Hong Kong Dance Company’s Vipassana more soporific than serene – no wonder some in audience walked out
‘Mindful theatre’ about the benefits of meditation was neither mindful nor theatre – the dancers mostly static, the choreography minimal, and with barely any interaction between those on stage and the live musicians
Described as “mindful theatre”, Hong Kong Dance Company’s new production, Vipassana, takes its title from an ancient Indian meditation technique which translates as “to see things as they are”. Focusing on the connection between mind and body, the technique aims to help practitioners achieve a state of peace and harmony.
The production is a collaboration between the company’s artistic director, choreographer Yang Yuntao, designer (and Himalayan singing bowls expert) Tsang Man-tung and composer Law Wing-fai, each of whom supposedly created a section reflecting his own experience of life and the benefits of meditation.
It appears that the idea was to draw the spectators into a meditative state. However, meditation is an individual pursuit – it’s hard to translate this kind of intensely personal, inner experience into a performance to be shared with an audience; and in the event, Vipassana was more soporific than serene: drawn-out and excruciatingly slow, with little happening most of the time.
It was no surprise that a number of audience members left before the end – a clear sign that tedium had set in (and something artists should bear in mind when deciding whether to run a two-hour show without an interval; at least if there’s an intermission people who can’t face staying to the end can leave discreetly).
On the plus side there were moments of great visual beauty, largely due to Zoe Cheung’s lighting and Dan Fong’s digital image design, both of which were stunning.
Another high point was the live music – the piece opens with successive solo performances by three musicians from the Wuji Soundscapes Ensemble, playing the erhu, the guzheng and the pipa respectively. Their musicianship was of the highest quality (Zhao Guanjie’s erhu playing was particularly beautiful and the combination of Chinese and Western styles – the erhu at times sounding like a violin – was fascinating).
Nonetheless, the place for such a lengthy sequence of musical solos is in the concert hall rather than the theatre. Apart from one sequence with gongs and drums, there was little or no interaction between musicians and dancers, while in some places recorded music was used rather than taking advantage of the opportunity to have live music throughout.
Vipassana doesn’t really succeed as theatre, mindful or otherwise – theatre doesn’t have to be brash but it does need to generate energy and a dynamic connection between performers and audience – nor can it be described as a dance piece.
Much of the time when the dancers were on stage they remained motionless; while stillness is an element of dance, it should act as a counterpoint to movement, not replace it.
What sequences of movement there were (apart from one outstanding solo by Huang Lei) featured choreography so simple it could easily have been performed by amateur dancers.
This was a poor use of Hong Kong Dance Company’s fine artists, and it might make more sense for this project, clearly very personal to Yang, Tung and Law, to be staged in collaboration with a local dance association, or done on a smaller scale in the Company’s “8/F Platform” series, which exists to present experimental work.
Vipassana, Hong Kong Dance Company, Hong Kong Cultural Centre Studio Theatre. Reviewed: September 8