Guling Street Avant-Garde Theatre, Taipei, Taiwan; January 3, 2013
Always willing to try new things, “The Battle with My Father” (英雄) is something of a departure for Horse (驫舞劇場). It is not only an intensely personal work; a powerful and potent piece of dance theatre, all the more notable for the fact that the whole 75 minutes is sustained by just two performers, but one of those dancers happens to be female. Horse is normally, of course, very much an all-male group.
“The Battle with My Father” is a compelling piece about one man’s journey to be at peace with himself and his memories. It originates in dancer Liu Guan-xiang’s (劉冠詳) experience of his father’s death. His father was a hero him, but when he died of a heart attack aged just 49, that image collapsed rather, and questions about his father and himself began to rear their heads.
The evening revolves around those questions, and Liu’s memories of his father. After his passing, he says the man he thought he knew so well became a mystery in his heart, even more so as he began to dig up people, affairs, and objects that had once been related to him. As the evening progresses, so he comes to terms with his loss and his thoughts.
Liu, who is onstage throughout, gives a tour de force performance. After an initial short and jarring dance that can be seen as reflecting his grief at his loss, but also perhaps his anger, he sits and tells us about his father. As I am sure many of us have done, he imagines his father talking, hearing his voice in his head. He lets us hear it too. He retreats to a framed structure that sits upstage and that becomes a sort of confessional. He takes on not only his father’s deep voice but also, and rather cleverly, even manages to take on his hawk-like eyes and pirate-like face using the light from an iPad. It’s not dissimilar to the way Akram Khan had a ‘conversation’ with his distant father in “Desh”, and is equally effective.
A later moment sees Liu slumped against the theatre’s brick wall, a single light shining. In what is just one of a number of striking images, the strong suggestion is of someone in a prison cell, but this is a psychological cell made by his memories.
Speech is sometimes overdone in dance, but not here, Liu interspersing it with danced segments. When he does speak, it is always in a really heartfelt way. The text is very moving, even though my Chinese is such that I understood considerably less than half of it in detail.
After his initial dance, Liu is joined on stage by a mysterious figure (Ye Yun, 葉昀) dressed in what looks like coarsely shredded paper, and who proceeds to cover the stage in sheets of paper. There are references here to the original medical reports from Chinese doctors about his father’s illness that prevented him being flown back to Taiwan, and later reports obtained by Liu in which the diagnosis was sufficiently changed to allow the transfer to take place. But they can also be seen as a metaphor for Liu’s memories in general, the scattered nature of them reflecting his mixed up and confused thoughts. A fan is later used to blow the sheets around suggesting the scattering and moving nature of those thoughts.
Other images come thick and fast. Liu is rejoined by the paper-strewing figure, now on a bicycle. Despite fast pedalling, though, the rider never really gets anywhere. A comment about his struggle to find answers, maybe? The frame again comes into play as a white sheet and fan is placed over the cyclist, a play of lights creating some impressive, ghostly shadow images.
Liu says that when he looked at his father, he felt the way a schoolgirl might when in love. To that end, Ye reappears now divested of her unusual costume, the two dancing a tender, largely floor based duet.
Towards the end, a doorway at the back of the stage slides partially open to reveal a bright light shining through. This is the way out. This is Liu’s release. With the girl on his shoulders he moves towards it, having finally come to terms with everything.
“The Battle with My Father” is a very good evening of dance theatre. The small, closed-in, nature of the Guling Street Theatre with its low ceiling and the audience right up close certainly helped create and sustain the mood, and I’m far from convinced that it would work in a larger setting. But the venue is not all. Most important is the personal element. Liu made you believe because he believed.