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Review 1, 10-14: Ocean of Drums
Water Music, and Dance, from U-Theatre
By Gus Solomons jr
Copyright 2003 Gus Solomons jr
NEW YORK -- Nothing
gets an audience more excited than drumming. And flashy percussion
is what U-Theatre from Taiwan delivers for 100 uninterrupted minutes.
The troupe -- directed and choreographed by its founder Liu Ching-ming,
a 1983 New York University Performance Studies graduate -- performed
"The Sound of Ocean" at the BAM Harvey Theater (October 7-11). Master
drummer Wong Chee-mun creates the music and is the lead drummer
of five men who play large barrel drums. The seven women, including
Liu, play smaller, conga-like drums.
The pronunciation of
the letter "u" sounds like the Chinese word for "excellence," which
is also the word used for "performers" in imperial China. The company
creates its theatre pieces and trains daily in meditation, martial
arts, and drumming at its mountaintop facility outside Taipei City.
Liu says, "Performance is the representation of the best aspects
of life," and Wong holds the conviction that "to learn to play the
drum, one must first learn to meditate."
In 1997, after four
years of creative gestation, "The Sound of Ocean" premiered in Taiwan.
The plotless piece, divided into five segments: "Collapse," "Flowing
Water," "Breakers," "Listening to the Ocean Heart," and "The Sound
of Ocean," began with the "Flowing Water" section, which evokes
the sound of steadily falling water with a continuous stream of
rhythmic motifs, played on seven small tom-toms and two big drums.
Under Liu's direction,
with dramaturgy by Lee Li-heng, the piece visually soothes the eye:
placement of the drums on the main stage floor and two levels to
our left (stage right), smoothly staged transitions between sections,
costumes by Yip Kam-tim -- which for the men get progressively briefer
from long skirts at the start to brief loin cloths for "The Sound
of Ocean" -- lighting design by Lin Keh-hua, and rough-hewn set
pieces by Liu Chung-hsing that recall Noguchi's famous sculptural
pieces for Martha Graham's repertoire. At the same time, the aggressive
drum rhythms stimulate the soul.
The opening, "Collapse,"
a rising crescendo of choreographed percussion by the company en
masse gets our attention, and later, in "Listening to the Ocean
Heart" -- the segment that's most dance-like -- the five men beat
a pulse on tuned gongs, while doing tai-chi moves: spinning jumps
and one-legged balances, in intricate canons. By contrast, "Breakers,"
a solo, played on a plucked stringed instrument -- was it a samisen?
-- by Sun Chin-feng, simulates the gentle sound of the tide.
The title segment creates
the roar of the sea with only three instruments: a large gong, struck
persistently, an immense drum mounted horizontally on a sculpted
platform, played from both sides, and a huge circular metal plate
that rises to a deafening roar when struck with heavily cushioned
mallets. Its relative visual stillness soothes, while the immense
volume of sound stimulates.
After the ovation the
troupe performed for an encore another men's dance, in which they
beat the tops and sides of the drums and the floor with long sticks.
Spiritual underpinnings notwithstanding, the work packs highly entertaining
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