WHEN THE LIGHTS slowly go up, we become aware of a single beam. Its narrow ray, we come to realize, illuminates a glowing flute of falling rice, descending, as if from a narrow portal in the sky, upon the head of a standing, statue-like monk, praying, perhaps for this blessing of the stuff of life. There emerges from the shadows of the stage a dozen or so figures…wanderers. They move with agonizing slowness, as if underwater, or as if the air is clogged with the burden of living. They carry long tree-like staffs: a moving forest. It is another element (the rice, the rain, the light, the forest) to complete an entire world, a dreamscape, magically panoramaed on the Sadlers Welles stage.
Songs of Wanderers, a dance performance from the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan really offers very little ‘dance’. For one thing, the principal performer – the monk – imbuing, as he does, the zen-like calm of the piece, never moves. The others sometimes either writhe in stiff contortions of agony, like upended insects, or drift, like dreams across the rice carpeted stage. From time to time a lone figure with a long squeegee type broom tries to part or clear or make a pattern – an understanding – in the drifts of golden rice – a Sisyphean task as the rain of rice – that bounty of heaven, perhaps in response to the suffering needy – never stops. His futile sweep and the footsteps of the performers on the rice create odd, abstract patterns, as if they were bent on leaving memories…some visual trace of existence.
There is no linear narrative in this piece of Zen meditation. The meditation – the unfolding of life – expresses itself over a few key ‘chapters’. First there is life, the rice descending upon the monk, the god. The emergence of the staffs that become forests morph into rods that encourage a sort of courtship and copulation…a union of bodies; that morph into protective enclosures. Perhaps the agonies that follow are the agonies of birth or of life itself. But they are balanced by the joyfulness of rice scattering abandon…of rice filled abundance. From the darkness emerges figures bearing bowls of fire – the final essential element from which the rice of the heavens is converted into food. And life.
At the end of the piece, after the performers have taken their bows, the sweeper continues his task. In ever widening swirls, he moulds from the rice (three tons of it) a meditative zen garden of widening circles…eradicating the past, obliterating the -futile- movements of the performers, leaving only a record of stillness and a sense, after all the wandering and agony, of harmony and of peace.