Hypnotic look at time from the outside

A Chinese drum dance is usually a chirpy and colourful affair but Taiwan's U-Theatre, known for combining drumming, meditation and martial arts, presents a sombre contemplation on the human relationship with time.

At times hypnotic and at other times frenetic, the 75-minute show invites the audience to stand outside time, to dissect its mechanics.

In one scene, dancers raise their arms above their heads and turn around slowly as music chimes. It is almost like a wound-up music box.

In another, a solo dancer, looking like a monk pugilist, repeatedly draws a circle with a long rod, like the circling of clock hands and the unwinding of time.

The procession of time, as depicted here, is unceasing and unrelenting. And neat too, like the tidy tempo of the drums and gongs played.

What are human beings to make of our limited time on earth? Are we meant to transcend time?


Beyond Time is a production of shadows, reflections and cosmic space, and of substance and the void. PHOTO: THE ESPLANADE

  • REVIEW / DANCE

  • BEYOND TIME

    U-Theatre (Taiwan)

    Esplanade Theatre/Last Saturday

Such are the questions swirling around this production of shadows, reflections and cosmic space, and of substance and the void.

U-Theatre, set up in 1988 by its artistic director Liu Ruo-yu and featuring master drummer and music director Huang Chih-chun, is known for its rigour and discipline. The group is based on a mountain on the outskirts of Taipei and the members learn to meditate and be still before picking up rhythm and percussion.

During last Saturday's show, a drummer loses control of a drum stick for a moment. But the performers, in grey or white robes, are otherwise a picture of strength and elegance.

As the programme mentions, the performers execute actions drawn from ancient religious dances, found by Armenian philosopher George Gurdjieff, that encode the movement of the planets and other concepts.

Drumming is about precise control over time, but there are moments when it feels as if time has burst its banks. For example, a scene depicts the flow of time through the centuries with cries of laughter and a shifting backdrop, as sound and space dissolve and fuse. In another scene, an eclipse makes it hard to tell time, as night and day merge.

Liu plays a sage-like figure in a flowing white robe, reciting verses such as "Time and space have met up for tea" and "In the stars' gaze, one glimpse is a millennium", amid the strumming of a guzheng or zither.

It brings to mind a classic scene in a Chinese ink painting: time stands still on a cloud-swathed peak as one sips tea and contemplates the world in a mustard seed.

Living in the moment, knowing when to let go: this poetic, meditative performance awakes in audiences a yearning for a mindful state free from time's shackles.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 15, 2016, with the headline 'Hypnotic look at time from the outside'. Print Edition | Subscribe