National Theater, Taipei, Taiwan; March 21 & 22, 2014

David Mead

Dance Forum Taipei in 'Dream Illusion Bubble Shadow'.  Photo courtesy NTCH 4

Dance Forum Taipei in ‘Dream Illusion Bubble Shadow’.
Photo courtesy NTCH 4

Zuni Icosahedron (進念•二十面體) is a Hong Kong experimental theatre company that focuses on alternative theatre, multimedia and cross-boundary performances, often with elements of cultural exchange and in collaboration with other ensembles. Collaboration and experimentation is just as much part of Dance Forum Taipei (舞蹈空間), so in a way it was natural that the two companies should come together in a piece that also marked Dance Forum’s 25th anniversary. It’s a fact of life, though, that very few experiments are out and out successes, and while “Dream Illusion Bubble Shadow” (如夢幻泡影) hits the target from time to time, there are misses too.

In his programme notes, Mathias Woo (胡恩威), Co-Artistic Director of Zuni, and responsible for direction, design and choreography asks ‘Why 80 minutes long?’ His answer: because it’s the “most efficient length of performance. If only he had stuck to that.

Woo turned to maths to work out the architecture of the work. Of his eighty minutes, he allows precisely sixteen for each of the five sections, dividing the first four mathematically into sixteen, eight, four and two equal parts. Given that there is plenty of improvisation in the piece, there is plenty of room for things to go awry. The numbers game does not stop there. The programme goes on about the height of the stage, numbers of lamps and so on, but if ever there proof was needed that good choreography (or stage presentation of any other form come to that) cannot be determined primarily by crunching the numbers, “Dream Illusion Bubble Shadow” is it. Several times, opportunities to bring sections to a natural close are missed. All overstay their welcome, some hugely.

Despite his slavery to the maths, Woo also tells us that this Taiwan-Hong Kong collaboration was inspired by the concepts of emptiness and nothingness expounded in the Diamond Sutra, a classical Buddhist scripture. It’s a negation of the world of words and ideas that in turn points to another world beyond. He also goes on about “no choreography”, “non-music” and “empty aesthetics”, none of which he actually achieves, and all of which it’s possible to argue are not actually achievable anyway, even theoretically.

Dance Forum Taipei in 'Dream Illusion Bubble Shadow'. Photo courtesy NTCH

Dance Forum Taipei in ‘Dream Illusion Bubble Shadow’.
Photo courtesy NTCH

Walking into the auditorium, the audience is greeted by the sight of a huge 25 feet tall inflatable yellow duck gently ‘paddling’ to and fro in the far, far distance. It’s actually slowly deflating, although on the opening night it was impossible to tell that. The dancers warming up are tiny figures against it. As an image, it’s one of the highlights of the evening. It certainly made people smile although quite why it is there is anyone’s guess.

The curtain descends painfully slowly. In fact, quite a lot of transitions happen painfully slowly. A man appears and starts talking in Cantonese. Finally switching to Mandarin, he explains that not being able to understand him was exactly the point. He wants us to think about what things mean, or might mean. What he actually succeeded in doing was making the audience fidgety and bored. The sleep inducing muzak that accompanies him just made things worse.

It’s fifteen minutes or so in before the eighty minutes as defined by Woo actually starts. A man uses a hand-held stage light to highlight aspects of the performance space. But does he really need to shine it straight at the audience from time to time? The audience gets dazzled later in the piece too. This seems to be the latest ‘in thing’ with designers, but is seriously annoying. Eventually we get some dance, each dancer performing a solo in turn. They are not told the order until music director Yu Yat-yiu (于逸堯) starts the music, but it makes little difference as the only connection is their one-minute length. Still, there was a sense of personality.

Yet more very individual solos come as the dancers line up behind a metal grid resembling doorways. In turn they step through and do their two minutes as another dancer vocalises into a microphone. The dance here is less engaging and by the time we get to the ninth, it’s more than enough. Matters are not helps by projections of Chinese characters that scroll and fill the space, rather overwhelm everything else. Much better are later images that accompany each dancer in the form of a sort of spectral shadow. Mostly these were a split second behind the ‘real’ person, as if some form of energy echo, although given one of the men was totally in synch, I’m not convinced the effect was deliberate.

Another change of direction sees three dancers, now dressed all in white, walking back and forth, and occasionally sideways, in perfect time with a clockwork sounding soundscape. Although always structured ‘2+1’, they periodically switch who comprises the couple. It is a bit like a game that only three are allowed to play. In turn (again!) others join the action, one leaving each time. On opening night it was all danced with largely blank faces and was desperately tedious. On the second evening, though, there were clear acknowledgements of each other from the start, and plenty of expression and intent. There was a sense of attitude. There were relationships. Not only was it a million times better, it was the highlight of the performance (which in itself speaks volumes about the rest of it). Even the music, which is largely forgettable, picks up here. As a dance, it was reminiscent of some of Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s work, although it has to be said, she does it with a lot more style.

Hong Kong guitarist Ellen Joyce Loo in Dance Forum Taipei and Zuni Icosahedron's 'Dream Illusion Bubble Shadow'.  Photo courtesy NTCH

Hong Kong guitarist Ellen Joyce Loo in Dance Forum Taipei and Zuni Icosahedron’s ‘Dream Illusion Bubble Shadow’.
Photo courtesy NTCH

Nothing much connects overtly in “Dream Illusion Bubble Shadow”, a point that’s most obvious in the penultimate section that comes in two very distinct parts. The men come first, including a startlingly beautiful dance for three of them dressed only in flesh-coloured supports. As their bodies slowly caress and entwine they are lit largely by someone holding a stage lamp. It’s a feast of constantly changing shadows, the light bouncing off their bodies in different ways. Another dancer and guitarist Ellen Joyce Loo (盧凱彤) were stage front, but some odd spacing makes the couple seem totally separate from the upstage action. Perhaps that is deliberate, but it certainly makes it very difficult to watch both simultaneously. The following section for the women holds little interest. Indeed, it’s a while before anyone actually moves.

The final section sees some very effective use of smoke and lights to create a sense of mystery and other-worldliness. Maybe significantly, it is done initially with conventional lighting and smoke. When the projections do reappear, they add little. As the stage lights pierce the misty atmosphere, all the dancers reappear for an improvisation-fest. On opening night there was lots of running round, occasional meetings and comings together. There was a sense of searching for something. It was fresh. It was effective, even if there was almost too much going on, but, as elsewhere, it was overlong. The second night was equally busy. As can be the way with improvisation though, not only was it very different, it was also rather less engaging.

And so back to that yellow duck – now on its side. It wasn’t the only one who gave up. On opening night, a number of people felt enough was enough and left. That’s very unusual in Taipei.

Apparently, Woo had never worked with a whole company before and I couldn’t help feeling it showed. Maybe I expect too much, but for me, “Dream Illusion Bubble Shadow” is not “no-choreography”, it’s disappointing choreography. Too often, I wasn’t thinking ‘what does it mean?’ but how unimaginative (especially the constant using dancers one by one in turn), and particularly how disconnected some of it was, and that surely Woo could have got his ideas across better than this. Then again, maybe disconnection was the point. If so, it doesn’t make good theatre.

Given all the pre-premiere comment about “Dream Illusion Bubble Shadow” being a bringing together of dance and multimedia, this is also disappointing. Most of the time the projections seem to be little more than wallpaper that decorates the space. Even then, do they help give the stage a new look? From where I was sitting, not really. Except for those energy echoes of the dancers themselves, there is little relationship between them or with the movement.

I’ve seen a lot of Dance Forum Taipei over the years. I’ve seen some excellent work, and I know they have outstanding performers, but “Dream Illusion Bubble Shadow” does not even get close to showing them to their best; and perhaps that is the saddest and most disappointing thing of all.