REVIEW: 歸屬 Gui Shu (Belong) | PICA, Performing Lines WA and Steamworks

Hsiao-Tzu Tien, Image by Emma Fishwick

歸屬 Gui Shu (Belong)

PICA and Performing Lines WA

12 November 2019

One of Perth’s sister cities since 1999 is Taipei, Taiwan, and this relationship has fostered a four-year, multi-disciplinary, international artistic collaboration that culminates in a dance theatre performance currently seeing its world premiere at Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts (PICA) called 歸屬 Gui Shu (Belong)I had the privilege of attending the preview night of the show’s week-long season that runs from 12 – 16 November, and spent an hour or so locked in the fascinating, rich world that this eclectic group of artists has created.

The performance space is surrounded on three sides by seating, the normal riser seating plus two rows on the floor either side of the stage. Six or so scrims hang at intervals inside the space, upon which are projected a static image of an apartment balcony with clothes hanging to dry; the image gets larger and more blurred on each successive scrim. On the floor are a few smooth rounded stones that become props once the performers emerge from the darkness. Laura Boynes, Yilin Kong, Yiching Liao and Hsiao-Tzu Tien are each clothed in a monochromatic outfit with a full-length black gauze pinafore overlaid, their hair arranged in a single braid.

There is a pleasing continuity through the set and costume design by Tyler Hill, with the film and photographic creations by Ashley de Prazer also adding another aspect of visual harmony. And of course, last but never least in terms of vision, is the lighting design by Chris Donnelly, who assists in creating a range of atmospheres with design that eschews (presumably mostly due to the logistics of a 3/4 round set-up) the side lighting more commonly used in contemporary dance. In terms of the aural tapestry of the work, we are treated to live music by Yenting Hsu and Tristen Parr. From my vantage point I couldn’t see what Hsu was using, but I noted Parr making good use of an amplified cello throughout the performance from behind the rear scrim.

The pair of musicians and the quartet of dancers seemed to merge in energy and spirit, to the point where I let myself ponder whether the musicians were taking their cues from the dancers or vice versa. In works that unfold without a clear meter, classical phrasing or repetitive sequences, I wonder just how musicians and dancers keep up with one another. I can only conclude that at the exceptional level that these six artists demonstrate, it’s a matter of finely attuned awareness and a depth of experience. In fact, looking at the entire creative team on this piece, these characteristics are apparent across the board.

Thematically speaking, the idea of belonging is explored in many facets in the work. We see the performers acting as individuals, in pairs and in the group of four. They start out as separate entities, but eventually merge into a kind of single organism, with the notion of personal space completely thrown out. If I had to describe the first part of the performance in one word, I would call it ‘elemental’ as it evoked for me forces of nature: air, fire, water and earth. One bit of ‘choreography’ that surprised me with its elemental simplicity was the unfurling of the women’s hair, which when let loose, became a swirling, whirling symbol of tumult and turbulence.

The middle section didn’t play as well for me; it began with an audio recording of these four women from different backgrounds having a conversation about each other’s social and linguistic differences and similarities, replete with giggles. It then moved into a karaoke interlude, which I feel I’ve been seeing a fair bit of in works over the past year or two, so it didn’t take me by surprise in the way I think might have been intended. I sense the artists wanted to lighten the mood and step away from the ‘contemporary dance’ box for a bit, but I had trouble getting on board for this part of the piece.

The third part took us away from the elemental feel of the first part as we touched down deep inside the lonely, mechanised world of the city. The imagery projected on the movable scrims (which are hung from tracks on the ceiling and were moved about by the performers) showed us visions of the constant flow of people and cars moving from one place to another, and repetitive shapes found on the facades of skyscrapers. The women once again start out in separate spheres, eventually merging into a small confined area of the stage, with the notion of personal space completely violated. I saw myself in their movements, trying to avoid touching one another, the way I do in a crowd. By the end, the last woman standing (or dancing, as it were) is completely overwhelmed and subsumed by this unnatural world of endless mechanical flow.

I think we are really lucky to observe this conversation between Taiwanese and Australian artists, to know that we perhaps share the same anxieties about moving around in this world: where we belong and who with, feeling the ghosts of our pasts all around and within us, and perhaps even touching on our fear of being blown and swept away by a ferocious natural force. I hope that this wonderful collaboration will reach its way into audiences’ minds and senses, the way it did into mine.

CICELY BINFORD

For tickets and more information visit the PICA website here.

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