The soul's journey of renewal and change
(a review of RE...To be continued)
By Judith Green, Mercury News Theater Writer
© The San Jose Mercury News, August 9, 1993
Tai Dang's art is often striking and beautiful, but the last time it would have been considered on the
cutting edge was 1965 - the age of "happenings." On the other hand, San Jose doesn't often see art on
any cutting edge - in this I include the well-meant but amateur efforts of the Nouveau Performance Troupe -
so better now than never. A self-described multimedia performance artist, Tai Dang was born in Vietnam
and came to the United States in 1975. He studied at the California College of Arts and Crafts before
moving to New York, where he is now based. His current work "RE... to be continued" (1992) played at
San Jose Stage Company this weekend underthe auspices of the Association of Viet Arts.
Theme of repetition
"RE" is the prefix for repetition and the 65 minute work, inspired by passages from the
"Tibetan Book of the Dead", is a chain of images of renewal, rejuvenation and reproduction - all ideas
contained within the larger concept of reincarnation.Its message began before the performance.
Audience members were asked to wait at the entrance to the theater which was masked by heavy black
drapery. We were then ushered in, single, by silent, black-clad attendants, and seated randomly around
the house. This metaphor of birth was perhaps a reminder that we come into this life alone and leave it
the same way. The performance began with Tai Dang suspended in midair bound to the door of a wrecked
car. After the attendants lowered him, he went through various stages that divested him of his material body
and desires, until he is naked. The second half of the piece began with his nude body being redressed in a robe
of saffron silk, in which he makes his way back from the world of spirit to the world of substance.
The stages correspond to the sections of the "Tibetan Book of the Dead" or "Bardo Thodöl" written about
A.D. 747 by Padma-Sambhava, who established Tantric Buddhism in Tibet. This manual describes the 49 days
after death, when the fate of the soul is decided. A few holy people are immediately assumed in to the state of union
with the great Dharma; most others undergo a purgatorial series of cleansings and are reborn for another try at life.
Some of the images are quite powerful. After Tai Dang's enrobing, for example our attention is directed to a set of five
stacked video monitors on which appear footage of salmon (the videos were shot and edited by Kathryn Chulik) shouldering
and leaping their way upstream, seeking the spawning grounds in which they will reproduce and die. At another point, Tai Dang dons layered
Tibetan paper masks (constructed by Josy Cobb). In another metaphor divestiture, he tears them from his face one by one - the demonic, the female, the newborn.
References to sculpture
Thanks to the infinite physical control of the performer, "RE... to be continued" is closer to living sculpture than dance. However, the images would not have nearly as
much force without the otherworldly music of Israeli-born composer Ari Frankel and, especially, the lighting, which is un credited. One wishes the extract from the
"Tibetan Book of the Dead" were spoken on the sound track or printed in the program. Projected on the walls of the theater, it appears only as tantalizing bits of words
and phrases, of which the final line, "Carry me away" is so evocative as to be maddening.