Take Off 2015

Experimental Theater, National Theater, Taipei, Taiwan; March 27, 2015

Sun-Shier Dance Theatre in Take Off 2015.  Photo courtesy NTCH

Sun-Shier Dance Theatre in Take Off 2015.
Photo courtesy NTCH

David Mead

About twenty minutes into Take Off 2015 (逃亡2015) I was starting to wonder just where Sun-Shier Dance Theatre’s (三十舞蹈劇場) latest creation was all going; if, indeed it was going anywhere at all. In that extended opening there is a great deal of text, often consisting of a great number of questions, many of which were repeated. “Which is better? This or that? Here or there?” I hadn’t quite got as far as my own question, “Why?” but it was getting close.

But then, almost out of nothing, there is a break through and the work really does take off. The opening darkness and mood of near depression disappears and all becomes rather more upbeat as artistic director and choreographer Chang Hsiu-ping (張秀萍) and her Korean collaborators Hong Eun-ji (洪銀志) and Kim Ming-jung (金玟廷) bring on the dance and some interesting physical vocabulary and choreography. The rest of the eighty-five minutes or so flew past.

The 16-year-old Sun-Shier Dance Theatre has a reputation for works that examine modern society. Take Off 2015 (a reworking and extension of ideas used for a 2013 piece, hence the “2015” of the title) is straight out of that mould, and is about the everyday, ordinary person breaking free of their everyday, ordinary lives; breaking through the status quo. Sun-Shier tends to be a bit like Taiwan’s stinky tofu, though; not to everyone’s taste and something you love or hate.

The cast first appear dressed in a variety of odd combinations of everyday gear, including sunglasses and scooter helmets. Oddest of all, though, are the strange cream coloured cloaks that most wear, which look like cast offs from some budget 1970s sci-fi series. A lot of what follows is performed in near blackness, most of the light, sometimes all the light, coming from flashlights held by the cast (lighting design by Ho Ting-tsung, 何定宗). The beams from those hand-held lights cut through the darkness, sometimes performing their own dance.

Sun-Shier Dance Theatre in Take Off.  Photo courtesy NTCH 2

Sun-Shier Dance Theatre in Take Off 2015.
Photo courtesy NTCH

The black and text produce mixed feelings. They give a sense of space, a feeling of people floating in some sort of societal morass where, although clearly individuals, there is actually little sense of personal identity. They are part of humanity, but equally in a huge void. But equally, there’s also a sense of being enclosed, of being trapped. Those same torch beams, sometimes white, sometimes red, are occasionally used to highlight the faces of the performers, making them appear bodyless in the blackness. There is quite a lot of scrabbling about on all fours, ape-like, and their speech and constant questioning suggests uncertainty, although the dance never falls into the trap of mimicking the text. Rather it embellishes it, adding layers.

Contributing hugely to the mood are Fan Chen-kang’s (范振罡) eleven thin, square pillars across the back of the stage, each sloping about fifteen degrees off the vertical. Take them as representing what you will. A modern city, perhaps?

The overriding question is, “Is one what is one is?” Is there any point in even trying to change the essentials of who you are? There is the suggestion that ordinary can’t be free and there’s no point in even trying; “Don’t ask them to fantasise about freedom,” is heard in the text at one point.

And then a table drops from above and in a moment of what might be seen as mass rebellion, all give something up: insurance card, ID card, driving licence, one sneezes in her hand and shakes it over the box. “DNA”, she says. The ultimate offering perhaps. That is all a cue for freedom. “We are not tied anymore,” goes the text.

Sun-Shier Dance Theatre in Take Off 2015.  Photo courtesy NTCH

Sun-Shier Dance Theatre in Take Off 2015.
Photo courtesy NTCH

Form thereon in the action all gets more energetic and there’s far more what one might call conventional dance, albeit with an eclectic and sometimes downright quirky movement vocabulary. In there are some excellent ensemble sections that gobble up the space, although the image that sticks in my mind is that of three of the women being carried upside down on their partners’ backs, only their faces lit. To rising orchestral music it was oddly moving.

Extending or developing a work or theme is not always the best of ideas. Far too often the longer version comes at the cost of a loss of focus. But taken as a whole, “Take Off” has none of those issues. Perhaps the best sign of how much of a success it is, is that it doesn’t look or feel like a collaboration, long a feature of TIFA. They have not always been a resounding success, but Take Off 2015 is right up there with the best of them.