Various venues, Taipei, Taiwan; November 23-December 1, 2013

David Mead

i-dance Taipei is a biannual international festival of improvisation. Hosted by Ku Ming-shen (古名伸) and her dance company Ku & Dancers (古名伸舞蹈團), this year’s event saw nine days of workshops, panel discussions, outdoor showcases and indoor performances, with many invited artists from around the globe joining local performers. Indeed, Ku told me she was amazed at just how many people have travelled long distances to be part of the activities, with some coming from as far afield as Europe and the US, as well as from Malaysia, Hong Kong, South Korea and Singapore, including noted American artist Nancy Stark Smith and her long-time collaborator, musician and composer, Mike Vargas.

Various venues were used during the festival, with the indoor performances and closing gala taking place at Taipei’s Red House Theater, an unusual Western-style red-brick octagonal structure. With its highly flexible performance space offering multiple levels, it proved to be an ideal venue. 26 performers took to the floor, with musicians not only busy improvising away along with the dancers, but often joining in physically too. It proved to be an enjoyable 75 minutes or so.

Watching improvisation in performance can be a tricky business, in many ways far more so than taking part. Not unlike the dancers and musicians, you have to engage with the spirit that underpins what is happening and let yourself go somewhat. You have to be aware, and most importantly and often most difficultly, be open. Dropping all those often deeply ingrained expectations about what dance, and particularly dance on stage, should look like, can be hard indeed.

Like most improvisations, things started fairly gently with just a few artists taking to the floor while others watched. In many ways, this was the easiest part of proceedings to appreciate. As is the case with regular dance performances, when there are lots of different ideas or things going on, it can get difficult to watch. And there were times when things here got very busy indeed. In general, the time flew past, but there was a point after about an hour when I’m not sure whether the performers’ ideas got less interesting (and improv does have its ups and downs like anything else) or I simply got fatigued trying to take it all in.

i-dance Taipei 2013 closing gala at the Red House Theater. Photo: i-dance Taipei

i-dance Taipei 2013 closing gala at the Red House Theater.
Photo: i-dance Taipei

Ku Ming-shen and Nancy Stark Smith at i-dance Taipei 2013. Photo i-dance Taipei

Ku Ming-shen and Nancy Stark Smith at i-dance Taipei 2013.
Photo i-dance Taipei

Not surprisingly, individual character showed through quite quickly. There was the serious, the gently humorous, the quirky, and the downright playful. For me, improv has always been about coming together and the sort of unspoken dialogue that results. Sometimes the dance that flows therefrom makes immediate sense, sometimes it doesn’t.

I couldn’t help revelling in the unexpected meetings and liaisons. Duets appeared from nowhere and dissolved just as mysteriously. There were any number of brief encounters. Blink and you missed them; gone for ever. Whole sections grew organically, then just as naturally died away.

As the performance wore on, humour became more and more evident. As with all attempts at jokiness, some work for everyone, while others only do so for those directly involved. I found a couple of moments especially smile inducing. The first was when several dancers decided it would be fun to crawl animal-like across the raised part of the performance space. Shortly afterwards, a quartet took great delight repeatedly leaping up to sit on the stage. Imagine trumpet valves going up and down without the trumpeter and you might get some idea of what it looked like.

i-dance Taipei: the musicians joined in too! Photo i-dance Taipei

i-dance Taipei: the musicians joined in too!
Photo i-dance Taipei

After around 45 minutes the lights on the stage went down as those on the audience went up. The performers paused and looked out. Now who was watching who? The audience may have thought they were just watching, but in fact, they were, in a sense, part of the ‘game’ too.

When there was lots going on, one’s eye was often taken by the small. Towards the end, as events on the lower stage got very busy, one female turned away from the madness towards the exposed brickwork at the back of the hall and started tracing the outlines with her finger. It was simple, yet in its way beautiful and quite spellbinding.

And so came the end, and a rousing ovation for all taking part. In the festival brochure, Ku made reference to improvisation being a force that can draw people together, encourage trust and understanding. She’s right. So why not let yourself go sometime. That can be scary, and can seem like a leap into the unknown, but whether artist or audience member, you might just surprise yourself.