When I left the theatre after seeing Room 2048 by Vancouver’s Hong Kong Exile, it was initially with a sense of disappointment. Given the production’s promotional materials, I was anticipating an aggressive Cantopop dance party, laden with political overtones. The show’s title refers to the impending end to a 50-year period of protected autonomy for Hong Kong, and a potential time of cataclysmic change in its relationship with China.
What is presented is actually more akin to a contemplative meditation. There is indeed a component of loud, auto-tuned pop music, as billed, but often the movement associated with the music is paradoxically minimal. Many of the vignettes (defined by voiceover as “chapters”) consist of static poses, often in an attitude of waiting. Chapter One, for example, features a very slight rotation of the dancer’s head to the right. Chapters 5 through 10,000 include no movement at all that is visible to the audience (thankfully we are spared having to watch all 10,000 of them, but there are rather more than enough of them to make the point). As for a political message, the tableaux are a blank canvas, on which a viewer could project whatever interpretation one wishes.
One exception is a segment which, not coincidentally, is the only one that includes text to any extent. In it, an actor is asked a series of questions about his background (born in Mississauga, parents from Hong Kong) and his connections to the Cantonese language. This exchange provides the clearest context for the experience of Cantonese diaspora that is the stated theme of Room 2048. Another chapter includes a woman dancing in a narrow square of light, with a man ominously circling her; this seemed the most obvious reference to the hovering Chinese presence, but then again, a viewer with a different perspective on the experience of viewing events in China at a distance might see it differently.
Lighting designer Remy Siu is usually listed in programs for this production as a performer, and lighting is certainly the show’s most striking feature. Dancers interact with it as they would with a prop, and often it is the stimulus for any action that evolves in a scene, as when a narrow bar of light on the floor seems to propel the otherwise motionless dancers across the stage. Important action often takes place in muted or indirect light, and one of the pervasive themes is the difference between what is seen and unseen.
On reflection later, there are interesting concepts which emerge. However, there are only two dynamic levels in the show: static and frenetic, heavily weighted to the static. It is an intellectual exercise perhaps best experienced when fully alert and prepared to accept it as a rather oblique and poetic meditation.
There is one more opportunity to see Room 2048 in the Engineered Air Theatre Thursday, Jan. 16 at 7:30 p.m. as part of the High Performance Rodeo.
Lori Montgomery is a former FFWD theatre critic who practices medicine to support her writing habit.