Zen and the art of chilling out

Taiwanese U-Theatre's multi-arts piececelebrates calmness, writes Janice Leung

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 October, 2012, 4:13pm

In 2008, members of U-Theatre of Taiwan embarked on "a walk" that lasted 50 days and covered 1,200 kilometres - about three-quarters of the island's total coastline.

They trekked seven to 10 hours a day and, after about a month, while strolling through the city of Taitung, they started to notice different sounds of nature: the chirping birds, the blowing wind, the ebb and flow of the tide.

"It was all about letting go and returning to the moment. When we walked, we paid full attention to our feet and toes," says Huang Chih-chun, music director of U-Theatre.

"When we focus ourselves and unite with the moment, we reach a state of inner calmness and emptiness, and time disappears … There is no idea from the past, no projection to the future, and nothing to worry about in the present."

This epic excursion became a source of inspiration for the troupe's Beyond Time, a multi-arts programme billed as "a timeless journey in celebration of the awe-inspiring moments in life".

The spiritual piece fuses thunderous drumming, sacred dance, martial arts, nomad singing and multimedia projection, and will open this year's New Vision Arts Festival on Friday and Saturday at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre Grand Theatre.

Compared with U-Theatre's previous touring productions - Sound of the Ocean (1998) and Meeting with Bodhisattva (2002) - Beyond Time, which took four years to develop, attempts to connect with audiences more directly.

"It's about searching for peace of mind in our everyday lives," says Liu Ruo-yu, founder and artistic director of the troupe.

For the husband-and-wife team of Huang and Liu, the key to tranquillity is to go "beyond time" - or be free of the burdens that come with time.

"Our lives are very much organised, arranged and controlled by time. We are always told to do certain things at certain times," Liu says, adding that the current prevalence of smartphones makes us even more restless. "We used to wait until we were home to get connected to the internet, so we had time to have a break. But now, all our time is eaten up by our mobile phones."

Liu says everyone has the ability to escape from time, but it's hard to achieve this because we are too busy. "Only when we calm ourselves, only when we stop and let go, are we able to discover another [dimension]." She cites one example: when our minds are quiet and still, we are able to hear sounds we don't normally notice.

All five scenarios in Beyond Time - whether it's standing under a sudden, heavy downpour; pondering the reflection of the moon in a pool of water; swirling the body to enter into contemplation; having a dream about a funeral without a coffin; or listening to an extremely low-pitched, elemental "om" sound - take the onlooker out of their current dimension.

Liu likens the mode of existence beyond time to "living in the moment" in Buddhist thought. "Once our thinking stops, the world becomes so large."

The influence of Buddhism on U-Theatre's productions can be traced back to 1993, when the Malaysian-born Huang travelled to India for the first time: he met a Zen master next to the Ganges and studied with him for half a year.

"I didn't do much then. Every day I just walked in the moment, ate and slept in the moment, meditated in the moment. I trained myself to see and hear with total concentration. That's it," he says.

"It's actually very hard to let go of the past, the present and the future all at once. So I just practised this over and over during those six months."

Feeling enlightened, Huang - who has a background in drumming and martial arts - joined U-Theatre later that year, developing with Liu an original repertoire described by The Times as "a synthesis of theatre, percussion, martial arts and meditation".

Their productions have since travelled to such international events as the Festival d'Avignon in France and appeared at the Barbican Centre in London.

Since its inception in 1988, U-Theatre has been based at Laochuan Mountain near Taipei, where they create and introduce their productions (they operate an open theatre there). For five days a week, around 20 disciplined members/performers come to the hillside residence to practise tai chi, martial arts and percussion, as well as meditate and rehearse.

Huang says artistic skill has to be practised on a daily basis: "You can't call upon it on the stage whenever you want it."

Liu agrees and acknowledges her debt to the one-year masterclass given by Polish theatre director Jerzy Grotowski in 1985, which she attended after finishing her master's degree in theatre arts at New York University. It was then that she began to understand that life and art are one.

"Grotowski taught us to perform through our understanding of life. He was the first one who motivated me to explore life through my performances. We were trained not to perform as someone else, but as ourselves," Liu says.

"That's why our performances are real moments in life - they're not about playing a role, they're not an illusion."

For their eighth performance in Hong Kong this week, U-Theatre will not only be staging their experiences of being "outside of time", but also the most complete version of Beyond Time, refined since its premiere at the National Theatre in Taipei last year. Dramatic elements have been added, the influence of technology minimised.

"Even Taiwanese audiences have not seen this version before," Liu says, adding that for U-Theatre, a performance is never an end in itself - but a part of a creative life journey that is still continuing.


Beyond Time, Oct 19-20, 7.30pm. HK Cultural Centre Grand Theatre. Tickets: HK$160 to HK$460. Inquiries: 2734 2009