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Sun Shang-chi

'Uphill'

by David Mead

March 8, 2013 -- Experimental Theater, National Theater, Taipei

The lights go up to reveal a stark, bare stage. Towards to front, and off to one side, a man lays motionless on the floor. So begins “Uphill”, Sun Shang-chi’s latest work, commissioned specially by the National Chiang Kai-Shek Cultural Center for this year’s Taiwan International Arts Festival.

Slowly, very, very slowly, he comes to life and is joined by another. Dancers David Essing and Ross Martinson then embark on a conversation in movement, although much of the time it seems more like an argument. Their duet is full of fast flowing, sweeping limbs that arc through the space become a metaphor for words. It is hugely effective. It also turned out to be the high spot of the evening.

Into this world, and adding complexity to it, comes Sun himself. The dance that follows is often again sharp and aggressive, again reflecting provocation and argument. Gestures are made and limbs move at high speed. All three dancers were quite excellent. The physicality, clarity of movement and partnering was exceptional. Yet, it often seemed too much. This sounds an odd thing to say with only three dancers, but there were times when it seemed too busy.

The dynamic between the dancers changes often and there are slower sections when trust and dependency are to the fore. What was missing, on this occasion at least and especially from these more contemplative moments, was much in the way of tension or feeling. Although the movement itself could be appreciated easily, it appeared largely devoid of meaning. That may have been as much to do with Jörg Rotzenhoff’s unmelodious, harsh and strident score as anything else. If you can imagine a fire alarm going off backed by the constant and intense throbbing of industrial machinery, you are starting to get close. The cacophony blasted away at the audience for the whole hour save a short respite after about forty minutes. It went on for so long, with only marginal changes in tone, that far from ramping up the emotional impact, it had the reverse effect and numbed the senses to the dance and circumstances unfolding on stage. As if the score was not annoying enough, Sun also treats his audience to a lengthy period of strobe lighting. Again, far from adding to matters it took away, and in fact became so bad I covered my eyes.

The position of some of the dance was also an issue. One section, lasting several minutes, took place extremely close to the front row. So close, that unless you were sitting in the front few rows, it was impossible to see what was happening. It was so bad that those at the back stood up; not something your audience should find necessary.

According to the programme, “Uphill” is all a game of hide and seek; and to an extent that is visible. The dancers are both the question and the answer. They are the obstacle to resolving matters and the means by which they should be resolved. It is an excellent premise, but unfortunately it too much of the time it failed to communicate.

Having been very impressed with Sun’s work previously, perhaps I expected too much, but “Uphill” left me disappointed, more than anything else.

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