On the east coast of Taiwan is a popular scenic area named Taroko Gorge, a place of majestic peaks and wooded terrain dotted with pavilions and pagodas in the manner of ancient Chinese scroll paintings. It is only when you approach these quaint structures that you realize how new they are, and how much the decorated landscape reflects a deep longing for a China lost to Taiwan except in theme-park facsimile.
This same longing shapes and colors Lin Hwai-min's "Dreamscape," a 90-minute Expressionist dance suite presented by his Cloud Gate Contemporary Dance Theatre of Taipei on Saturday at Marsee Auditorium, El Camino College.
Under the kind of pulsing light made by an electric sign a young man in contemporary shirt and slacks reaches out toward the vision of a enormous antique palace gateway, a gateway closed to him.
This opening image objectifies the tension between present and past, Westernized modern life and a lost classical Chinese culture that "Dreamscape" explores. It is a work as garish in its contrasts as Taipei itself, where you step from the venerable Dragon Mountain Temple directly into the glare of a multi-story neon Seiko billboard.
In this manner Lin juxtaposes fey scarf dances with flashy ballet steps, Peking Opera acrobatics with Graham-based modern dance, re-creations of a fabled yet oppressive heritage with depictions of rootless, dangerous life today. Both Hsu Po-yun's taped score and Lin Keh-hua's slide projections supply parallel juxtapositions and only a few lyrical interludes relieve the sense of desperate alienation.
In one vignette we see women lashing their long hair in anguish; in another, wounded men painfully unwrap their gauze bandages. Lin makes both these sequences into nightmarish extensions of the classic Chinese ribbon dance--a dance that Lin contemptuously dismisses as a mere commercial commodity elsewhere in "Dreamscape."
Lin has tackled one of the great themes of the 20th Century: the destruction of cultural identity. But though his Cloud Gate company is the first and foremost Formosan modern dance ensemble, it cannot adequately meet the daunting technical challenges he sets. It looks, in a word, sub-professional.
Thus, ironically, "Dreamscape" becomes just as overwhelmed by technology as Taipei: Because the slide/shadow shows require a gauze scrim between dancers and audience, the company always appears lost in a misty void, the choreography no more than a remote moving inscription glimpsed behind the projected images.
The dancers fling themselves into everything, but their energy never penetrates the gauze; except for the acrobatics, Lin's movement achieves no kinetic force. For all its conceptual interest, "Dreamscape" remains fatally flat as dance.
Part of the problem may be cultural conditioning. Coming from a background in which dance has traditionally been a visual art--with the ribbon dance representing a kind of calligraphy in space--many Chinese choreographers (from Choo San Goh in ballet to Angelia Leung Fisher in modern dance) have created work that seem, to some Americans, strong as design but lacking muscle-power.
For us, dance is a physical art and thus the positions that Lin abstracts from our dance traditions look strangely empty, juiceless--unless you see dance the same way that he does. In Taiwan, "Dreamscape" may be a revelation, but here it can be recommended more for study than pleasure.
Special Effects: Pina Bausch may have her faux hippo and Groupe Emile Dubois its caged white turkey but Cloud Gate can boast a wandering flock of exceptionally docile peacocks. Their unflappable elan can be savored again during the company's upcoming five-performance engagement at the Japan America Theatre, Nov. 19-24.