The Eternal Tides Paints Images of Myth and Ritual

The Eternal Tides
Photo: Chin Cheng-Tsai

In her Canadian debut, celebrated Taiwanese choreographer Lin Lee-Chen brought the entrancing spectacle of The Eternal Tides to the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival. The audience was carried through a work that was as much ritual as it was performance. It was a slow conjuring, that, if you were patient, flowed with a story of birth and death and then again with renewal.   

The Eternal Tides opens with shifting white silk curtains falling the height of the theatre. Clouds or rain falling in sheets— something this city is no stranger to. As the silk sweeps side-to-side, a figure is revealed, lying furled on the stage. A dancer with ash-coloured skin, beginning to stir, while, flanking the stage, two drummers drive the rhythm forward.

The first movement is hypnotic, with dancer Wu Ming-Ching as the White Bird beginning to writhe and then contort, whipping long black hair around in a feverish circle. If this is a birth, it is an uneasy one. If it is grief, then it is a grief that gives birth to madness. It goes on, Wu whipping her hair in an arc, the drummers pounding their drums, for close to twenty minutes. This scene is a demanding one: demanding for the dancer, whose muscles flex as she whips her body, but also demanding for the audience.

Most of aren’t used to this sort of thing. The Eternal Tides is slower than we expect. The movements go on longer, the music refuses to have a chorus, and, while there are characters, there is more symbolism here than story. Many of the dances begin with figures crossing the stage in a sort of elegant, slow-moving stoop. Sometimes something momentous happens when they finally meet at centre stage and sometimes the dancers simply continue on past one another. An unhurried pace like this demands real patience. Which is hard. We’re used to checking our phones in-between streaming and skimming. Actually, if you looked around at the rows of people in the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, it was easy to spot the glow of smartphones rising like steam from an impatient audience. As one ticketholder was heard to say, “Eastern aesthetics are weird.”

In all likelihood, this pacing would seem just as slow in Taiwan. If there is one thing the modern world can’t abide it’s being slowed down, which is probably why it is something we so desperately need.

Eventually, it became easier to appreciate the measured happenings unfolding on stage, just as it becomes easier, given time, to hear all the sounds in a forest, or to appreciate the rhythmic movements of waves lapping shore. The Eternal Tides is a work replete with elements from nature. Dancers drape strands of grass over a male and female as they meet and merge. Long nails on a wane, white-powdered dancer scratch and click nightmarishly. In the most energetic movement, warriors do battle with feathers.

Lin draws from Taiwan’s rich tradition of myth and ritual and from the Pacific Ocean, with all its moods. The measured, trance-like gestures of the dancers create scenes from an ancient ceremony, lost and now regained. Their painted bodies form slow-moving sculptures. While the scenes are otherworldly, they also feel intimate and somehow familiar—warriors roaring in red paint, a ghostly, thin girl with long black hair screaming, lovers curling into sleep beneath the stalks of enormous flowers— all part of the Jungian dream-sea we are awash in.

Given the chance, the powerful aesthetic of The Eternal Tides creates an experience that can be felt universally. After the show at The Queen Elizabeth Theatre, we exited into the Vancouver streets with mythic scenes pressed, like still damp watercolours, to our minds.