Experimental Theater, Taipei, Taiwan; January 18, 2014
Now in its 11th year, the 2014 edition of “Dance Shoe” (點子鞋), Kaohsiung City Ballet’s (高雄城市芭蕾舞團) annual programme of short works, is an interesting a showcase for artistic director Chang Shu-ru’s (張秀如) senior dancers, with its mix of solos, duets and small ensemble pieces by local choreographers, some young, some better known for modern dance. The standard of dancing was good throughout, with the men in particular all standing tall.
At the opening performance, two pieces stood out. Leading the way was Wang Guo-chuan’s (王國權) classy, well thought out and well-structured “Hidden Beauty” (藏美). It centres around Yeh Li-juan (葉麗娟) who appears as a picture in any of three huge, ornate picture frames that her three partners – Wang himself, Lai Hong-zhong (賴翃中) and Li Bo-wei (李愽偉) – slide, tilt and otherwise manoeuvre around the stage. When she steps out, they take turns to partner her in dance that bathes in the lush lyricism of Richard Strauss’ hugely evocative “Vier Letzte Lieder”.
That Wang has spent many years working abroad is evident. In “Hidden Beauty”, there is a clear European modern ballet aesthetic to everything. Importantly, he never tries to do too much and nothing is rushed. Wang takes an idea, sticks to it. The dance has a slightly dreamlike quality that, deliberate or not, reflects the words of the first song in particular, which speaks of dreaming of someone and their fragrance; of them appearing like a miracle before one; and of enticing one tenderly. There is also a suggestion of melancholy, perhaps a reference to the final song that speaks of death. Making longer versions of works can be a decidedly tricky business, but this is a piece and an idea that I think could be easily extended.
Tsai Po-chen (蔡博丞) may still be in his twenties, but has become a choreographer who can be relied on to produce the goods. This year he does it again with “Little Star” (小小星辰). It opens with Chang Yu (張瑀) making her way uncertainly across the stage. There are lots of isolations of the shoulders and hips in particular. Clad in a white party dress, she looks like someone a little the worse for wear, for reasons that are clearly there, but that are never made obvious. Before too long, Chang Sheng-he (張聖和) appears behind her and the two come together for a most impressive pas de deux packed full of great partnering with many innovative and most effective lifts and supports. Good choreographers and dancers make dance, even classical ballet look natural, and that is certainly the case here. While Chang Sheng-he certainly provides physical support, the fact his lady rarely looks at him gives a sense that he is not there; that he is someone merely in her memory. Later, he gets to dance alone, the choreography suggesting a sense of regret. Tsai has now produced quality shorts for “Dance Shoe” for several years, but I for one would like to see if his talent shines equally in a longer piece.
Also enjoyable was Dai Ting-ru’s (戴鼎如) “Lonely Feeling” (寂寞温度), danced with lots of feeling by Lu Yu-ling (鴼鈺菱) and her two suitors Li Bo-wei (李愽偉) and Lin Ting-wei (林廷維). Lu indeed cuts a lonely figure even when the men come in from the periphery of the stage to partner her. Dai clearly has a firm grasp of the classical vocabulary and knows how to structure a work, although there are moments when the choreography looks a little forced, most obviously when she resorts to inserting very obvious classroom steps into an otherwise most expressive scene. For example, a tombé, pas de bourée, glissade, and later a big développé, both arrive from nowhere. The latter in particular is nice in itself, but neither bares any relationship to what comes before or after. The projections of a cityscape, for some reason shown upside down add nothing, and I could also have done without Lu’s very noisy pointe shoes. Even so, with Dai still a student at Taipei University Dance Department, this was promising indeed.
Elsewhere, after last year’s vibrant and upbeat piece by former Cloud Gate dancer Wang Wei-ming (王維銘), his programme opener, “Two Beauties” (美丽2), was disappointing. Using music already used for an extremely well-known ballet is always brave. Here, the risk does not come off. Tchaikovsky’s “Theme and Variations” is a grand score that demands grand choreography and against it Wang’s quite simply struggles to make any impact. It may well have felt different with very different music, but here it just seemed to lack energy and potency. The dearth of bodies, he has just two females on an otherwise bare stage, doesn’t help either.
“Heartbeat 2” (心跳(二)), a solo by Chang Ching-an (張忠安) continues with the theme of pregnancy she explored in last year’s trio, “Heartbeat”. As in that piece, He Ai-zeng (賀愛曾) spends much of the time stretching a long white dress in front of her to depict pregnancy. It is all extremely obvious, but just in case you don’t get the message, photos of a baby are projected onto her body. Later she becomes more anguished in what appears to be a reflection of the loss of her child. Like last year, though, it fails to convince, and never matches the intensity of Max Richter’s music.
Completing the line-up is “A Flower for Myself” (自己買花自己戴…) by Lin Yi-li (林怡利), a member of faculty at Tainan University of Technology’s Dance Department, which looks at the flower that is woman. It is also a valiant effort to inject some local flavour and context into ballet. The title suggests a very personal piece, and it starts intriguingly with the appearance of a woman in traditional dress who, in a feat of endurance, never comes down off pointe. Next comes another in a nude body suit, seemingly naked, before a final three show up in what turns out to be a rather pale ballet meets pole dance sequence. Although it’s a promising idea, and one worth revisiting and developing, at present none of the sections comes even close to expressing much in the way of meaning, emotion or anything else.
Rumours surface from time to time that Chang is thinking of scrapping “Dance Shoe”, but it’s an important showcase that provides all too rare opportunities for local young or emerging ballet choreographers in particular. The modern twist they give work is also refreshing. Ballet in Taiwan needs encouraging, needs home produced work, and certainly needs programmes like this rather more than it needs third rate visiting Russian groups with their less than impressive herds of swans and the like. Let us hope that rumours are all they ever turn out to be.
Note: The English titles of the dances are not necessarily direct translations, but are my ‘best fit’ based on the Chinese titles and content.