Taipei National University of the Arts, Taipei, Taiwan; March 29, 2014

David Mead

Focus Dance Company in Sang Jijia's 'Sticks'. Photo © Lance Pong

Focus Dance Company in Sang Jijia’s ‘Sticks’.
Photo © Lance Pong

Focus Dance Company (焦點舞團) is the graduate touring company of TNUA (國立臺北藝術大學). This year’s programme, Double Half (雙分子) featured a selection of student works sandwiched between a couple of pieces from noted choreographers. Overall, there was much to admire.

Highlight of the programme was a reprise of the extended excerpt from “Sticks” (火柴人) by Tibetan choreographer Sang Jijia (桑吉加). Sang, a resident artist with BeijingDance/LDTX, is much in demand these days and is surely the most exciting contemporary dance choreographer to emerge from China to date – and that includes Tao Ye (陶冶), seen in Taipei last week.

The inspiration for “Sticks” was the matchstick figures sometimes used as a way of recording dances (the literal translation of the Chinese title is ‘matchstick men’). It looked good back in December when danced as part of the university’s winter concert, but here it had an extra crispness and sharpness. It’s a large scale piece for fifteen dancers and a long, sturdy table. It needs to be sturdy because the cast dance and leap on it, slide and slither under it, thud into it and more, throughout. That table can be read in many ways: a barrier, bed, resting place or grave; maybe it’s all of them. Whatever, the choreography is powerful, expressive and a feast of action. Sang is smart, though, and inserts moments of stillness, or near stillness that give everyone, audience included, a chance to draw breath before it all explodes once more.

Opening the programme, Unknown (未知) by Cloud Gate 2 Artistic Director Cheng Tsung-lung (鄭宗龍) was disappointing. In the opening section, the all-female-cast (there’s an all-male version too) looked for all the world like a group of nuns as they walked around in groups in their identical black veils and black knee-length dresses. There’s a lot of unison arm gesture, although it has to be said that the togetherness wasn’t quite as sharp as it usually is at TNUA. A second section appears to include abstracted folk dance movement among plenty of individual jigging about, but I was quite at a loss to work out the connection between the two parts.

Focus Dance Company in Chen Shu-ting's 'Feminine-Masculine'. Photo © Chen Wan-kun

Focus Dance Company in Chen Shu-ting’s ‘Feminine-Masculine’.
Photo © Chen Wan-kuan

Classical ballet has long been a weak spot in TNUA performances, so hurrah for Chen Shu-ting’s (陳舒婷) “Feminine/Masculine”, which included the best pointework and best ballet partnering seen at the university for many a year. It starts very strikingly and very simply with three couples in black against blocks of red. I wish the idea had been continued, or at least returned to at some point. Still, it’s a promising piece, mostly well-structured and neatly patterned, although Chen does occasionally let things get a bit overcomplicated by unnecessarily introducing extra dancers. One example sees a second man join in what is a very nice duet. Quite what he was doing other than getting in the way, I’m not sure. ‘Less is often more’, as they say.

Unfortunately, “Feminine/Masculine” was spoiled by the terribly overamplified music; so loud that it was painfully distorted almost beyond recognition. I don’t know who did the sound check or was in the control room, but they need to have their hearing tested – and find out where the volume slider is. If I was Chen, I would have been furious. The music is important. The aural experience is an essential part of the overall ‘dance package.’

I’m always wary of choreography competitions. While they can be a valuable way of getting exposure, they rarely seem to produce outstanding choreography. It’s probably something to do with the choreographer focusing on what he or she thinks the judges want to see, rather than on making an effective piece. Perhaps that’s why little importance is placed on them in most of the world, even less than on technique competitions, which are also beset with issues.

Focus Dance Company in 'Gene' by Kao Yung-chieh. Photo © Graeme Collins

Focus Dance Company in ‘Gene’ by Kao Yung-chieh.
Photo © Graeme Collins

Still, it’s easy to see why “Gene” by Kao Yung-chieh (高詠婕) walked off with first prize in the 2013 “Dancing across the Earth” competition. A work for 15 men in formal white shirts and black trousers, it’s a crowd-pleaser; busy and energetic with plenty going on once you get past the slightly drawn out opening during which each dancer takes their place on one of the many chairs. Throughout, I got the feeling that the dancers were all trying to say ‘look at me’ as they strutted their stuff and showed off their always excellent and clean moves. And yet, it was all so very straightfaced with almost no sense of individual personality. That could, of course, have been the idea, but in that case the personal posturing needs toning down a tad. Still, “Gene” has much going for it, and of all the student works shown, definitely has the most potential for extension.

I enjoyed “Raid” (襲) by Tseng Pai-yu (曾百瑜) rather more. Chinese dance inspired it is well-structured, It and packed with strong movement and patterning that was always clean but never predictable. It is also beautifully designed and lit. The black costumes with purple and white belts of material around the dancers’ waists are simply gorgeous. The whole cast danced exceptionally well and with feeling too. Everything was absolutely clean.

Chou Yu-fang’s (周妤芳) “Face” is an odd work that felt like two separate pieces sticky taped together. Trying to pack too many ideas into too short space of time is a typical young choreographer problem. In ten minutes or so you barely have time to develop one theme fully, trying to work on two or three is asking for trouble.

The first half of Chou’s dance is as bright as the red, yellow and green socks the cast of three men wore. There’s lots of thrashing hips, and other parts of the body come to that. It looked like it was supposed to be upbeat and fun, even if they were having problems communicating that fully. Then, out of nowhere, thin plastic bags are produced and played with, at one point being stuffed into the backs of the dancers’ trousers, making them look like some weird fowl. Why? What was the connection? And was this now supposed to be serious or not? I, for one, couldn’t tell.

Focus Dance Company in Tseng Pai-yu's 'Raid'.  Photo © Lance Pong

Focus Dance Company in Tseng Pai-yu’s ‘Raid’.
Photo © Lance Pong

“Entfremdung” (German for ‘estrangement’ and also Karl Marx’s theory of alienation; 異化) by Chen Liang-fen (陳良芬) is a short commentary on capitalism, big business and society. Although it was made before the student protests broke out, looking back it is difficult not to make a connection with the political goings-on re the proposed Taiwan-China trade agreement. There’s some strong imagery. Central to the work is a dancer in a clown’s mask. But this is no comedy character. There’s a sense of hidden menace. He tosses around coloured envelopes that seem to represent money. The people become happy, but are they really and what are the consequences? Although not being particularly taken with the piece at the time, the more I look back, the more I feel Chen has something.

The musical choices in “Entfremdung” are eclectic, although I’m at a loss as to what the South African national anthem, “Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika” (and sung too) is doing in there. It seemed at odds with the dance, and I couldn’t see a connection via the translated words either. As a general point, a memo to all choreographers: be very careful when using national songs and especially national anthems. It’s easy to miss associations and meanings. Not that it was a particular problem here, but it’s very easy to cause unintentional offence.