tufted reed. Next comes the bearer of a double fistful of smoldering joss sticks. A grim acolyte lofting an erect miscanthus fasces brings up the rear. All three bear down on the whimpering, spent figure of Cheng, downstage center. To me, it looks like a ghastly tableau of homoerotic rape.

My wife tartly advises that such associations are all in my own perverted mind; the scene aims just to evoke the rites of the Tang Ki, Taiwan’s spirit mediums, who undergo tortures so as to eradicate their egos and commune directly with the gods.

Both interpretations strike me as entirely compatible with each other, but it does put rather a grim cast on some forms of ritual.

So it’s a welcome balm when the final scene opens with Wang, as a white cowled goddess (Kuan Yin?), treading a silken pathway down the centerline of the stage. To the solemn chant of the Buddhist heart sutra, she’s laying down a traceable pathway of sacred tokens (Shells? Seeds?) for her devotees to follow.

The whole cast is arrayed around her, symmetrically, bearing candles and bamboo standards. All in a devout crouch, their backs rising and falling, barely perceptibly, like a languid, life-teeming tide pool.

And, like any ritual, much of the magic owes to the vestments (designed by Wang Chia-hui), the regalia (by props designers Chang Wang and Chen Nien-chou), and the chiaroscuro lighting (by Cheng Kuo-yang).

The cumulative impact was powerful enough to earn Eternal Tides five curtain calls, which the entire cast braved with impeccable, unsmiling Zen decorum.






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