Abstract, expressive dance commonly seeks some kind of enlightenment. Butoh, for example, is often credited for changing lives with its agonizingly slow movement and grimaces. More difficult-to-categorize performance art has similar goals—if I may use a word as deliberate as “goal.”
Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan, presented by White Bird, abides by a similar rule, although perhaps more overtly. The company’s performance of founder Lin Hwai-min’s signature work Songs of the Wanderers, inspired by the enlightenment of the Buddha himself, is White Bird’s big get for the season. The lofty premise, coupled with 3 1/2 tons of rice poured on the stage, packed the Keller Auditorium for a one-night show on Tuesday.
The show begins with what will become an hourlong endurance of Taiwanese rice torture. A monk, dressed in white, stands downstage right, a stream of golden rice pouring on his head. He remains there for the entire show, his face eventually covered with rice powder as grains bounce off his bald head. The stream was steady, except for once when it momentarily dried up, making me wonder if someone was in the rafters opening boxes of Uncle Ben’s.
Elsewhere on stage, performers walk in slow motion, dressed in peasant garb and carrying long crooked staffs. Tiny bells tied to the staffs' tips ring out faintly over prayerful Georgian folk chants. The movement is often formless: turned-in feet and contorted bodies (my friend said it looked like The Grudge), but the dancers are capable of doing more. In moments of energy, they thrash their muscular bodies, as if being tortured, slinging rice around the stage. A group of men flagellate themselves with leafed branches. One man is nearly buried in an avalanche of rice from the ceiling, after which he violently flops and jumps, finally resting with his arm outstretched to the monk in agony.
The entire piece has an air of suffering, a penance for enlightenment. For some in the audience, that was too much to ask: A handful of couples started leaving around the 45-minute mark. They missed the payoff at the end, a crescendo of chants and a joyous rice downpour. Despite that, honestly, I found myself bored most of the time. Working toward enlightenment is tricky; when I drift off, I can’t tell if it’s toward a higher plane or somewhere else I’d rather be. Lin wrote in the director’s notes that “Buddha was an ordinary mortal who also endured human confusion and struggle.” If that’s true, Buddha and I have something in common.