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[ENG] Staged Retreat – Vipassana

Review from a Dance Enhance 2017 Participant Dance Enhance: Dance Appreciation & Criticism Writing Project 2017 is a four-month course begun in September 2017 that aims at providing foundation knowledge of dance appreciation and criticism to aspiring dance writers. Structured with a series of lectures, workshops, discussion sessions, artists sharing and attendance at performances, the course helps participants to develop knowledge on different dance types, appreciation skills, and techniques in review writing under the guidance of dance experts. This review was written by Angela Lee, a Dance Enhance participant.

Silent Walk; Director: Tsang Man-tung; Photo: Cheung Chi-wai

Yang Yuntao, Artistic Director of Hong Kong Dance Company, has said performing arts are somehow like zen meditation in that they need concentration, a peaceful mind, imagination, and self-discipline. Collaborating with Tsang Man-tung as set and costume designer, Law Wing-fai as music composer, as well as Wuji Ensemble providing live music, Yang choreographed Vipassana, a “mindful theatre” production, on 8 to 10 September 2017 at Hong Kong Cultural Centre Studio Theatre.

Tsang received the Silver Prize for Set Design at the World Stage Design 2017 for his work in Storm Clouds. He is well known for making use of space to create simple, elegant, and poetic sets for theatres. In Vipassana, he is also responsible for playing the singing bowls and gong.

Like a book being opened, an inverted screen hangs above the stage. It looks like the sky above the ground. With musicians and dancers moving across the stage beneath it, the scene looks like a picture composed of sky, earth, and people.

The first scene, Wuji Soundscapes, is a live music performance by Wuji Ensemble that is composed of three pieces, Hollow Mountain, Fading Moon, and Flow. Played on erhu, guzheng, and pipa, the first two pieces, sometimes using the pipa as antagonist, seem to be in conversation with nature. The final piece, a pipa solo, provides a meditative moment for the bare-chested Huang Lei who sits quietly in center stage. The structural arrangements of the three pieces of music are similar – mainly slow and peaceful but occasionally with rapid and sharp sounds. Chinese poems are projected on a screen echoing the contents of each piece of music. However, those philosophic descriptions appear for only a few seconds making them not easy to grasp in such short time. Moreover, except for the guzheng, which has the advantage of being able to generate a sense of flowing, the plucked and twisted-string, sporadic, dominate sounds of the erhu and pipa make it difficult to convey peaceful moments for the audience to enjoy.

Following the pipa solo, Huang descends stairs in front of the cyclorama and, to Fur Alina composed by Arvo Pärt, performs three passages of movement within a narrow path. The first and third passages have Huang freely coming in contact with the cyclorama on which is projecting a landscape painting softly lit. In the second passage, he easily moves and reclines within the path not touching the cyclorama. Huang’s fluid movement is simple, he dances without tension or force, reflecting the section’s theme, let all senses relax, and its title, “In the Beginning!”

The third scene, Silent Walk, follows Huang’s solo. Interwoven with sounds from pipa and ruan, Tsang plays the singing bowls and gong. Nine dancers dressed in costumes of white and yellow tones, holding golden singing bowls and then golden poles, move in a group forming different patterns. With sharp beams of light forming lines intersecting the space, they suggest the triangular aspect of a mountain. Then, while Xie Yin sits still and meditates in the background, Tang Ya, Pan Lingjuan, and Hau Chi Yu, following the heavy beats of the drums, dance on their own. Meanwhile, Tsang moves about like a spiritual guide in charge of a ceremony. With everyone on stage performing his or her own work, the audience is kept busy selecting what to watch.

Then, Xie, stirred by Tsang’s music and a burst of derisive laughter from Alex Cheung, moves within a small square of white light while a star curtain projects a sea of stars circulating slowly above. It’s as if it concludes that after having struggled through life’s journey, one’s mind is at peace.

When I thought that the performance might end after this representation of the forming of the universe, I was rather surprised to see eight male dancers dressed in Tibetan costumes enter dancing to the Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya (Heart Sutra). It seems that the dancers’ playful presentation creating a relaxing atmosphere is a gift for the audience.

Vipassana lasts for two hours without intermission, but there was no advanced notice of this uninterrupted length. And, although it was striking that the slow scene changes were made part of the performance, combined with such a spare and demanding theme and performance style the lengthy production was a big challenge and a test for the audience’s patience.

Dancing with a pure heart is appreciated but it is a hard assignment to give professional dancers – to balance consciousness and relaxation on stage while performing for a living in a professional dance company. Vipassana is like training performers on stage for a retreat, with the audience as observers.



Directors: Law Wing-fai, Tsang Man-tung, Yang Yuntao

Performance: 8 September 2017 19:45 Studio Theatre, Hong Kong Cultural Centre

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