By Dr. Wong Oi Min
My Calling My Act, My Stage is being marked as a return to the stage of performer and choreographer Loi Chin Yu after a four-year hiatus following his departure from the Nyoba Dance Theatre group over creative differences. It was a period during which Loi gave priority to a practical matter – earning a living – rather than presenting a production of his own.
Loi denies that he has been away from art, however. He remained active teaching art and worked as a critically acclaimed designer during his break from the stage. He realized then that dancing has always been a method of healing for him and performing on stage enabled him to maintain his spiritual balance.
A return to the stage was, therefore, not merely a desire, but also an act of necessity. The artist made this inevitable return to the stage with My Calling, held at KLPac from 2 – 4 May 2008.
A Ritual Opening
From the start, the notion of healing and spirituality is made explicit with the altar Loi creates on stage. At the ringing of bells, a Taoist ‘priest’ emerges, like a figure from another time-space and enters this altar. It becomes obvious as he wanders around the stage to the sound of jingling bell that the altar is not simply a religious accoutrement, transplanted onto the stage, but an arena where life is lived and fought out.
Starting with the ceremonial opening act – he draws a sword, waving it in the air and stabs into a piece of wood – the sequence of performances leads to the performer undergoing a kind of possession. He removes the clothes from his upper body, puts his tongue out exposing the beast while beating his chest violently. In the end, a pillar of light shines on him as if he is being blocked. I could see the performer confronting the solicitude and evils which inhabit his body and mind, suffocating him.
Then comes liberation, made possible by offering himself drastically to the Deity in actions inspired by traditional rituals: sacrificing his blood by cutting his wrist; beating his chest until it burned red, while chanting.
Finding the Art
Most of the performing arts in Asia, and indeed in other parts of the world, are said to be derived from religious rituals that related to everyday life – ensuring a good harvest, exorcising evil spirits for healing and the like. Undoubtedly, Loi himself is inspired by the philosophy of Taoism, and in My Calling, he takes the form of Taoist rituals to construct his performance. However, it would be meaningless to pursue the elements of ritual and movement as they are observed within the primary practice of Taoism and merely reproduce them meticulously in the choreography of an artistic work.
For instance, Loi adopts red as the staple colour tone for this piece. Red conventionally represents passion or fierceness. A Taoist priest does not wear red in traditional practice. A Taoist priest dressed in red would be read as a symbol of hatred, an act meant to pay off someone’s grudge in Chinese traditional belief.
In My Calling, when Loi manifests himself as a Taoist priest, reimagined and recreated as a figure draped in red, he imbues the ritual role of priest with a new significance – that of the artist burning himself to seek rebirth.
Sound, Light and Action
My heart vibrated to the rousing music entitled Ghost in the Shell by Kenji Kawai, from the soundtrack of an acclaimed Japanese anime. While the percussions played in traditional Taoist rituals are simply a repetition of certain rhythms, the nature of this song, which seems to envision a deep universe full of mystery, helped Loi in performing the ceremonial act.
Loi is a well-respected set designer, and has netted several nominations as well as a BOH Cameronian Arts Award, in 2006, for Best Set Design in Istana Budaya’s “Emas Sepuluh”. Here, his collaboration with the lighting designer Lim Ang Swee is stunning. The measures of lights shining from all around (top-down-front-back-both sides) in addition to the hot red colors were very bold. Flashes of lightning from time to time emerged, creating the image of interlocking time and space. I believe the combination of the bold lighting design and the rousing music created a powerful sense of wonder and astonishment amongst many in the audience.
After violent actions of fighting and offerings in the ceremonial act, a mirror ball was lowered. Light shining upon it built up an atmosphere of being in water. The music, a track entitled Follow Me from the same soundtrack, was calming, somehow evoking a touch of loneliness. The song lasted for about five minutes. The lighting gradually changed. This act was completely an illumination show.
Moving the Audience
Loi’s concept of creating this piece by exploring the ceremonial act of Taoism, recalled to me the cultural properties of Korea. One is Salp’uri Ch’um derived from the ritual of shamanism to drive out evil and devils. Another is S’um Mu based on the Buddhism spirit that expresses sufferings and sorrows of life. The physical movement/actions that are created do express the spirit, as mentioned. The quality of a ritual in a temple is raw and vivid. Devotees, or even mere observers who are present can be spiritually, even physically moved if the dancer is competent to reach a state of trance.
However, while Loi envisages a spiritual balancing through the sequences of physical movements, My Calling does not achieve the same level of spirituality I’ve observed in Salp’uri Ch’um, for example. While there is sophisticated use of colour and forms, it does not leave the audience with a spiritually moving experience.
Overall, My Calling was aesthetically beautiful and not completely void in content. Consequently, I would say it was a sharing of merely one part of Loi’s life journey in the form of a performance. What Loi tried to convey was not entirely satisfactory in this 40-minute solo performance. It would have been more challenging if Loi could have explored further how to incarnate his realisation of life through physical movement instead of relying too much on the exhibition of physical stage techniques.
First Published: 05.06.2008 on Kakiseni