[ENG] Vipassana review: No zen in too much zen
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 Maggie Leung, a Dance Enhance participant.
In The Beginning; Choreographer: Yang Yuntao; Photo: Cheung Chi-wai
Mindfulness seems to be in a curious dialectic – if not complicity – with profit-driven, progress-craving cities like Hong Kong. The more restless people’s lives are, the more they yearn for mindfulness to endure, survive, and sustain their feverish lifestyles. A self-proclaimed “mindful theatre production,” Vipassana represents spiritual journeys seeking mindfulness and, indirectly, the underlying contradiction between zen and capitalist lifestyles. The mixed feelings of confusion and sporadic delights elicited by this production compelled the audience to ponder: “Is zen separated from life still zen? If zen is about (as the saying goes) the here and now, why should we go to somewhere, like the theatre, for zen? How would a mindful theatre production enquire, explore, interrogate, and represent the supposedly inward experience?”
Vipassana intertwines its three sections, devised by composer Law Wing-fai – Wuji Soundscapes, singing bowl practitioner and instructor as well as set designer Tsang Man-tung – Silent Walk, and choreographer Yang Yuntao – In the Beginning, with zen/Buddhist undertones in a multi-layered performance space. The stage design is strikingly intelligent. The very subtle (indeed invisible from the back of the auditorium) gap, creating a lower level space between the backdrop and the frontstage seemingly enabled entry by the dancer into the two-dimensional projections of moving ink paintings. Its genius was mostly manifested in Huang Lei’s solo in the first part of “In the Beginning.” The moment Huang ‘stepped into’ the flowing stream projected on the screen, the entire theatre seemed immersed in holy water. And later, the solo was transformed into a duet by a beam of light focused on the dancer, spilling his shadow across the white cyclorama creating a water-ink painting in motion. The two moving bodies, that could not embrace each other or be separated, were full of grace and elegance but lost their appeal as the corporal narrative became stagnant.
This feeling of ‘a little too much’ from time to time made me lose touch with the piece. Despite its admirable intelligence, the many facets of the stage design sometimes distracted the audience from, instead of situating them in, the performance. At the end of Wuji Soundscapes, with Huang sitting crossed-legged in a lotus position facing the pipa player in white, a few lines were projected above the stage: “Amidst water/ On the lotus/ The white dress faces a lotus.” Their bluntness, unfortunately, upset the serenity carefully developed earlier.
All the non-professional dancers, for example the musicians in Wuji Soundscapes and Tsang Man-tung’s team, were particularly affective. Pipa player Mavis Lam in Wuji Soundscapes emphasized the space of transformation inherent in the piece. Dressed in black, Lam was engaged in musical conversations with erhu player Zhao Guanjie and guzheng player Wan Xing, both were in white. Zhao sat upright delivering his string monologue in solitude. Wan engaged her entire body in stroking strings to create a shower of notes for her musical prose of an epic quality. Between these two articulations of self-assured clarity, Lam crawled and walked to the middle of the stage. Her sounds – produced by the pipa and sometimes the tapping of her feet – were in an agonious confusion, expressed in short, blunt phrases. Occasional, more melodious renditions were painfully beautiful, which, instead of revealing the self, drew inward. The transformative space evoked by this piece allowed the three musicians to express themselves entirely as artists. They didn’t just play their instruments; their instruments were extensions of their bodies. Apart from provoking questions such as “What is dance?” and “How do spectators see the body in musical performances?”, more importantly, they presented their being in the moment of performing, the most significant way in a performance to engage the audience.
Mindfulness guru Tsang Man-tung’s Silent Walk contrasted the preceding section with an air of darkness, groundedness, and mystery. Tsang’s playing of the singing bowl and the gong was stunning. As if coming from deep down yet without a tint of earthiness, the sound (though clearly audible) was more like an immense vibration that embraced and, literally, moved, the audience. The burning of incense was an attempt to add a similar intangible but sensory dimension of space, but it was far less effective (for the audience at the back). Tsang’s movements, light but firm, confident like a master’s but humble like a monk’s, produced a landscape of sound in which it was a natural part. This contrasted a trio of female dancers who responded respectively to the mood, texture, and rhythm of ecstatic drumming by Alex Cheung. Their embodiment of the well-crafted and refined movements answered the call of the music skilfully. While their performance was very pleasant to look at, without unlearning – in the sense of critical reflection on, and exploration of, limits, possibilities, and interior responses – skill, craft, and experience hindered their transformation, and the necessary tension in a work that makes creation of a different aspect of reality possible.
The production’s last scene made the question more obvious: “How can dancing and watching dance performance lead to mindfulness?” I could not help but stifle a burst of laugher when a group of men emerged in some sort of rustic, vaguely Tibetan clothing, and began their dance by hitching their pants up. For a second I wondered if it was a very elaborate curtain call, as the dancers surrendered their bodies to gravity and the weariness and confusion of life, without the pride and happiness that artists have. Allowing their arms to swing, swirling their bodies, randomly imitating a rural folk dance, but lacking real joy, I saw dancer-workers alienated by their work waiting more desperately than the audience for the end of the show, so they could go home and find their mindfulness. On top of that was the pop-version of the Heart Sutra that sounded overtly and inappropriately jolly and banal. My experience and knowledge of zen or mindfulness are very limited, but I think it’s about the focusing on the here and now. Do we need a Tibetan background for zen? This piece made it very clear: a Tibetan outlook does not immediately impart zen. An overdose of zen symbols and expression only displaces ‘users’ from their moment of being. This is a symptom of the capitalist society: we assume everything can be bought and consumed, including inner peace.
The problem is precisely that inner peace – in the name of ‘stillness’ (as the subtitle of the production suggests), zen or mindfulness – can only be acquired from within. The symptomatic desperation of the society pervaded Vipassana, and we don’t get zen when we desperately want it. In fact, every dance performance that transforms its dancers and the audience is a journey of vipassanā. Dance to the point that it tickles, outrages, irritates, haunts, touches, captivates the audience, so everyone in the theatre may have a chance to regain consciousness of their own state of being, in the here and now. And it is only this kind of fundamental transformation that would abolish, not only the separation between performers and audience, but also theatre and everyday life, reality and its possibilities.
Directors: Law Wing-fai, Tsang Man-tung, Yang Yuntao
Performance: 8 September 2017 19:45 Studio Theatre, Hong Kong Cultural Centre