Soul Leaves Her Body
nytheatre.com review by Ed Malin
November 6, 2010
Soul Leaves Her Body, a collaboration between video artist Peter Flaherty and dance theater artist Jennie MaryTai Liu, is a performance piece based on a 13th century Chinese play featuring movement, text, and video. The co-creators have woven together the source material with a contemporary story.
Incidentally, there is currently a wonderful exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art about Chinese Art during the (Mongol) Yuan Dynasty, when the original play was written. At that time, the Confucian moralists who had always prevented theatre from growing as an art form were eliminated. The work created in the 13th century featured dance, songs, and often brutal stories or veiled criticisms of contemporary politics, and evolved into the beloved Beijing Opera and Hong Kong Opera traditions. "The Soul of Ch'ien-Nu Leaves Her Body" by Cheng Teh-Hui was one such story about a young woman betrothed to a man who must go to the capital to take the civil service examinations. Despondent, the young woman rips her soul from her body and sends it to accompany the man and preserve their love. Fortunately, he falls in love with her soul and takes it back with him to meet her parents.
Soul Leaves Her Body opens with the original text. The actors on stage wear modern dress, while behind them is projected video of actors in traditional Chinese costumes. Through expressive movement and spare, effective props such as trees (both on stage and on video), they tell the story of the young couple and their parting. The show then morphs into a contemporary story of a young woman in Hong Kong. The video here of the harbor and of escapades and chase scenes is just fascinating. We end up with a dialogue between the young woman and an older woman about their disappointments with deceiving men.
The video portion of the show, which is projected on clear panels variously opened and closed behind the live actors, succeeds admirably. Austin Switzer's video and Scott Hirsch's film sound, with the music of Lucky Dragons and compositions from Brandon Wolcott, transport the audience to another world. As in Yuan Drama the singing and dancing interludes interrupt the story to bring out interior states. Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew's lighting mixes with Peter Ksander's minimalist sets to spotlight the characters' feelings. Wendy Yang Bailey's costumes, encompassing the traditional and modern, show that this is a timeless story. Jennie MaryTai Liu's choreography is not the strongest part of the show but does serve to give the feeling of longing and separation.
I think all the actors in this piece are very strong, considering that they are not using any of the acrobatic conventions of this kind of theatre but only their quiet presence.