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A Month in Taipei

David Mead looks at December 2010's dance offerings in the capital of Taiwan

December 2010

When it comes to Taiwanese dance, it’s generally Lin Hwai-min’s Cloud Gate Dance Theatre
that comes to mind. Quite rightly widely acclaimed, they are very much the international face of
dance from the island. But Cloud Gate is but one aspect of a very diverse dance scene, especially
in Taipei, a city that always seems to be buzzing with activity. The last few weeks of 2010 were no
exception.

Lin’s latest production, “Water Stains on the Wall,” got the lead up to Christmas off to a cracking
start. “Water Stains” is Lin in pure dance mode. It mostly happens on a specially constructed
raked stage that drops four feet from back to front. That slope not only gives a somewhat unusual
perspective to the dance but also ensures the whole audience can see the shadowy projections that
appear on it.

Those images and avant-garde Berlin-based Japanese composer Toshio Hosokawa’s spare and often
dissonant score certainly add to the mood, but “Water Stains” is really all about the dancers’ bodies
and the tai-chi dao-yin vocabulary that underlies so much of Lin’s work. It is quite mesmerising,
so much so that at first you don’t really notice all the subtle changes, either in the movement or
in the inky shapes on the stage that often seem to act as a reminder of a now disappeared dancer’s
presence. It was all quite stunning and will stay in the memory a long time.

There’s a host of other smaller professional companies that play just as important part in local
dance. One of the longest established is Yao Shu-fen’s Century Contemporary Dance Company,
and in mid-December she dished up something of a rarity anywhere, except perhaps Lincoln
Center: a Stravinsky double-bill. For her “Les Noces-Le Sacre Du Printemps” programme, she
teamed up with 99-year old Taiwanese artist Wang Pan-yuan to present a modern take on the two
great works originally created for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.

Although taking marriage as her starting point for “Les Noces”, Yao turns away from the usual
scenario and focuses on what she sees as the search for the perfect and everlasting marriage. Her
view of the institution is reflected in the fact the action all takes place on a stage covered with white
paper that becomes increasingly shredded as the piece progresses. The dancers too, covered as they
are in white gypsum, also look like they are disintegrating or are ghosts or memories from the past.
The overwhelming feeling, though, was one of loneliness, not only reflected in the choreography
but also in the projections of Wang’s misty, moody paintings.

“Rite of Spring” works less well. The designs, especially the idea of a straw bed, are effective, but
while the choreography draws on the music’s ritualistic themes, like so many before her Yao never
really gets fully to grips with Stravinsky’s churning rhythms. The dancers showed outstanding
control, but that was part of the problem. It was all too steady, too controlled, and often too slow.
There was too much harmony and not enough power and drama.

The only visiting company during the month was Jenni Hong Dance, a seven woman troupe from
New York City that presented a triple bill of Hong’s work in collaboration with Dance Forum
Taipei. Although Taiwanese born Hong has been dancing and choreographing for many years,
her background is in social psychology. It’s something she tries to bring to her choreography as
she “seeks to peel the layers of artifice to reveal what lies beneath.” They are good intentions, but if
this programme was anything to go by the resulting dance generally lacks bite and all too often fails
to hold the attention.

“No Translation” is a pretty apt title for a quirky piece that struggles to translate dance into
meaning. An opening solo is full of what seem to be key actions based around uncontrolled gesture
that are repeated over and over again. I know that if something has no translation, then in another
language it has little or no meaning, but choreographers at least need to give the audience a clue. To
say the meaning of the piece was shrouded in mist would be being kind. When another girl joins the
soloist the haze turns into thick fog. All does finally become clear when some of the dance reflects
messages in Hong’s music such as “I need love” and “love you.” But by then I really didn’t care.

Things picked up enormously with “Rewind,” a quite emotionally charged duet that takes place
around a line of chairs. You could really sense the emotion as Dance Forum Taipei’s Zheng Yi-wen
and Su Guan-ying played out some of the complexities of married life. It seemed there had been a
quarrel but you could still feel and see the bonds between them and the continued yearning as their
bodies twisted, stretched and reached towards each other.

“No Rice” again featured Hong’s more quirky approach, although this time with rather more
effect. Performed by dancers from both companies it included an amusing, if rather in your face,
running martial arts movie joke in which a large group of Asian dancers persistently attack a larger
American woman, only to always be ridiculously easily repelled. In fact it’s all about what happens
when an important part of one’s life is lost, the struggle to conquer indifference and the problems of
making connections as an outsider, deeper themes that do come through in a later duet and a very
touching end. Perhaps that’s how Hong feels returning to Taipei.

Taiwanese dance often has a very local flavour with many local companies drawing heavily on
Chinese folk dance and indigenous Taiwanese dance. The latter, by the way, is rooted firmly in the
history and heritage of the island’s aboriginal peoples and usually comes with a solid and infectious
rhythm, lots of stomping and is accompanied by energetic song. It is not decorous or demure
and has nothing whatsoever to do with fans, ribbons or anything else associated with dance that
originated on the Chinese mainland.

Tjimur Dance Theatre’s “Mananigai” was certainly a spectacle with wonderful lighting and
costumes, and excellent performances from all. The company hails from the Paiwan people of
Southern Taiwan, and local choreographer Baru certainly brings a very physical aesthetic to
aboriginal dance. “Mananigai” is superficially is about warriors, about wars, distant cheers, cries
and bravery. But there are deeper issues here too: the link with the elements, internal conflict and
the struggles that go on inside most of us, and are the men with all their bravado or the women who
are the real guardians of the tribe.

Ballet does not get too much attention in Taipei. That’s unfortunate because Capital Ballet Taipei
regularly manage to put on some quite worthwhile performances. A short programme presented
during the city’s Flower Expo showed the breadth of their talents. The romantic “Pas de Qautre”
was followed by “Love Roses,” a very upbeat tango-inspired piece, and “Bird of Paradise,” a very
modern offering that included a most impressive pas de deux that was full of tricky lifts, especially
the last one that really did have Shih Ya-ling looking like a bird of paradise flower.

Apart from the professional companies, end of year dance in Taipei means one thing: senior high
school and university annual performances. In Taiwan a few schools at all levels participate in the
Talented Student Programme for dance. By the time the students get to senior high school (age 15-
18) they are effectively in vocational training and are spending many hours each day in the studio.
University dance departments too very much focus on training professional dancers.

Performances by these schools and universities are always polished, professional occasions in
major theatres. The choreography can be variable, although one has to bear in mind that the point

of the exercise is usually to show off all the students, which tends to lead to an emphasis on large
ensemble pieces with few, if any, individual chances to shine.

One of the best school performances is invariably that by Zhong Zheng Senior High School, and
2010 was no different. The city’s 1,000-seat Metropolitan Hall was packed with family, friends and
the public who were treated to a feast of good dance, amazing energy and interesting choreography.
Like most high school students the dancers sometimes lacked a little strength, but technically they
were as outstanding as expected, especially in Chinese, modern and contemporary dance.

Classical ballet is rarely strong in Taiwanese schools, but things got off to a more than enjoyable
start with the “Dance of the Frescoes” from “The Little Humpbacked Horse.” The final-year girls
showed a pleasing sureness in their pointework, although it would have been nice to see more
strongly pointed feet on the jetés. And so much for thinking a trip to Taiwan would mean an escape
from “The Nutcracker,” as later in the programme we were treated to a rather agreeable version
of “Snowflakes” by the second year students. The falling snow was rather good too.

The rest of the programme was the usual mix of modern and Chinese-influenced dance. Just about
every piece featured interesting patterns and everything was very well danced. It never ceases to
amaze me how together dancers of this age manage to be here. Three pieces stood out. Fan Ching-
wen’s “Beat”, danced to the cracking “Red Earth” by Tokyo-based American composer Christopher
Hardy, featured lots of athletic dance. The dancers even joined in the music making, bashing out
percussive rhythms on wooden boxes that also doubled as seats. Apart from the dance and the
clever use of wheeled office chairs, “Secret Agent,” made by the students themselves was notable
for its surprising ending. I think we all thought we were getting a simple repeat of the opening, but
there was most definitely a twist in the tail (or should that be ‘tale’?). I admit that Chinese dance,
especially when it’s soft and feminine, can leave me a little cold. But Yang Lin-lin’s “Rolling,
Flowing” with its riotously colourful pink and white costumes and brilliant light and electric blue
fans turned out to be an ideal close to the evening.

A week later and it was FuXing Senior High School’s turn with their “Facebook@Dance”
programme. Although marginally less technically accomplished, there was a greater sense of
individuality, with evident occasional flashes of personality. Most interesting of the pieces
was “Street Scene,” during which a Taipei street really did roll out in front of our eyes, complete
with all the characters you might usually find there.

Both schools gave most enjoyable evenings, but as always, where were the boys? There was not a
single male dance on the Zhong Zheng programme, and only three on the FuXing offering. Dance
in schools in Taiwan is very female oriented, more so than in most places, but little seems to be
being done to address the situation. Whether it’s an institutional bias, or something related to the
selection process and standards required (remember that girls tend to be ahead of boys of the same
age both academically and in terms of dance skills) I’m not sure.

Although the ladies are still in the majority, boys do make it through to university dance
programmes. Taipei Physical Education College’s performances included student choreography in
amongst a few teacher-created works. One unusual piece featured ballet to a selection of musical
arrangements from “Mary Poppins.” It sounds very strange, but oddly it worked. Most of the other
works featured the usual pleasant structures and shapes, and everyone was always perfectly on the
music. It was all very pleasant but there was a lack of engagement with the audience and certainly a
lack of excitement, all of which was a little surprising given previous performances by the College.

Excitement was on the agenda though at the Chinese Culture University’s show at the mammoth,
and packed out, Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall. Both the Chinese and modern dance inspired works

were full of drama as the students packed in lots of punch in what was a very upbeat evening.

Star of the show was Zhong Zhang-hong. The fireworks first came in an excerpt from the ballet “La
Esmeralda.” Not only did he look supremely confident, Zhong leapt and turned as if he could
keep going for ever. And everything was perfectly shaped too. While undoubtedly a solo star, his
partnering looked a little less assured though. Having said that, in “Argue,” a duet he created and
performed with the delightful Zhang Ya-zhu, there were no such doubts. The couple worked off
each other very nicely indeed as they played out the emotions as the fought each other.

Moving away from the usual collection of short pieces approach, the National Taiwan Physical
Education College from Taichung presented “The Princess and the Snake King,” a whole evening
work that fuses ballet with Taiwanese dance in a traditional Taiwanese story. The tale comes from
the island’s Rukai tribe and tells of the love that develops between a young princess and a young
man. The only problem is that he turns out to be the Snake King, who is able to take human form.
Needless to say, when her parents discover his real identity they are not happy. There’s lots of
action before a very emotional ending as the Princess descends to the bottom of a lake and gives her
life to her husband.

As a whole it was a most enjoyable evening, even if some of the ballet sections were a little stilted
and failed to flow, the choreography occasionally seeming to have more to do with showing off a
step than the story or the relationships. But it was merged well with the traditional Taiwanese dance
and folk elements, the evening also being helped along by some great sets and a specially written
score by local composer You Chang-fa that reflected perfectly the story and action.

For hard hitting and thought provoking dance though, Taipei National University of the Arts
Winter Concert could not be beaten. Often mean and moody, and finishing up with an outstanding
rendition of Kurt Jooss’ “The Green Table,” this was hardly Western pre-Christmas fare, but it
was Taiwanese university dance at its very best. There’s a full review of the evening in a separate
article.

And so came Christmas and New Year. New Year fireworks in Taipei are always spectacular but
this year they were better than ever for this was the start of a new century in the Chinese calendar
(actually the start of the year 100). It’s a new year that promises much in dance too. Visiting
companies for the 2011 Taiwan International Festival include Les ballets C de la B and Tanztheater
Wuppertaal, and in the summer there is a first ever visit from The Royal Ballet, and no doubt the
local scene will be as vibrant as ever too.


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