The Power of Full Presence

meeting-bodhisattvaIt's been said that the 20th century belonged to the West, and particularly to the United States of America, while the 21st century will belong to Asia, particularly China. If this is indeed the case - and it seems likely - then we of the falling-off empire need to know more about the Eastern world on many levels. Art is certainly one window into these Asian cultures. Right now at BAM's 2008 Next Wave Festival one can experience a stunning theatrical work from Taiwan, Meeting with Bodhisattva.

The U Theatre, directed by Liu Ruo-Yu, presents - through movement, drumming, vocal sounds, and ritual - a compelling 80-minute performance marked by commitment, discipline, and synchronization.

I missed seeing the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, but I heard it was amazing in its numbers and its precision, that it was a visual experience of extreme power and beauty, and that it was peculiarly Chinese that one simply couldn't get five thousand people to move simultaneously in the West. Where we Westerners have valued, and perhaps overvalued, individualism and self-expression, the Chinese value group dynamics and the suppression of ego. This is not simply a question of being a large Communist nation, since both the Japanese and the South Koreans also believe in repressing obvious ego for the greater good of the family, clan, or larger community.

Of course I am over-simplifying here, but my point is that we in the West really have a very different mind set from most Asians, and we need to start to comprehend them on a deeper level as the global culture continues to emerge. Viewing a work such as Meeting with Bodhisattva is a way to begin this mental and spiritual task. The piece is both passionate and aloof, impressive yet unemotional.

In her program notes, the director and creator, Ruo-Yu, writes, "Its choreography challenges its performers to achieve, through a rigorous rehearsal schedule, a state of being without emotion. Rather than losing themselves to the performance, the cast is asked to maintain a clear mind, to stay in perfect time with the rhythm, and to be attuned to their environment."

What we see on stage is thirteen men and women moving through highly stylized paces, always in sync with each other. They perform a variety of dance gestures, often with long martial arts-type sticks, and they play drums of various sizes, as well as a couple of cymbals.

There are six sections of the work, which involves the enactment on a symbolic level of Buddhist concepts involving the human movement towards enlightenment: passing from the state of samsara (daily suffering) to nirvana (bliss). It is not exactly storytelling, but rather musical and physical expressions of the warrior's path.

The set is simple, but strong. The costumes keep to a limited palette of colors (mostly brown, maroon, and other muted earth tones; no blues or greens at all). Where the power occurs is in the strength and discipline of the performers, with the drumming being particularly compelling. The music director Huang Chih-Chun has made powerful choices in shaping the piece and must share creative credit with Rao-Yu. Interestingly, both Rao-Yu and Chih-Chun have studied and worked in the West, so their vision has been shaped by Jerzy Grotowski and Western dance, as well as by India, Tibet and their own native Taiwan.

Often in Western dance companies, even when the costumes are essentially similar, there will be minor variations in the form of color differences, or a slightly varied garment, or dancers having different hairstyles. Here there is no variation: one costume for any group, one hairstyle for all the women. It is not about individuals. Something deeper and more mysterious is being performed for us.

The only individualistic touch is the dancer who enters early on wearing an elaborate mask, which he removes at another early point. At the end of the evening, a female figure brings him back the mask; he sees it but doesn't take it, perhaps representing the idea that he has completed the warrior's journey through life, confronted various conflicts, let duality melt away, and is now ready at the end to begin the true path of the Bodhisattva (the enlightened one).

Ultimately Meeting with Bodhisattva says: Rid your mind of impurity. Relinquish the duality that divides thought and action. The path to wisdom involves letting go. It's worth the trip to Brooklyn. - Victoria Sullivan

There are two remaining performances of a Meeting with Bodhisattva: Oct. 31 and Nov. 1, both at 7:30 PM Howard Gilman Opera House, 30 Lafayette Ave., Brooklyn victoria.jpg

Ms. Sullivan is a poet and playwright who lives in Manhattan and has a little cabin outside of Woodstock, NY. When not brooding, she is generally traveling, writing, or staring at the trees. She also loves to laugh.