broken wing (butoh dance theatre)

A break from the trails and a foray into the tails.

Last Monday was the washed-out last day of Dragon Boat Festival and with nothing better to do, I decided we should go to visit Taipei’s Treasure Hill Artist Village. In most areas I’ve adapted to Taipei life, but the one thing that still bothers me, still has me occasionally hankering for my old life in Hong Kong, is the apparent lack of a similarly dynamic art scene. In Hong Kong it felt like there was a different film festival every month, there was a big annual cultural festival with all manner of performances on offer, an art festival (which actually I didn’t really like all that much), an interesting photography gallery (Blindspot Gallery) and a variety of other, smaller, more niche things going on. It took me about 8 months to find my way into all that, so I figured that it would take me a little less time in Taiwan – it would be the second time going through the same experience and I would have Teresa as my local aid. I was wrong.

I have felt like I’m perpetually looking in all the wrong places. Either the type of art isn’t interesting, or English information isn’t available. Or it’s interesting and English information is available, but it’s a performance of film in a language other than English and without subtitling (Hong Kong was also pretty ace at subtitling everything, you can buy tickets to pretty much any film safe in the knowledge that it’ll be subtitled, plays too, the only time I saw something without subtitles, it was a site-specific performance in an old industrial building which would have been logistically difficult to add subtitles to). Or perhaps I found relevant information about a performance or show I’d like to see, but I found it only after the event. So, in my latest attempt to open the door a crack, we headed to the artist village to see what was on offer.

As it turned out, there wasn’t very much. The houses were cute, it would make a lovely arts community if all the studios were in use, but it seemed like only two residencies were in progress at the time, and (possibly because it was a holiday), almost all of the gallery spaces or workshops were shut.

However, what I did manage to do was to pick up a whole load of leaflets for performances and exhibitions. I don’t think the flyer for Broken Wing Butoh Dance Theatre was one of them, but they led me to it.

Actually there were a number of performances to choose from this weekend (from famine to feast…), it seems like one or more of Taiwan’s arts festivals is gearing up to go, so perhaps I just arrived here in art winter and we’re only just getting to the spring. We watched trailers for two different performances. One was a mixed bill of dances around the themes of metamorphosis and change, the other was this. The trailer was a brief, hard to decipher 30 seconds of flickering text, ominous chanting and unnerving visuals. I could tell it was either going to be something really strange or something really disappointing.

We arrived at Guling Street Avant Guarde Theatre early in the pouring rain and waited in the lobby for the performance to start. Immediately the place felt like somewhere that interesting things happen. It had the aura of creative places I’ve visited in other countries and started it filling up with people who seemed like they knew where to go to have a good evening.

When the performance was about to start, the gathered crowd of about twenty or so were led out of the lobby in the rain to the second floor performance area via an outside, wooden staircase. I was going into this totally ignorant of butoh and what to expect, so when we entered the sheltered roof top space to see a figure, crouched in white robes, face obscured, the only visible human skin was toes unnervingly gripping the breeze block it was seated on, my first impression was of something out of a Japanese horror movie. (After since researching a little about the art form it seems that my cultural connection was backwards but valid since the movements of those horrifying ghosts in movies like The Ring and The Grudge were in part informed by butoh movement styles and shapes.)

The first section/movement/act (I’m not sure what to call it) was by far the most horrific. When everyone had assembled, the performer, (Vinci Mok), began by raising her head, face painted white, eyes rolled back to show the whites, mouth opening in what was either a pained grimace or insane smile. As she stood up it became clear that the garment she was wearing was fashioned out of the type of white plastic sack that you can buy large quantities of flour or rice in and bubble wrap. And more disturbingly it was revealed that there was a pig’s head hidden under her dress, between her legs on the floor, attached to her by a red ribbon. What I had felt to be almost comic grotesque took an unpleasantly repulsive turn. She moved along a corridor on the floor which was demarcated by things that I’d initially taken to be small fixed lights, but which on closer inspection turned out to be toy tanks, her movements seeming pained, torturous, at turns like the muscles were fighting to control her and then like she was fighting to control them. It looked like a laborious process, and genuinely painful, there was real tension in every action. As she advanced up the corridor clumps of flour fell from her dress and the ribbon connecting her to the pig’s head became taught until eventually the head was dragged, tipping to reveal what I sensed many of us had been wondering, poised in hopeful disbelief: yes, it was real. At the furthest extent of the ribbon she twisted back, bending, contorting, the flour and the rainwater congealing on her feet, and then she put her face to the floor to pick up the ribbon with her mouth. It was around this point that I started feeling the visceralness of it and thinking how exciting it must be to give over yourself over to that and embrace it. As she returned to where she’d started she trod on a few of the tanks, it seemed accidental, she stayed confined by them. A hand emerged, as if coming out of a chrysalis or other sort of pod from the neck hole, sbe bent face to the ground again, close enough to kiss the pig, returning to a crouching position with the pig’s face grasped, dangling just below her own face, like a vile mask about to be worn. She came up towards us, between us again, this time pushing the confines of the tanks so I started to doubt that treading on them before was accidental. This was the moment I felt most fearful, she infringed on personal space, getting just a little to close to the audience who had foolishly felt protected by toy tanks. It seemed unpredictable. A door to the indoor performance area opened and she moved towards it, let out a horrible laugh and leered at us from the doorway like a horrible parody of a licentious mad woman. For a moment I thought we would have to file past her and her still dangling pig head but she entered the room and the rest of us followed.

I’m aware that I’ve used a whole lot of quite negative descriptive adjectives but that’s not to say that my overall feeling was negative. There is something utterly compelling about the grotesque baseness of it. It felt grounded in a raw physicality that I know I’ve experienced but which I’m not sure I’ve always embraced. I don’t knew if others have the same reaction, but when I see that, I can’t help but imagine sensations of it. What must it feel like to have flour and water mixed to a paste between your bare feet and rough concrete, how much does it hurt to hold your face contorted, how long does it take for the feeling of repulsion at having a raw pig’s face centimetres from your own to subside, how is it that emotional states force themselves out in bodily expressions.

As the performance progressed there were moments of humour, grace and plenty of political overtones, a loop of a song about the sun over Beijing set to a video of the artist putting things in her mouth, a section where she filled her mouth with spent bullets, the world famous scene of a protestor standing up to tanks in Tiananmen Square played out as she removed them one by one, her face wet from either tears or sweat, and umbrellas featured at the end, a yellow one left untouched, but present and one stripped of its fabric with fire burning on the spokes – given that Vinci hails from Hong Kong I couldn’t avoid thinking that it was a reference to the more recent protests there, the ‘umbrella revolution’. She ended with a speech in Cantonese before leaving down the stairs in the rain.

I can honestly say that I’d never seen anything like it, and as was Teresa’s summary: I’m not sure if I enjoyed it but it was very exciting.

There was a meet-the-artist Q&A session afterwards, but as always with these things I never have any questions in the moment. They only come later after a period of reflection. Anyway, I was thoroughly glad that I took a chance on this, it introduced me to an art form I am keen to learn more about.

what: Broken Wing by Butoh Dance Theatre / 《斷翅飛翔》舞踏演出

who: Vinci Mok / 莫潁詩

where: Guling Street Avant Guard Theatre


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