Experimental Theater, Taipei, Taiwan; February 15, 2014
Tong Yang-tze (董陽孜) insists she is not a calligrapher. Rather, she says, she creates contemporary art with a calligraphic element. Whatever, what cannot be denied is that her large-scale works are full of broad, expressive brushstrokes that suggest movement as they sweep across the paper. She has previously worked with designers, musicians and sculptors but in Sao (騷), the opening dance work of the 2014 Taiwan International Festival, she brings her art to the theatre for the first time in a collaboration with choreographers Bulareyaung Pagarlava (布拉瑞揚•帕格勒法) and Luo Wen-jinn (羅文瑾). Also into the mix goes jazz, courtesy of the excellent trio of Kunter Chang (張坤德) on sax, Stacey Wei (魏廣晧) on trumpet and Yohei Yamada (山田洋平) on double bass, who not only accompanied the piece itself, but who also kept the early arrivals entertained in 15-minute pre-show jam session.
Chen Yan-ren’s (陳彥任) video projections of Tong’s work tend to dominate proceedings. Initially, they are a riot of blotches, blobs and smudges that circle, summersault and tumble over and through one another. More discernable shapes soon emerge, ranging from darkly heavy to feather light. At one point, clever overlaying creates an impressive 3-D effect. Although Tong’s art is abstract, when put alongside the dance it is impossible not to imagine human form in some of them, or at least see individual brushstrokes as the blur left on the memory by a sweeping limb. One particularly beautiful image that morphed as it moved around the huge screen also resembles a butterfly. Many of the visuals would merit watching with the music alone. The problem is that occasionally that was exactly what I found happening.
In comparison, the dance element of “Sao” is a little hit and miss. The opening solo by Luo herself certainly delivers. She is at one with the music and projections as she moves smoothly around the stage, her body articulating and echoing the sounds of the trio. Her all-black costume makes her look like one of Tong’s shapes come to life.
Equally effective is a long section towards the end that sees dancer Lin Jou-wen (林柔雯) and trumpeter Wei join for what turns into an amusing duet. It starts with Lin simply responding to the sounds coming from the instrument but before long the couple are playing off each other for all they are worth. It’s good stuff, never going over the top, which would have been very easy. At one point Lin even relieves Wei of his instrument, leaving him to make sound using only his mouthpiece, and rather impressively he does that too.
The projections, music and movement are sometimes brought cleverly together. When dancer Chang Chien-hao (張堅豪) falls, he immediately sparks a huge ‘splash’ of shapes behind him as if he has tumbled into a large puddle. The ‘droplets’ fly everywhere before falling to earth as they are blown side to side in some unfelt breeze. At other moments, notes from an instrument produce a flying stream of shapes that have the appearance of abstract musical notes.
The music for most parts of the dance took the form of a structured improvisation, and as tends to be the case in any such coming together, some sections were less effective on this evening at least. This was especially so when the musicians and dancers had full rein to improvise freely. One sequence sees Luo in restless mode. Her body is consumed by jigs, quivers and shakes as she plays off the musicians and vice-versa in a two-way improvisation. It all got much too obvious as the dance and music became rather too much a literal an interpretation of one another.
The final five minutes was also a let-down. Wei blowing Lin off stage at the end of the duet would have made an excellent, if subtle, end to the piece. However, the production team carry on and bring everyone together for a group ending. Unfortunately, while the music in those final moments is some of the best classic jazz of the evening, the dance is totally forgettable. The now brightly psychedelic coloured images are also at odds with the beautiful black and white ones of earlier.
On the whole, though, “Sao” is a worthwhile bringing together of different art forms, something the Taiwan International Festival has long emphasised. The projections of Tong’s images made me want to see more of her art…and how nice to hear live jazz music for contemporary dance.