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Tsai Jui-yueh Dance Festival

by David Mead

November 9-11, 2007 -- Tsai Jui-yueh Studio (Rose Historic Site), Taipei

The history of modern dance in America and Europe is well-documented and widely known.  But it is sometimes forgotten that these two continents by no means had a monopoly on the art form.  The recent Tsai Jui-yueh Dance Festival in Taipei certainly showed that developments were happening in East Asia too.

Tsai Jui-yueh is generally regarded as the founder of modern dance in Taiwan, and although earlier Japanese dancers visited the island, she was certainly the country’s first home-grown teacher and choreographer of note.  Born in Tainan in southern Taiwan in 1921, Tsai’s life was every bit as difficult as that of Taiwan itself.  As in most of the West, dance in Taiwan in the early twentieth century was not seen as a respectable occupation, although it was taught in many schools. 

Taiwan had been a Japanese colony since 1895, so it was perhaps no surprise that in 1937 when she determined to study dance intensively, she headed for Tokyo and the Ishii Baku Dance Academy.  Baku was one of the first Japanese dancers to study ballet and Western modern dance and by that time was a noted teacher and choreographer.  Indeed, he has a similar place in Japanese dance history as Tsai in Taiwan and has been referred to as the “father of Japanese modern dance”.

Tsai did not return to Taiwan until 1947, and to say life on her return was troubled would be something of an understatement.  Tsai’s husband, Lei Shih-yu, was expelled to Mainland China for political reasons while she served three years as a political prisoner.  She drew considerably on these experiences in some of her subsequent choreographies, such as “A Love for Taiwan” andThe Jail Bird on a Rose”.  In the early 1980s, she followed her son, another dancer, and emigrated to Australia.

The festival, held for the first time after Tsai’s death in 2006, is designed to mark the unique contribution she and her teachers made to dance in this corner of the globe.  It is held at her Japanese-style studio, now beautifully restored following a fire in 1999.  Hemmed in by Taipei’s tall office blocks, the building and its garden is an oasis of relative calm in this otherwise hectic city.  The front of the studio opens to form the stage, and with the audience sitting on temporary seating in the garden, it is indeed a beautiful and evocative setting, especially as the sun sets and we move swiftly through twilight to darkness.  An indication of the respect now accorded to Tsai – and indeed to the history of dance in Taiwan – is that the building and grounds are now a designated National Historic Site.

The programme for this year’s festival came in two distinct parts.  Prior to the interval it featured a range of works by present-day Taiwanese and American choreographers.  Among them was Zhang Xiao-xiong’s “Waiting, Forever Waiting”, danced by three members of Taipei Crossover Dance Company.  At its heart was a beautifully crafted duet watched over by a second man who simply sat there, kicking and swinging his legs happy and child-like.  He was indeed, forever waiting, patiently waiting, until as if it was always ordained, at the very end the woman turned to him and they walked off arms round each other.  So simple, yet so spellbinding. 

At first you wonder who this figure is, but then all falls into place when one considers that the work was created in response to the death of former Cloud Gate dancer and Cloud Gate 2 director Lo Man-fei, who died in 2006 following a long battle with cancer.  It did indeed seem that she was forever waiting, death in the end maybe coming as a relief from her suffering.  Zhang is a choreographer who has a rare gift for touching the right nerve.  He rarely disappoints, and this was no exception.

Some light relief was provided by a dance theatre excerpt from Ku Ming-shen’s “My Peace, My Shadow”.  Ku entered via a knotted bed sheet from the roof space and proceeded to dazzle us with an extremely colourful swimsuit and crazy sunglasses.  Oh, and don’t forget the popcorn that we knew was real because we could smell it as soon as it came out of the microwave stage left!

The most powerful work before the break, however, was American choreographer Eleo Pomare’s “Tableaux”.  Dedicated to the memory of Nylon Cheng, former chief editor of the Freedom Times, it draws heavily on the moods and events of Taiwan’s White Terror and Martial Law eras, and in many ways reflects Tsai’s own struggles.  The military strutting and martial arts movements of some of the performers contrasted sharply with the central character’s own mood and turmoil.  The work dramatically concludes with the events of 1989, when Cheng, faced with political imprisonment himself, decided to burn himself alive in one final personal statement.  The work was danced by members of the Grace Hsiao Dance Theatre, who had earlier performed in Hsiao’s own “Prairie”.

After the interval we were treated to something of a walk back through history with short works and excerpts from dances by Tsai, Ishii Baku and Ishii Midori, again danced by Hsiao’s company.  Starting in 1963, the first movement of Midori’s “Brandenburg Concerto” was a large group work where the dancers in blue and white full-length dresses ebbed and flowed along with Bach’s 4th concerto of the same name.  Only the first movement was danced, but it showed Midori to be a very musical choreographer as she captured the mood and tones of Bach’s music.

A step back ten years took us to 1953 and a very different scene.  Tsai’s “Death and a Maiden” draws heavily on her experiences of the White Terror, when many thousands of Taiwanese simply disappeared as the Nationalist regime put down all dissent.  In what could be seen as a reflection of life during that time, the work depicts a young woman simply dressed in white and seemingly precariously balanced somewhere between life and death.  The figure of death – always present – toys with her, almost puppet-master like, before she finally overcomes his overpowering presence.

The programme then featured three works by Ishii Baku.  “White Gloves” (1939) was Baku’s response to seeing Mary Wigman dance in Germany.  Performed to live percussion, it is one of several works in which he attempted to prove that dance does not have to be dominated by melodic music.  The trio, dressed simply in black and white, seemed to be almost improvising at times as they twisted around each other. 

This, along with “To Climb a Mountain” (1925) and “Snake Fairy” (1933), clearly demonstrated the European influence on Baku and Midori’s work, particularly of Bauhaus and German expressionism.  Although “Snake Fairy” was danced to music by Japanese composer Saitou Kazo, much of the music was also European, with works danced to Grieg, Schubert and Beethoven and Bach.

Completing the performance were three short works bringing us back up to date.  Ishii Midori’s “Rural Landscape” (1939) was a joyous dance for a couple that seemed to draw heavily on Eastern European folk dance.  “Hag” was a new work created and danced by Ishii Midori’s daughter, Orita Katsuko.  The work is based on a Japanese story of a hag who lives in the mountains and who eats people, but also demonstrates that even such people may have two faces, since she also takes in and cares for abused children from the local village.  Finally, Ishii Midori’s “Gujyoubushi”, a Japanese festival dance and an appropriately happy large group work, closed what was after all truly a celebration of the history of modern dance in East Asia.

Or not quite, because as usual here, there was a final curtain call for all the dancers who took part in the event.  They were joined on stage by Ishii Midori.  She may now be 95 but she showed that she can still move.  Indeed, it was all the organisers could do to stop her, bring events to a close, and send us all back into the city’s crazy bustle.

Note:  With the exception of “Requiem” and “Brandenburg Concerto”, all the works danced only have Chinese titles.  The English titles given are my translations.

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