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Flash Review 3, 2-12: Mandala
Exploring the New and Old with Tai-gu Tales

By Peggy H. Cheng
Copyright 2003 Peggy H. Cheng

NEW YORK -- The Tai-gu Tales Dance Theatre, led by artistic director Hsiu-wei Lin, was presented at the Joyce Theater this past weekend in association with the Taipei Cultural Center, in an evening-length work in four sections entitled "The Life of Mandala." Lin is a former principal dancer with Taiwan's Cloud Gate Dance Theater (under the artistic leadership of Lin Hwai-min, arguably the most famous contemporary choreographer in East Asia) while her husband, Hsing-kuo Wu, is a highly regarded Peking Opera performer. The aim of this couple has been to explore the marriage of the disciplines of contemporary dance and Peking Opera. In "The Life of Mandala," the result is a meditation on the visual beauty of mandalas and an exploration of the human body as sculpture and artifice.

The dance work opens in darkness and silence, until candlelight appears and a man is heard mournfully calling, as if appealing for some kind of salvation. As he continues his call, bodies rise and come to life, wrapped in rags as if mummified. The caller is like a shaman summoning the spirits of the dead to a fire in a clearing. This section, "Sublimation: My soul thirsts for purity," immediately sets up the ritualistic world that the Tai-gu Tales Dance Theatre inhabits.

The piece continues into section two with "The World of Desires," essentially a presentation of (hetero)sexual instincts. Loin-clothed and wild-haired, the troupe of dancers fling about and toss, leap, and land heavily on the earth where, it seems, they are bound to end up on all fours or on their backs. Inventive acrobatics, as well as more conventional tumbling moves, predominate in the livelier sections while an intense if somewhat externally-imposed boundedness guides the quieter moments of ceremony and ritual. The tumbling and the many sculptural body pictures reminded me that the male half of the group is trained in the highly stylized movement forms of Peking Opera, mostly in "acrobatic roles," while the women have received a combination of modern and classical dance forms.

What Lin seems most adept at achieving in "The Life of Mandala" is a visual representation of a mandala on stage. Her ability to construct a stage picture seems instinctual, without too much brainy diagramming, and organic in the way a kaleidescope morphs with the slightest impulse in any direction. This gift was best showcased in the last section of the piece, "Buddhist Chanting," an uplifting dance that was in fact accompanied by recorded Buddhist chants.

Like many dance artists around the world, Lin continues to explore movement that combines the influences of contemporary art and ideas with that of an ancient, highly-codified artf orm. To explore these ideas within Taiwan, a society that has only recently (in the relatively recent art form of "modern dance") begun to train dancers in contemporary dance is yet another challenge. It will be intriguing to see where these explorations take Lin and her colleagues.

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