Experimental Theatre, National Theatre, Taipei, Taiwan; February 28, 2015
“The Red Piece” (《紅》) is indeed red (well, red and white really, but that’s by the by): red and white costumes, red padded seats, red and white knitting, even the microphone cable is red. Choreographer and WArd/waRD founder Ann Van den Brock, in all black, is clearly different. And we soon see why. She is not only the choreographer; she is the conductor.
The audience is greeted by six dancers and Van den Broek. The former are bound shibari-like with rope; two singly, to couples to each other. There is a stillness and a vague sense of tension. As they are released by Van den Broek, or release themselves, they start to stamp rhythmically with something of a suggestion of flamenco. But if that sight of Japanese bondage (which looking back can be seen as a metaphor for keeping emotions bound), the red clothes or the hint of Spain suggests passion or warmth, forget it.
Although colour, well red anyway, is to the fore in the designs, it’s lacking in the choreography itself. The dancers perform almost exclusively with blank, trance-like faces that express and communicate nothing.
Van den Broek not only gives the dancers their freedom, it is she, now sat at the back with her knitting, who drives the rhythm. The strident tapping of her boots acts as a heartbeat that the dancers pick up and follow. It is she who gives the work, and them, life.And yet it’s a strange sort of life, eyes open but unseeing. The dancers are far from robotic, but although released physically, any emotion remains largely hidden; pent up inside. That something is there is clear, but because it passion, fury, ecstasy or grief is so completely hidden it very quickly becomes all about the repetition. And although its little developments are interesting to some extent, it is ‘to some extent’.
The dancers drive on, pushing themselves around the stage, with much stamping and gesticulating – a lot of stamping and gesticulating. But even though they show energy, the choreography fails to create much of a spark. And while initially it gives the impression that it is building towards an inevitable explosion, it’s not that long before you realise it’s never coming.
For a long time the audience are left to find their own path through “The Red Piece”; to find their own understanding. Although we are told that emotion was the starting for in the creative process, it has become totally and deliberately divorced from the outcome. Usually there is something to grab hold of; hints here and there; something to help. But here there is little. Neither the movement, nor the rhythms give much away about meaning or intent. And however much you can see that there is something there, if it remains so resolutely bottled up and hidden away that makes it very difficult.
As more discordant sounds are introduced, the unison starts to fall apart. Performers break out – but it’s never long before they break back in again. That brings more problems, because while the dance now has more variation, somewhat paradoxically it becomes less interesting.Occasionally, there are glimmers of light, though. There’s a period when five dancers are busy stamping away while Frauke Mariën sits on the red seats, slowly furling, throwing and refurling some rope, before stripping to her underpants. It actually said far more than almost anything else.
There are also individual outbursts, as if the cap of this bottled dance has suddenly been released, as when Chen Pin-chieh (陳品伽) grieves over what appears to be a body. Her feelings are soon reined back in, though. As the lyrics of Dez Mona’s accompanying song say, “Careful now, we are trying. Careful now, we lose control.” Other lyrics similarly give hints of loss. “She took me there and left me there. At that dark place in her heart.” “Oh it tears us apart my friend, it tears us apart.”
There was one moment of lightness, intended or not, when I do believe I saw a light in Chen’s eye as she smiled at one of her fellow performers – once – but that was all.
To be fair, more concrete help does eventually come in the form of a monologue from Van den Broek, who provides some sort of explanation of where she is coming from. That doesn’t resolve the problem that she doesn’t really communicate that in the dance itself, though.
If Van den Broek’s intention is to pull you into this cold, emotion-free trance, she fails. It’s nothing to do with repetition. Rather it’s partly due to choreography that’s not strong enough, although it’s certainly true that she is not particularly interested in aesthetics. More, though, it’s about the total dislocation of emotion from movement that in turn upsets our ability to understand. On the other hand, if she intended to create some sort of trauma amongst those watching that such dislocation and such lack of understanding entails, she probably succeeds.