'Palermo Palermo'.  Photo © Laurent Philippe

Palermo Palermo.
Photo © Laurent Philippe

David Mead reflects on the month’s dance happenings in Taiwan’s capital; a month of big name international visitors and graduation performances.

The arts scene in Taiwan pretty much closes down over Chinese New Year; that means a month with no dance in the theatre. So it was good to get back into the swing of things when the Taiwan International Festival of the Arts kicked off at the end of February.

It has to be said that the first dance piece of the Festival left pretty much everyone cold. Ann Van den Brock’s The Red Piece danced by her WArd/waRD company may have achieved exactly what it set out to do – divorce the initial emotional stimulus from the movement – but it did not make great watching. The fact the movement quality was not exactly outstanding didn’t help, and as for all the stamping…let’s just say it wasn’t the place to be if you had a headache! There’s more thoughts and a full review here.

Thankfully, things picked up after that. When Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch last came to Taipei they were hugely disappointing. Bausch’s Rite of Spring, usually so powerful, lacked punch with many of the cast strangely not really getting to grips with the piece, certainly it had little of its usual power and impact. Café Muller, meanwhile, suffered from the redesigned set, the now see-through plastic café walls not even getting close to compressing the action in the way the previous more solid ones did. Was this the beginning of the end, I was asking. I was premature. This year, they were back on top form with Palermo Palermo (click here for review), although it has to be said that it does better suit the now aging cast. The “where next” question for the ensemble will not go away though.

'Rosas danst Rosas'.  Photo © Herman Sorgeloos 1

Rosas danst Rosas.
Photo © Herman Sorgeloos

Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s Rosas brought two classics: Rosas danst Rosas and Drumming.

Rosas danst Rosas, review here, played to nearly full houses, although some in the audience found it extremely hard going, especially the opening movement performed in silence save the sound of the performers’ breaths and bodies. More than one loud yawn was heard, and a gentleman in front of me gave up after about twenty minutes. It was quite amusing watching him slump lower and lower in his seat. What was not amusing was his then deciding his cell phone offered more entertainment. I’m sure he would have played with it for the rest of the show had he not been forcibly tapped on the shoulder. Not so long ago, audiences in Taipei used to be far better behaved then most other places. No more. Cell phones, ring, vibrate, are used to read the programme, text or play games. You see it all. Memo to everyone: if you really can’t stand it that much, leave. Don’t spoil it for everyone else.

Huang Yung-huai in 'SAO PLUS'.  Photo © AT EASE STUDIO

Huang Yung-huai in SAO PLUS.
Photo © AT EASE STUDIO

Somewhat oddly, Drumming, review here, was much more poorly attended. Although it’s an easier piece in some ways – it’s lighter, more upbeat – it’s harder in others in that it’s so relentless. Although I know the music and dance are intimately connected, it didn’t seem like it. The lack of Ictus, live, made a big difference. The whole thing felt a little like a lot of Cunningham: the music somewhat divorced form the dance, and the whole thing rather more fun to do than to watch.

Towards the end of the month, Take Off 2015 (逃亡2015), a collaboration between Sun-Shier Dance Theatre (三十舞蹈劇場) and some Korean artists, proved by very pleasant surprise. Interestingly, it totally divided opinion; it seems you either loved it or hated. I was definitely in the former camp. There’s a full review here.

Even better, though, was SAO PLUS (騷+), a live jazz meets calligraphy meets multimedia meets live dance concoction at the Eslite Performance Hall, a new venue at the Songshan Creative Park. Read more here.

March sees a number of annual dance department graduation performances from schools in the city that have specialist dance departments. On 14th, The Hwa Gang Arts School (華岡藝術學校) put on a very pleasant evening at the Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall, their Circle of Life programme featuring a mix of ballet, modern and Chinese dance, some choreographed by teachers, some by students. The highlight was actually a student work: Limitation (局限) by Zheng Zi-ling (鄭紫菱) and Zhu Pei-lun (朱姵綸). The rather moody piece was set to and apparently inspired by the words spoken at the beginning of Max Richter’s The Trees. The text, “The house I was born in no longer exists…nothing,” was reflected in the chalking of the outline of a building’s footprint and over lapping squares of lighting on the stage floor. Very smart.

The specialist dance classes at Taipei’s junior high and elementary high schools came together for another enjoyable annual performance at the Metropolitan Hall on March 17th. The choreography at the shows can get a little predictable – lots of big ensemble sections, often in unison – presumably in an attempt to get everyone on stage as much as possible, but it is usually easy on the eye. And what can’t be denied is the enthusiasm of the performers, and the level of stagecraft, which is way above what one generally sees in the UK at these ages.

Shuang Yuan Junior High School in XXXX.

Shuang Yuan Junior High School in Autumn Fields Sunset.

The best work of the evening was also the most old-fashioned: the Martha Graham inspired Autumn Fields Sunset*, (秋田裡的晚霞), choreography by Wang Yuan-li (王元俐) after the noted Jiang Qiu-e (蔣秋娥), danced by the final year students (age 15) at Shuang Yuan Junior High School (雙園國中). The piece has been staged by a number of schools over the years, so perhaps it’s no surprise it looks so polished. With everyone in their long gold dresses it was a real picture.

Chinese dance always seems to be well-performed at these shows, and I particularly enjoyed that for Shuang Yuan’s year-8 (age 14) students, Legend of the supernatural bird* (神鳥傳說) by Li Pei-qi (李珮綺), while the demonstration of  modern dance class work (a feature of these shows is such pieces, usually choreographed along the lines of Messerer’s ballet Class Concert but just ten minutes or so long) by Bei-an Junior High School was danced excellently. I do find it fascinating, however, that Graham technique continues to have such a powerful hold here when most of the rest of the world moved on to something rather more contemporary a long time ago.

And let’s not forget Dong Men and Yong-le Elementary Schools, whose 10 and 11-year olds danced with plenty of sparkle in some fun pieces.

What was disappointing from all the high schools was the standard of the much of the ballet. It understandably varies from year to year, but matters are not helped when teacher-choreographers ask students to perform steps they have clearly not yet mastered, sometimes at a speed that is equally beyond them, and to work on pointe when they clearly are not yet up to it. The pointe issues were sometimes very obvious, with many students unable to hold their turn-out en l’air, not fully on pointe, and gaps between feet supposedly on pointe in fifth that you could have driven a bus through!

Up at Taipei National University of the Arts (TNUA, 薹北國立藝術大學) on March 21st, Jack Sun’s graduation concert proved to be a little bit of a mixed bag, but then these things often are, the requirements of a postgraduate degree concert not always matching with what is good from a non-academic audience perspective. But when Boundless (視域) was good, it was very, very good indeed.

Sun’s opening skit on the modern obsession with cellphones was neatly done (although then going into the audience with them and taking photos was tiresome in the extreme). There was a pleasant shadowy female solo, and a nicely observed duet of sorts between two men and chairs, each in their own pool of light (the lighting was excellent throughout), each watching the other. Best of the best, though, was a beautiful and subtly lit male-female duet (Sad thoughts against the wall*, 思念那一面哀傷的牆) that referenced a former relationship and failed love. The clever staging here against an uncovered mirror (we were in a studio that doubles as a performance space), allowed the audience to see everything double. A later argumentative male-male duet was rather less successful, though, and the final slap dance (Slap*, 拍) rather lacked oomph.

NTUA students in A song, a sofa. Photo Chen Chang-zhi

NTUA students in A song, a sofa.
Photo Chen Chang-zhi

The same day at the other end of the city I caught Exit No.21 – Departure Before Dawn (21號出口 – 黎明前啟程) a performance by the evening course students at the National Taiwan University of the Arts (NTUA, 國立臺灣藝術大學). The university runs two BFA programmes side by side, one during the day, and an extension programme during the evening. Most of the choreography was by students, and what a varied bunch of pieces it turned out to be. My personal favourite was Zhang Chen-wei’s (張宸瑋) A song, a sofa* (一首歌•一張沙發), which really was all set around a sofa, one which the all-male cast danced and leapt around and over with aplomb and to great effect. But every piece had something going for it, and it was certainly an evening packed with enthusiasm.

The end of the month saw more university performances, from Focus Dance Company (焦點舞團), the postgraduate performing company of TNUA, to be reviewed separately, and by Hwa Gang Dance Troupe (華岡藝展) of the Chinese Cultural University (中國文化大學), where the dance department has just reached its 50th anniversary.

Trajectory (軌跡) by the Hwa Gang Dance Troupe featured nine excellent pieces including the best ballet of the month by a very long distance indeed. The opening (and appropriately titled) Passing of the years* (致流光歲月) by Wei Pei-lin was full of pleasant fluid lines and pleasant use of the music, a mix of Vivaldi, Bach and Nicholas Vallet. Equally enjoyable was Wu Man-li’s (伍曼麗) Pulse* (悸動), which although danced to selections from Prokofiev’s Cinderella, was plenty good enough to put thoughts of that ballet well and truly to one side. A special mention here for the men. Led by Chung Chang-hung (James Chung, 鍾長宏), they were all excellent, and demonstrated some great leaps and turns.

Elsewhere, special mentions go to Chang Yung-yu’s (張永煜) Illusion* (幻化), an intricate Chinese dance piece with some cracking designs – I just loved those umbrellas minus the fabric, and Track by Su An-li (蘇安莉), a vibrant contemporary piece that closed the evening. Perhaps the best thing about Trajectory, though, was that it was packed with variety. The dances were all different, looked different, felt different, and that isn’t always the case in Taiwan.

Looking ahead, April in Taipei sees the last dance performance of TIFA, a collaboration between the city’s Century Contemporary Dance Company (世紀當代舞團) and Leipzig Ballet, the International Ballet Star Gala, and the official opening of Cloud Gate’s new office, studio and theatre complex in Tamsui, with a triple bill of new work by Cloud Gate 2 (雲門2).

More in a few weeks.

* Translation from the Chinese and not an official title.