Taiwan Season EdFringe 2015Tjimur Dance Theatre: Gaze of the Kavaluan
Dance Base; August 18, 2015

Formosa Circus Arts: Self and Others
Zoo Southside; August 19, 2015

Tai Body Theatre: Island Voices – The Sigh of Body
C South; August 19, 2015

Puppet Beings Theatre: The Paper Play
Summerhall; August 20, 2015

David Mead

Making a welcome return to the Fringe after last year’s successful inaugural year, this year’s Taiwan Season featured contemporary dance from Tjimur Dance Theatre (蒂摩爾古薪舞集), a circus and dance combo from Formosa Circus Arts (FOCA福爾摩沙馬戲團) and puppetry from Puppet Beings Theatre (偶偶偶劇團) in three very different programmes. Also from Taiwan, but presented separately, was Tai Body Theatre (TAI身體劇場) with a work based on indigenous song and dance.

Tjimur Dance Theatre: Gaze of the Kavaluan

Making a welcome return to the Fringe after their success in 2014 with Kurakuraw: Dance Glass Bead (Kurakuraw‧舞琉璃) are Tjimur Dance Theatre. The company has a reputation for combining the traditional and modern, with works frequently passing comment on the indigenous societies from which they come; and Gaze of the Kavaluan is about as incisive and cutting as it comes.

In the Paiwan and Rukai cultures, the lily (kavaluan) has long been a symbol of female chastity, but its meaning has been sullied over time, to the extent that it is now little more than a narrow measure of perceived virtue. Taking that as his starting point, Balu Maladin’s (巴魯‧瑪迪霖) work looks at the struggle young people in particular face when presented with the clash between traditional values and the modern lifestyles, and asks questions about whether it is possible to inhabit both, or someplace in between.

Gaze of the Kavaluan  Photo Maria Falconer

Gaze of the Kavaluan
Photo Maria Falconer

Entering the theatre, four dancers are seen laying across the doorway and seats on stage. They are heavily made-up and scantily dressed in modern tops and briefs (although still with just a hint of traditional decoration). That, and the way they are touching each other oozes sexuality and leaves little to the imagination. In the corner, representing the old generation, is a black clad and veiled woman clutching a bunch of white lilies; the colour of her dress maybe a metaphor for the death of time-honoured values. One can but wonder what she thinks.

The stage is delineated by stark white strip lights. The dancers pose and strut as if on a catwalk, showing themselves and their bodies off to anyone who cares to look. The promiscuous nature of modern city society is there for all to see as the choreography gets increasingly animalistic and lustful, and the sexual references increasingly overt.

Eventually, the old lady has enough and vents her fury, but it is to no avail. She is of her world and they are of theirs. The young people have become wild creatures who seek out sexuality by smell as much as by look. They soon return to their ways, even passing a lily from mouth to mouth; the ultimate denigration of the symbolic flower.

Boundaries continue to break down as the dancers approach the audience, gaze at them through magnifying glasses, sit among them, and finally invite some to join them on stage and sit on their laps as the orgy of groping continues.

I understand that some changes in choreography were made for Edinburgh, including some toning down of the sexual references to suit local sensibilities at the behest of Dance Base. Even after that, subtle Gaze of the Kavaluan is not, but then being so would probably lessen the impact of the message and the questions being asked. It is and needs to be potent stuff. It’s disturbing and not the easiest watch, coming as it does with a 16+ warning. Equally it’s one of the hardest-hitting, dramatic, sexy, tense and humorous pieces on show this year; and raises questions about culture and lifestyle clash that go way beyond the immediate references.

Formosa Circus Arts: Self and Others

Formosa Circus Arts in Self and Others Photo FOCA

Formosa Circus Arts in Self and Others
Photo FOCA

This year’s Fringe features a great deal of circus, most of it at a special Circus Hub tent. Formosa Circus Arts, however, opted for a more traditional theatre setting for their blend of circus acrobatics, theatre and dance.

Self and Others opens with the cast of seven building structures with interlocking wooden blocks. As soon as the lights dim, though, it all comes crashing down and the mood changes as we find ourselves in what appears to be some post-apocalyptic world. It’s a place where the performers sometimes support each other, but also one of tension and where they fight.

From this nothingness, a new world, something, emerges. As they rebuild their world there’s some impressive aerial work with silks and plenty of acrobatic balances and juggling. Scenes flow seamlessly from one to another. Among the standout moments are one member doing a handstand on a plank, which is then carried by two others; and the fashioning of a slightly eerie white puppet-figure from material. The circus is all there, but where Self and Others is different is that this all happens minus much in the way of showmanship that is such a feature of it in the West. It’s good, yes, but not exciting. Bright and upbeat are not adjectives that spring to mind. Throw in the fairly nondescript music and, for some, I suspect that for some it will lack punch and feel rather one-paced.

It is admittedly difficult to avoid lengthy ‘settings up’ in acrobatics, but Self and Others is at its best when things flow rather more smoothly, and especially when the dance and circus truly come together as one; when the acrobatics become integral to a wider vignette or story rather than being there for their own sake. Among such moments is a dark scene, full of tension and foreboding, when two dancers fight acrobatically, soon flowed by three more.

It finishes with snow-like balls being made up from powder and water (it’s as messy as it sounds), some of which are used for attempted juggling, some for fights. As the balls disintegrate, something again becomes nothing.

Tai Body Theatre: Island Voices – The Sigh of the Body

Away from the official Taiwan Season, (supported instead by the Taiwan Indigenous People’s Cultural Foundation, 財團法人原住民族文化事業基金會), Tai Body Theatre presented another look at indigenous culture.

In a note, choreographer Watan Tusi (瓦旦‧督喜) makes similar references to Balu Maladin about the influence of the modern world on the lifestyle and behaviour of indigenous people, but The Sigh of the Body could hardly be more different.

Tusi sets out to depict the confrontations and oppressions imposed on the Truku people of the Taroko area of Eastern Taiwan, and their reactions to cultural pressures and life’s difficulties, through music, body percussion and movement.

It’s a recalling of the spirit of the past. In a nod to modernity, the cast wear jeans and T-shirts throughout, the message seemingly that one can be modern and still reconnect. Traditional dress maybe important, but the person inside is even more important.

The dances have a simple beauty, and feature lots of repetition, follow my leader and call and response. There are shifts in pace are there, but they are subtle. It was the signing that really got me, though, always expressive and full of powerful energy, but also with a rawness that comes only from years of hardship and difficulty.

The performers also produce the music, which comes from two traditional instruments: a slitted piece of bamboo with string which when pulled twangs the wood as the musician blows into it, and wooden blocks that represent an ancient xylophone that was once broken.

The Sigh of Body is tricky to connect with at first, even if you’ve been to that part of Taiwan and know something of the history. I’m not sure the connections Tusi tries to make ever cross the East-West divide, but the longer it goes on, the more one is drawn into the repetitive dance, the percussion of the feet, and especially that singing.

The Paper Play Photo Puppet Beings Theatre

The Paper Play
Photo Puppet Beings Theatre

Puppet Beings Theatre: The Paper Play

Also part of the Taiwan Season was an absolutely delightful and thoroughly engaging double bill of puppet theatre from Puppet Beings Theatre. It’s an hour that will delight everyone. It’s simple, charming, and I guarantee that you’ll come out with a smile on your face, whatever your age.

The Paper Play takes everyone on an adventure told through mime that includes ships, pirates, a storm, various birds, mermaids and other sea creatures, all fashioned out of nothing more than sheets of paper and sticks. This is one thing that you can definitely try at home, and I suspect quite a number of mums in the audience did. So involved were many of the youngsters that they were calling out the names of the animals as soon as they appeared. There’s plenty of humour along the way too, sometimes from the paper characters, sometimes from the hugely talented team.

The Park Photo Puppet Beings Theatre

The Park
Photo Puppet Beings Theatre

Preceding The Paper Play, The Park (老人與小皮球) is a short tale told with puppets about an old man who sits in the park. Children are afraid of him, but not so the most adorable cute puppy who shows up and who plays ball with him. It sounds nothing, and in a way it is, but just sit back and marvel at how much character the team get out of their puppets.

The Taiwan Season continues to the end of the Fringe:

Gaze of the Kavaluan is at Dance Base (Venue 22) until 30 August. Details here.
The Paper Play is at Summerhall (Venue 26) until 30 August. Details here.
Island Voices – The Sigh of Body is at C South (Venue 58) until 31 August. Details here.
Self and Others has already finished its run.