What do you get when you cross a Chinese folktale with video and dance? In the case of Soul Leaves Her Body, a joint creation of director Peter Flaherty and director/choreographer Jennie MaryTai Liu, the result is an inspired meditation on loss and belonging. The seventy-five minute production is divided into three segments. The first, Ancient Story, a dance theater piece choreographed by Liu, provides an abbreviated telling of the original tale: an overambitious mother fails to recognize the depths of her daughter’s passion. As the daughter, Liu wears a beige dress so light it almost looks like crepe paper. Costume designer Wendy Yang Bailey dresses her suitor (Sean Donovan) and mother (Leslie Cuyjet) with a similar attention to lightness and minimalism; the costumes evoke age and status, while their pale, earthy hues are subtle and soft.
Color is added, instead, by video, designed by Austin Switser. Projected onto giant panels behind the actors, each onstage character has a video counterpart (Wai Ching Who, Rachel Lin, Howah Hung) dressed in a brightly colored, traditional Chinese costume. Set against sharp white backgrounds, their white face paint streaked with pinks and blues, the characters’ introductory video images resemble contemporary fashion shoots. That raises cool questions about how these folk characters function. What, exactly, do they model?
Onstage, the three performers deftly execute minimalist choreography and simple, expository text with a quiet intensity, evocative of the energies that pulse beneath the protagonist’s surface passivity. At times, the choreography and design elements converge to create textured tension, as when, ever so slowly, the young women and her suitor dance past one another. Projected onscreen behind them, two sets of hands exchange an inky note. Brandon Walcott’s sound design underscores the moment with music that sounds like a heartbeat.
The middle portion of the triptych-like production, Contemporary Story, consists almost entirely of film. Written and directed by Flaherty, and set in contemporary Hong Kong, the filmed segment of Soul Leaves Her Body follows three siblings as they struggle to make ends meet – and, tellingly, to find a home. Whereas her siblings (Suetmann Wong and Leslie Ho) play fast and loose, running scams and running away from them, Yan Yan (again, Liu) is more pensive, preferring alone time on the family’s rundown boat to the bustle of the city. Flaherty’s film is heavy on both starling close-ups (the garish pink and green of a mahjong table; the teeth of someone talking on the phone) as well breathtaking panoramic views of the Hong Kong cityscape, bolstering the production’s sense of dislocation.
In the final segment of Soul Leaves Her Body, the stylized performance conventions of the earlier pieces give way to a dramatic exchange more typical of black box realism (Liu and Wai Ching Ho discuss shared cultural histories and lost loves) despite the fact that Improvisation on Ancient Themes, by Xu Xi, is arguably the least realistic scene of any in the production. Exactly how these two women come to speak to each other is never clearly elucidated, though haunting matrilineal powers seem to have something to do with it. Unfortunately, drained of the performative conventions (dance, video, film) which so effectively gird the earlier pieces, this concluding segment falters, and the production’s power gets lost.
Until that point, the production is an exemplar not only of the rich textures created by skillful interdisciplinary collaboration but of the dynamic possibilities ancient stories offer to contemporary artists.