Letter from Taipei: April 2015

The new Cloud Gate centre at Tamsui. Photo Matt Wen

The new Cloud Gate centre at Tamsui.
Photo Matt Wen

David Mead

April 2015 in Taipei, or at least Greater Taipei, for strictly speaking it’s in New Taipei City, will always be remembered for the official opening of the new Cloud Gate complex in Tamsui. Five years in the planning and construction, it’s the sparkling new home for Cloud Gate Dance Theatre (雲門舞集), Cloud Gate 2 (雲門2), all the administration functions (previously always housed separately), and the 450-seat Cloud Gate Theatre, which opened on April 24 with Cloud Gate 2’s annual Spring Riot season.

The opening ceremony was attended by dignitaries from Taiwan and many other countries. They included Dieter Jaenicke, art director of the European Center for the Arts in Hellerau, Germany, who paid a warm tribute to Lin in an often humorous speech, and Chicago businessman Fred Eychaner, a long-time supporter of the company, and whose Alphawood Foundation donated US$5 million towards the building costs.

The centre marks the opening of a new chapter in Cloud Gate’s history, and the theatre itself really is splendid; 450 seats and not a bad view to be had. And when the backcloth as flown, there is that fabulous view of the trees and grass of the Taiwan Golf Club.

I just hope access doesn’t turn out to be an issue for people. It’s a fair walk from the car park to the entrance; OK on a pleasant spring day, but maybe not on a rainy winter evening. And public transport to the site is not great. The bus service to the car park is irregular, and although a frequent bus runs to the bottom of the road, it’s a good ten to fifteen minute walk uphill from the bus stop. Cloud Gate did, though, to their credit, run shuttle buses to and from Tamsui MRT station for Spring Riot.

Cloud Gate 2 in rehearsal for  Beckoning, showing the amazing view when the stage flats are raised.  Photo Liu Chen-hsiang

Cloud Gate 2 in rehearsal for Beckoning, showing the beautiful view when the stage flats are raised.
Photo Liu Chen-hsiang

The part of the building that houses the studios was converted from an old military installation. Cloud Gate were unable to raise the ceiling heights, which is going to cause the occasional problem since anything that requires lifts is probably going to have be rehearsed on the stage. The rest of the site, which is open to the public, includes a small cafeteria, coffee shop/bookstore, and plenty of green space.

This year’s Spring Riot programme featured three new works: Beckoning (來) by artistic director Cheng Tsung-lung (鄭宗龍); Horde (暫時而已), the first work for the company by Huang Huai-de (黃懷德), a young 29-year old choreographer best known so far for his association with Horse (驫舞劇場); and Hell Groove (衝撞天堂) by Chen Yun-ju (陳韻如), also making her company debut. For a review, see the June issue of Dancing Times.

The month in Taipei kicked off with the visit of the National Taiwan University of Physical Education and Sport (國立臺灣體育運動大學) from Taichung’s visit to the Metropolitan Hall on April 3 with Rhapsody Finale (狂飆). The university often produces whole evening pieces, or a small number of works linked by a common theme, but this year reverted to the more common graduate performance format of multiple short works by students, plus a closing piece by a member of faculty.

Things got off to an excellent start. The Falling Angel by Tang Yan-ru (湯硯如) was a nicely constructed ballet to a couple of Arvo Pärt’s Te Deum and Fratres favourites.  Even better was Huang Zhi-yi’s (黃之羿) Shift, an excellent work structured around five large tables that are periodically moved to change the architecture of the performing space. The dancers slip under them, danced on them and around them to great effect.

Best of the rest was Les toilettes by Zhao Wei-xuan (趙唯軒). Highly amusing, it got everyone smiling. To music by Rossini, Quincy Jones and Leroy Anderson the cast, in white bathrobes, brushed their teeth (William Tell Overture), washed their faces, put on their make-up and more, often a high-speed. Throw in a few things seemingly inspired by events in rehearsal, such as a dancer arriving late, and you have an odd mix. But sometimes odd mixes really pay off.

Sadly, the remainder of the programme failed to spark, with the closing work by Bao Er-ji (寶爾基), from which the whole evening took its title, hitting the wrong notes altogether. It opened with the male students trying to look cool and macho – and failing – and the ladies…well, I think trying to be sexy and alluring, but as usual when something is dreadfully overdone, having almost the opposite effect. What followed seemed mostly to be about charging across the stage and freestyle jumps. Oh, yes, and don’t forget the overly loud music and prolonged strobe lighting that caused many to put a hand in front of their eyes.

Century Contemporary Dance Company in Wild Butterflies.  Photo Chou Chia-hui

Century Contemporary Dance Company in Wild Butterflies.
Photo Chou Chia-hui

On that subject, what is it at the moment with Taiwanese choreographers and lighting designers and strobe lighting? It seems to be everywhere – even more so than the music of Part and Max Richter. Strobes are a pretty blunt instrument in the lighting armoury, but making people block their eyes is one way of disguising weak choreography, I suppose. At the end of this performance, it was even done with lights behind the scrim, aimed directly at the audience. That’s not clever, and it can be downright dangerous; strobe lighting is known to cause disorientation, fits and seizures in some people.

The same weekend saw the final dance performance of the Taiwan International Festival of the Arts (台灣國際藝術節) a joint programme by Century Contemporary Dance Company (世紀當代舞團) and Leipzig Ballet. It was fabulous, and quite simply the best main stage dance collaboration by far that I’ve seen at TIFA. It also goes to show what can be achieved when the partners in a collaboration spend a lot of time together in preparation. Click here for a full review.

From dance on stage to dance on screen…or at least a dance-maker on screen. Singing Chen’s (陳芯宜) documentary, The Walkers (行者), which premiered on April 10, is a beautifully observed portrait of Legend Lin Dance Theatre (無垢舞蹈劇場) artistic director, Lin Lee-chen (林麗珍). It certainly deserves to be seen abroad. One can only hope that it is. There’s a full review here.

There was a chance to see Legend Lin in the flesh later in the month at a special performance of Song of Pensive Beholding (觀) in preparation for the company’s forthcoming visit to Japan at the Jingmei National Human Rights Memorial and Culture Park (景美人權文化園區) on Thursday afternoon, April 24.

Legend Lin Dance Theatre in Song of Pensive Beholding.  Photo Jin Cheng-Cai

Legend Lin Dance Theatre in Song of Pensive Beholding.
Photo Jin Cheng-Cai

The title of the 2009 work refers to fact that human actions are driven by inner impulses, and that we always reflect outwardly what we see and feel in our hearts. This is done through a mythical story. A spirit, the White Bird, is engaged to be married to the Earth but instead betrays her vows in a tryst with Samo, one of two brothers of the Eagle race who have promised to guard and protect the soul of a mysterious river.

As with all of Lin’s recent works, Song of Pensive Beholding has a ritualistic air. Nothing is rushed. The dancers mostly move very, very slowly. They walk more deliberately than you could ever imagine, half crouched, bent forward. In one sense it’s lethargic, but it’s equally packed with tension. And gosh, even minus the theatre lighting (the show was in a naturally lit rehearsal space) it is beautiful.

The love scene between the White Bird and Samo is exquisite. She reaches out to him, then grazes and rubs against his arm. The duet is packed with startling sculptural images, the erotic nature of the meeting revealed in fast fluttering fingers. When they finally part, each has left a physical mark on
the other. How real life is that?

The battle that follows when man faces his fellow being in turbulent times is dramatic indeed. Dancers swirl and rush around each other like vultures circling their prey. All this to powerful drumming. The end comes as a stark contrast, a return to the serenity of the opening, and a dancer laying out stones from a bowl.

Difficult for the audience at times, undoubtedly, but a marvellous journey into the fantastical, and the soul, definitely.

There was more dance to come at the National Theater, though, and the following weekend saw the visit of Feng Dance Theatre (風乎舞雩) from Tainan at the Experimental Theatre (a 300-seat black box venue) upstairs.

In Yen’s Planting Orchid (栽種關係), the flower of the title is a metaphor for love and relationship between two people; something that just as equally requires a seed planting, then care to make it grow and bloom. It’s an interesting idea, but while the dance is pleasant and has some memorable moments, there are long sections when it doesn’t really lift off. Click here for a review.

Back downstairs in the main house a week later (April 19) it was time for the annual International Ballet Star Gala, the usual feast of excellence, and this year with a world premiere, Proven Lands by Jiří Bubeníček; and two takes on L’Après midi d’un faune by Dmitry Pimonov and David Dawson. There’s a full review here.

WCDance in Aerodynamics. Photo courtesy Lin Wen-chung

WCDance in rehearsal for Aerodynamics.
Photo courtesy Lin Wen-chung

Huang Yu-yuan and Huang Yong-huai rehearsing Aerodynamics. Photo courtesy Lin Wen-chung

Huang Yu-yuan and Huang Yong-huai rehearsing Aerodynamics.
Photo courtesy Lin Wen-chung

The final dance of the month was a studio rehearsal of Lin Wen-chong’s (林文中) Aerodynamics (空氣動力學) that his WCDance (林文中舞團) is to premiere in Macao on May 9, before appearing at the National Theater in Taipei on June 13 and 14.

In Aerodynamics, Lin packs the dance with different representations of flying. It opens and closes with some strong images of fighting, and specifically boxing. Most of the time, though, the impression given is of the dancers being blown around the stage, gusts of air pushing them around, swirling them here and there.

The dancers are rarely upright. Much of the movement involves bent knees and low travelling steps. In a sense it’s loose (but then, after all, when were things ever blown around in perfect unison?), but it’s also very well controlled.

There are many highlights, but two stand out: a duet between Huang Yu-yuan (黃郁元) and Huang Yong-huai (黃詠懷), and a later trio when they are joined by Lin Pei-fen (林沛芬). In both, Lin in particular is tossed and thrown around, one might say flown around, with considerable abandon. Some of it is scarily fast, but remarkably, it’s also pinpoint accurate. Then again, it needs to be.

No doubt some will accuse Aerodynamics of being a somewhat one-paced, but I found it rather absorbing, even minus its lighting and Wu Chi-tsung’s (吳季璁) set that, from photographs, looks interesting with its strips hanging from above.

Overall, this looks to be another excellent and interesting production from Lin. Apart from the movement itself, and perhaps reflecting the different physical and psychological space that I understand was in Lin’s mind, I particularly liked the sense of a another world that runs deep through the work. Lin Gui-ru’s (林桂如) music helps a lot here. It’s a sense that I suspect will only be magnified when that lighting is added.

That’s the final Letter from Taipei for a while, but it will be back in early 2016.