Sunday, February 4, 2018

PuSh 2018: The Eternal Tides at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre

My 2018 PuSh Festival came to a close last night with a performance of Legend Lin Dance Theater's The Eternal Tides at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. This two-hour intermissionless show, co-presented with Taiwanfest, marks the Canadian debut of choreographer Lin Lee-Chen, who is revered in her home country of Taiwan and also acclaimed internationally. However, to say that Lin is just a choreographer is to limit the scope of her creative vision. To judge by last night's performance, she builds works of total theatre (in Artaud's sense of that term), using music, dance, and design to compose exquisite stage tableaux that are as precise in their detailing as they are deliberately unhurried in their execution.

The Eternal Tides seems to celebrate as well as issue a caution about humans' relationship with nature, and especially the sea. It unfolds almost like a fertility rite. Following the dimming of the house lights, the two onstage musicians emerge from the wings holding candles, and make their way slowly to their stations at the extreme stage right and left lips of the stage. One begins to sound a gong, and gradually the long white sails of cloth that have been draped over the stage start to recede heavenward, into the rafters. What they reveal are two figures, one crumpled up into a ball centre stage in the middle of a large circular white cloth, the other seeming to guard her from upstage. As both musicians begin to drum, the figure on the cloth (in white body paint, and naked to the waist) begins to move, rotating her torso round and round until her spine is vertical, and then eventually standing up--whence we discover the incredibly long mane of jet black hair that she sports. This she proceeds to spin through the air again and again as she keeps time with her body to the drumbeats; the whole sequence goes on for a good ten-fifteen minutes (the man next to me kept checking his watch), and after a while you just have to give yourself over to the rhythmic ritual--one in which it is not entirely clear if the figure (who may be a goddess or a ghost) is conjuring or exorcising something.

Whatever the case, the scene culminates with the figure issuing a series of piercing screams, and then picking up the cloth on which she has just danced so ecstatically, and slowly retreating with it upstage. As she does this, a whole ensemble of performers emerges from the wings, the women crouched low carrying candles, and the men standing tall and brandishing long fluffy reeds. A band of white light bisects the stage horizontally, and it is upon this that a man and a woman will walk slowly towards each other, eventually meeting and presumably coupling. To this point, the pacing of Lin's compositions has been fluidly protracted and carefully balanced, each new element introduced in such a harmonious way and with the slowness of the movement never devolving into absolute stillness. For me it was the theatrical equivalent of watching a single continuous filmic dissolve.

However, Lin jolts us out of any languorous spectating habits with a subsequent scene of warring male quartets, the violent thrusting and parrying between the groups to the relentlessly quickening beats of the drums culminating in the death--or sacrifice?--of one of the men. This whole sequence put me in mind of a reverse Rite of Spring. Whatever the intent or cultural reference point, the violence must be expatiated and this sets the stage (quite literally) for Lin's final masterstroke in choreographic painting: at the heart of this culminating tableau, we watch as one dancer unfurls a white cloth vertically from upstage and then daubs it with a succession of ink stains, as all around her other performers array themselves in perfect symmetry.

One can, of course, read any number of meanings into this ending. But, as with the work as a whole, it is much more rewarding to give oneself over to the formal beauty and the sensual pleasures evoked within and by it. Because, while The Eternal Tides is mostly a visual feast, its sounds and smells and textures also very much feed our other senses.


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