This Room is an Island
02/02/2024 - 04/02/2024
Choreography by Yin-Chi Lee and Collaborators
This Room is an Island is a fully interactive, inhabitable world retold by a displaced daughter in another home.
Through dance and digital innovation, Yin-Chi Lee and collaborators create a multimedia experience: a space-within-space built by two generations’ memories of belonging and not belonging to the same world(s). The audience are guided through by performers to become an integral part of the narrative and the visual world.
Born amidst the threats of war, This Room is an Island is a living memory held together by both fear and love. It is the enduring mistakes of the past that echo into our future. It’s an invitation to reflect on our own histories and to re-discover our places in the ever-evolving landscape of human experience.
This piece involves audience interaction and participation. You can purchase tickets to observe as a seated audience member with no interaction, or choose to experience the work from within. Should you require assistance during the performance, our safety staff are present to discreetly guide you out and back in at your convenience.
‘帝國觀察者 Imperial Spectators’ are seated and non-interactive.
‘島嶼身體 Bodies of the Island’ are participatory and interactive.
Funded by Creative NZ, Foundation North, and Creative Henderson/Massey.
Story Support from Red Leap Theatre, Ella Becroft, Sarah Foster-Sproull, and Talia Pua.
Archival Sound and Music provided by 臺灣音聲一百年網站, 國立臺灣歷史博物館 Taiwan Sound One Hundred Years website, and National Taiwan History Museum.
Friday 2 February 2024, 6:30pm
Saturday 3 February 2024, 2pm
Saturday 3 February 2024, 6:30pm
Sunday 4 February 2024, 2pm
Sunday 4 February 2024, 6:30pm
$10 – $35
Dancers collaborators: Deborah Fletcher, Emma Broad, Evie Logan, Lara Chou, Lulu Qiu, Nieve Wilson, Woody Sabandit, Zoe White.
Officers performers: Darryl Chin, Jasmine Reynolds, Te Oka Toia, Tilly Hayden-Taylor
Producers: Amy Griffin, Natalya Mandich-Dohnt
Virtual architecture and design collaborators: Darryl Chin, Kyung Ho Min
Set and prop design: Eleanor Fletcher
Backstage support: Adrienne Tucker
Music and soundscape by: Jefferson Chen
Lighting: Sean Curham
Support: Ella Becroft, Dr. Sarah Foster-Sproull, Talia Pua
Historic Archival music: National Taiwan Museum, Taiwan 100 Years Soundscapes
Funded by Creative NZ, Foundation North, and Creative Henderson/Massey.
Story support from Red Leap Theatre.
Cultural activation , Dance-theatre , Dance ,
Unequivocal determined vision
Review by Iatua Richard Felagai Taito 05th Feb 2024
As I enter the Te Pou theatre foyer, a lot of the audience are casually waiting and talking and suddenly two staunch officers yell out to get out of the way, and we all are startled, and we all intentionally move out of the way. My focus is immediately on the striking officers in full black attire that has a black veil like covering, so we do not see the face. It feels as though everyone’s energy from just talking and smiling dropped into a state of shock and me holding my breath as well as other audience members.
The story (the performance) begins, and I see the officers come in one by one, undressing themselves and as a result they end up on their knees, and when I see their eyes I see distress and a bit of sorrow entrenched in their souls. I see the uniformity in movement choreography but also conveyed in attire and in their moods.
It makes me think about the subtext of what happened historically for Taiwanese people due to their heavy colonial past. And I feel that trauma and I am also in awe of how the officer’s, as they start to grow from two to four to now eight officers, yet they theatrically keep the intensity which is felt throughout the foyer.
The room is an Island, is a strand of memories of Taiwan’s colonial past specifically ranging from 1890 – 2008. It interweaves audio, immersive multimedia art, choreography, singing and heavy truths and themes around the nuanced Taiwanese identity.
I see a new officer comes through who separates the audience in two ways, one being spectators (on the ticket imperial spectators) and another being a part of the participatory participants (on the ticket bodies of the island). As I line up in the spectators section, I see us walk in as if we are unfortunately heading into a concentration camp. As we all enter the theatre we see two new officers welcoming us but they are still intimidating me. This means that the intensity from the first moment the story began in the foyer to now entering the theatre, foreshadows what to expect throughout this story.
As I am guided intensely to sit and to go a certain direction as a spectator, I see the lighting and the audio creating an eerie atmosphere. Then suddenly I hear the participatory participants enter the theatre on my left side of my seat and I hear the officers ask where they are from. Looking them up and down, the officers are not smiling but have such a staunch and scary exterior. I feel as though they (the participants) are getting interrogated, in a sense, to enter the space.
It genuinely makes me think about the concepts of this show of it being militarised, impactful, feeling themes of being precarious in the space, oppressed, alienated and being forced to assimilate to nationalism and displacement.
Gradually we turn our attention to the audio as it is extremely piercing and deafening, as well as hearing a elderly person speak faintly in the background. The way this person is orating in the space, makes me try to decipher what they are saying. It makes me wonder am I feeling even more disenfranchised or strangely comforted? Pondering on those questions, the attention is drawn to the immersive multimedia art crouching forward and the amplification being so prevalent. It is abstract yet literal, but we enter the 1930-1945 Kōminka period (Japanisation). And I can feel myself being tense, as it is confronting but powerful. Inevitably I have to sit with these feelings as it makes me feel the intergenerational trauma in different parts of the performance showing.
Significantly, the dancers arrive and some come up in close proximity to the audience and are checking the audience’s eyes, mouth, teeth, tongue. I believe the direction for this maybe was to have themes of violation, as this happened increasingly during the Kōminka period.
As I continue to watch, I feel the pursuit of freedom, which was physically shown in aspects from the dancers (Deborah Fletcher, Emma Broad, Evie Logan, Lara Chuo, Lulu Qiu, Naive Wilson, Minami Otaki and Zoe White). I see the dancers being so in sync with each-other choreographically but also I see the physical theatre motifs which are clever too. They use space well, and I see them salute to a flag, potentially showing the enforced propaganda of the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere”. I contemplate these images and continue to decipher this performance as a spectator.
The symbolism of a sweater used as a flag feels ghostly and haunting, translating in my mind to nationalism in a profound way as I continue to view this piece. I am being provoked by the silhouette moments which evoke the sense of police-state control when the participants are being influenced (just like propaganda and indoctrination) by the dancers.
As I watch this performance I realise how complex and abstract it is trying to creatively show Taiwan’s colonial past (from 1930 – 1945 Kōminka, to 1949 – 1996 White Terror and Democracy to the ending of the 2008 Embassy).
In key moments that I feel in the space and what I view from a person of colour perspective (not being Taiwanese), I sense throughout the play the active sympathy and sorrow around colonisation, indoctrination, imperial invasion, nationalism, war, and political corruption.
As a reviewer, I acknowledge that this powerful performance is complex and historical, that the historical trauma from a Taiwanese diasporic perspective around marginalisation and displacement is felt in my body and in my spirit that I am still left in awe of how intense the performance is.
In retrospect, this shows me that the concept(s), choreography, lighting, theatre blocking, directing, immersive multimedia art and so forth show immense talent and skill to make me and the audience feel these heavy emotions and themes. Attesting to the brilliance and significance of this work and the people involved.
Especially to Yin Chi Lee, your heart, creativity and unequivocal determined vision for this performance to offer truth to your narrative that many people may face in Taiwan and in the diaspora currently show the major importance of a show like this in a place and country like this in Aotearoa. For this to be shown and getting the funding needed (Creative NZ, Foundation North and Creative Henderson Massey) is a testament to how vital ‘The Room is an Island ‘ show is, as it delivered truth and awareness which will be felt in our bodies and memories for a long time.
Copyright © in the review belongs to the reviewer
Part immersive performance, part remembrance, 'This Room is an Island' invites us to witness and to become vulnerable.
Review by Renee Liang 04th Feb 2024
This Room is an Island is an interactive, immersive performance, a work where – if you choose – you can enter 1890s Taiwan and journey through successive decades of social engineering and changes of political masters. It largely succeeds in enfolding you into a festival-quality, emotionally resonant work that starts as soon as you enter the foyer and that you will take with you when you leave.
I say ‘if you choose’ because right from the start, when buying a ticket, you are asked to choose whether to be ‘imperial spectators’ – seated and with no interaction – or ‘bodies of the island’ – participatory and at times a performer yourself. TL:DR: definitely choose to participate. As a ‘body’ I felt engaged, moved and had an (at times uncomfortable and challenging) up-close view. My friends who chose to be spectators reported feeling distant and maybe even disengaged at times. But more on the audience experience soon.
Choreographer Yin-Chi Lee has based this work on oral histories from her grandfather and mother, and through reclaimed memories of her own. Years of careful research, collation of snippets of songs, photos, even retro advertisements for domestic products, have been shared with a group of 20 dancers, designers and performance makers. The result is a piece that utilises the full depth of Te Pou’s enormous Tokomawa theatre space, with shifting walls, ethereal projections, bodies revealed at surprising moments – and through it all audience members cast as ‘citizens’ who have no idea what’s about to happen.
An excellent creative decision has been made in that all the rehearsed performers, from the dancers playing ‘citizens’ to those playing ‘officers,’ come from multiple ethnic backgrounds. This allows us as audience to find resonances through Lee’s personal history, with other histories we have known or witnessed. The bodies of the performers become channels for us to reflect on other histories where populations are forcibly moulded into belief systems. This human being suppressed of their self-determination is not just Taiwanese: now they are universal, a cypher for any conflict: Ukraine, Gaza, The Mau; this ideology shifting propaganda in 1950s Taiwan echoes the increasingly unsubtle shifts in Treaty ‘interpretation’ in present day Aotearoa; these falsely cheerful radio advertisements from the 1970s subtly shape social beliefs over time, just like the social media of today.
For me, this became personal early on. Watching ‘Japanese soldiers’ forcing people to submit, I was quickly taken to my father’s stories of being a young refugee, fleeing northwards through China as Japanese forces invaded the South. I began watching those around me and thinking how many would have experienced conflict or displacement also, either in person or as remembered family events. It’s more common than we think.
Lee and her team have thought carefully about audience flow. Imperial and Body groups were separated at the beginning; the Imperial ‘guests’ were seated and treated with veneration while we as Bodies were lined up, separated, individually interrogated and then herded to different areas, all within the stage space. At one stage we were forced to participate in dance ‘calisthenics’, while officers watched and pulled out anyone who didn’t do the right moves at the right time. The Imperials applauded our ‘performance’ – apparently this was spontaneous and unprompted.
Throughout, a producer wore a high-vis vest and stood upstage where we could see her and she could see us: I confirmed later that she was there for safety, to spot anyone who was distressed so a way out of the piece could be offered. Early on a family with a young child was extracted, and it quickly became evident why the piece would have been unsuitable for them.
Interactive works are challenging to get right, because audiences are unpredictable and their stories unknown. Many don’t read the information that was well flagged on the written programme and online; they might not have picked up that there may have been triggers. In comments in the foyer afterwards some told me that they wanted the officers to be ‘harsher’ towards us to make the piece more ‘real’. I think the right balance was struck between immersion and safety.
In other immersive shows, there’s some sort of induction: emails, announcements, an in-character guide who sets an audience contract and offers a last-chance way out. The choice made to blur the beginning of the piece with dancers infiltrating the foyer, setting up small scenes, and then gradually becoming larger groups that drew attention, was for me a bold choice, but one in line with the design of the show: after all, don’t conflicts start unnoticed? Isn’t that how violence and control is gradually normalised?
This Room Is An Island is in its second iteration at Te Pou Theatre. The first, a development showing, took place in 2022 in a different space. Te Pou, which has become known for programming work that questions authority and resists colonisation, is a fitting space for a work such as this and continues their long held kaupapa of offering space for others to explore stories under the shelter of tīkanga practice.
The years that this piece has had to develop is reflected in its well-conceived design – sound, set and lighting. Darryl Chin’s projections – a collation of archival footage and new digital animation – is paired with Jefferson Chen’s sound design to pull us back to the 1890s when Japanese first occupied the island of Taiwan. Eleanor Fletcher designs shifting black walls moved by performers to enclose or reveal; later these become diaphanous screens carried on poles, onto which slogans are projected by moving performers carrying portable projectors. Not only is this impressive technically, but the design is how the distinct chapters of the work (the choreographic programme, if you will) are signaled and we are pulled through time towards the modern era (the piece ends in 2008 when Lee herself left Taiwan to emigrate to Aotearoa).
As we left the piece – again with interrogation and the same questions we were asked on entry – what is your full name? why are you here? What is your purpose? – we found the foyer had been made over into an installation piece, with meals set on tables and washing on lines as if the inhabitants had just left their homes. I would later learn from the programme that the same questions were used on members of Lee’s family. Part immersive performance, part art installation, part dance performance, part remembrance, This Room is an Island invites us to witness and to become vulnerable.
And what of the Island of the title? In a beautiful, recorded monologue at the end, Lee brings the political back to the personal. We in Aotearoa are familiar with the idea of islands as isolating and distant. But they are also havens of safety and memory, a place as large or tiny, as full of possibility as we choose – despite our fear. After 40 years of martial law, thought control, ‘disappearances’ and the weaponisation of media, military and law, the Taiwanese people were still able to resist, and through protest and action turn their country into the open society it now is. For me, this is the message I chose to take home – that in the face of fear, with mass movements engineered by those who would depersonalise us and take away our identity, we still have power, we can still hold onto ourselves. We are islands of our own.
Copyright © in the review belongs to the reviewer