Thanks to a friend’s invitation, I attended Iphigenia in Tauris at the Hong Kong Arts Festival 2014, choreographed by Pina Bausch and premiered in 1974, which I almost missed because the tickets were sold out.
My ignorance in the art of dance and Western theatre does not prevent me from enjoying the performance, which brought my artistic experience to a new level.
Body movements of the dancers were empowered by the emotions of the characters they were playing. Every stretch of the arm or twist of the body was fully charged with energy that poured out of the limbs like the roaring waves of the rough seas that can shatter the Titanic. For the first time, as far as I remember, I could focus on appreciating the physical expressions without being distracted to the libretto or the plot, which looked extremely complicated in the house programme. The operatic singing and orchestral music provided superb support to the delivery of the plot and characters. The plain, practical and straightforward design of the set and costumes was not only pleasing to the eye, but also helped the audience to focus on the essence of the performance itself, the dancers and their physical movements.
Interestingly, and quite unexpectedly, what impressed me most was the relationship between Orestes and Pylades, a pair of good friends captured in a storm that raged Tauris. One of them had to be offered to the gods as sacrifice. The third act was thus devoted to their struggle against each other to become the martyr, so that the other could survive. The friendship between Orestes and Pylades, skilfully and powerfully expressed by the body movements of the dancers, was by all means touching. There were hints of homosexual love too, offering a tint of tenderness that I found quite heart-warming without any trace of uneasiness. Apparently such a depiction also has stark differences from the brotherly love in the Chinese classical fiction such as The Water Margin and Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which are often characterised by masculinity and shared hatred towards a common foe.
Four decades after its premiere, Iphigenia in Tauris may no longer raise any eyebrow, because, in one way or another, its artistic elements have become the norm of contemporary performances. Blending other art forms such as vocal singing and orchestral music with dance is hardly revolutionary nowadays, but it is not difficult to imagine how shocking and rebellious it might seem in the 1970s. To me, the greatest enjoyment of Iphigenia in Tauris was to experience the overwhelming energy and passion of the dancers’ movements on their own merit. No language was really necessary. Indeed, it was a pleasant cultural shock that I was fortunate not to have missed.