David Mead

Huang Pei-hua and Tsai Ming-yuan in Pollen II from Lin Hwai-min's Rice. Photo © Liu Chen-hsiang

Huang Pei-hua and Tsai Ming-yuan in Pollen II from Lin Hwai-min’s Rice.
Photo © Liu Chen-hsiang

The six week run up to the end of the year is a busy time for dance in Taipei. This year’s highlight was undoubtedly the world premiere of Lin Hwai-min’s (林懷民) latest creation, “Rice” (稻禾) for Cloud Gate Dance Theatre (雲門舞集) at Taipei’s National Theater. Based on the life cycle of a rice paddy, it uses sun, wind, earth, fire and other elements as a metaphor for life itself. The dance is considerably less tai-qi focused than many recent works, although Cloud Gate is not and has never been all about such pieces.

In “Rice”, Lin mixes tai-qi with modern dance, martial arts (notably for the men who get to fight with huge bamboo poles), and movement from everyday farming activities. The dance is backed throughout by some startlingly beautiful video footage from the Chihshang area of Taiwan’s East Rift Vally that inspired the piece. Every section has much to admire, but best of all is “Pollen II”, a largely floor-based duet in which the two dancers remain in constant contact. “Rice” is touring to selected venues in Europe and Asia in 2014.

Elsewhere, I was particularly taken by Assembly Dance Theatre’s (組合語言舞團) 20th anniversary “Deseo” (願) programme and with Lai Tsui-shuang’s (賴翠霜) “Survive” (存在) in particular. It’s an ambitious and effective work for five dancers, all of who remain on stage throughout the work’s 35 minutes or so.

At first, clothes hang upstage. There is a suggestion they represent casualties of war, especially when one dancer appears, limbs trembling. Loneliness and loss are very much to the fore, even when the other dancers emerge from behind the garments. Although they often dance together there is always a sense that while a group, they are representing the individual. The dance itself is robust and tightly structured. Much of the movement is low, knees bent, body hunched over, yet changes in direction are sharp. It reminded me a lot of some of the better moments by Hofesh Shechter (but without the deafening music!).

Assembly Dance Theatre in Lai Tsai-shuang's 'Survive'.  Photo © Chen Chang-chih

Assembly Dance Theatre in Lai Tsai-shuang’s ‘Survive’.
Photo © Chen Chang-chih

Assembly Dance Theatre in Yan feng-xi's 'Magnetism of Children'. Photo © Chen Chang-chih

Assembly Dance Theatre in Yan feng-xi’s ‘Magnetism of Children’.
Photo © Chen Chang-chih

Also on the programme was “Magnetism of Children” (孩子磁場) by Yan Feng-xi (顏鳳曦) that considers the relationship between mother and child. The opening section, a light and shadow duet representing the child in the womb, is particularly effective.The title work, “Deseo” (Spanish for ‘wish’)( 願), is a duet by former Cloud Gate dancer Wang Wei-ming (王維銘) that explores human emotions and sensibilities within a relationship. An opening solo by Wang as he speaks delicate verse is slow and meaningful, the words reflected well in the dance. He is joined later by his ‘other half’ (here danced by Liu Meng-ting (劉孟婷), although it is always as if she is the embodiment of his thoughts, despite the strong connection, the never physically touching.

The end of the year is the graduation performance season for university and senior high school dance divisions. The latter are effectively full-time dance schools embedded in regular high schools (that means age 16-18), and for which entry is strictly by audition. Taipei’s Zhong Zheng Senior High (中正高中) is widely regarded as having the highest technical and performance standards, something proved during a most impressive evening at the city’s packed 1,100 seat Metropolitan Hall. Highlights of a programme of ballet, modern and Chinese classical dance inspired pieces were the very angular and contemporary “T” by Jian Hua-bao (簡華葆), and “Wind Shadow” (風中的身影), a collaboration between Pan Yu-shen (潘鈺慎) and the graduating 3rd year dancers.

Best of the university dance concerts and graduation programmes by far was “Strive – the eternal cycle of gain and loss” (掙 -人生競逐 虛實幻象) by the Dance Department of the National Taiwan University of Physical Education and Sport (國立臺灣體育運動大學) from Taichung. Eschewing the usual university mixed programme, “Strive” brings together ballet and modern dance in particular in a single work that no fewer than five choreographers had a hand in. Common sense tells you that it shouldn’t work, but not only does it, I’ll swear you can’t see the joins.

National Taiwan University of Physical Education and Sport in 'Strive - the eternal cycle of gain and loss'.  Photo © Chen Wei-sheng

National Taiwan University of Physical Education and Sport in ‘Strive – the eternal cycle of gain and loss’.
Photo © Chen Wei-sheng

National Taiwan University of Physical Education and Sport in 'Strive - the eternal cycle of gain and loss'. Photo © Chen Wei-sheng

National Taiwan University of Physical Education and Sport in ‘Strive – the eternal cycle of gain and loss’. Photo © Chen Wei-sheng

“Strive” takes up themes in life, as the title suggests, most notably struggle and perseverance, but also reflecting its value. Different sections have different pulses. The opening and closing both reflect the hectic non-stop nature of the modern world, the dancers running on the spot to a pounding beat as if being driven by some great force.

I also enjoyed “Black Rain” (黑雨), a strong yet supportive male trio featuring Huang Jian-biao (黃建彪), also a faculty member and not only one of this work’s choreographers but one of Taiwan’s more accomplished and innovative ballet choreographers; Ge Ru-ting (葛如婷) and Wang Wei-fan (王偉帆). The third part “Red Smelt” (赤煉) impressed too. Moving away from big ensemble work, it featured the heartfelt dance of Zeng Zhi-jie (曾志洁). My only gripe: one section where the dancers appeared in the aisles. Quite why choreographers think this is clever or effective is beyond me. It’s not. It certainly did not fit with the rest of the piece.

“Strive” all takes place against some striking designs. Parts are dominated by a huge cubist gun-shaped object lowered from above. Best, though, is a huge wooden skeletal structure, shaped vaguely like a horse, that appears upstage, and that is danced around and on.

It’s not the first time the Taichung university has come up with the goods in a seriously impressive way. I still remember well the remarkable Taiwanese ballet, “The Princess and the Snake King” (蛇郎君), based on a local indigenous story, that was performed back in 2010.

Top of the other university performances was the winter dance concert at National Taipei University of the Arts (國立臺北藝術大學), which is reviewed separately. The Chinese Culture University (中國文化大學) programme also proved to be an enjoyable evening with some impressive student choreography, including Hsieh Kai-xian’s (謝凱賢) “Resting Place” (驛站), even if the projections did get a bit too much. I also greatly enjoyed He Yu-min’s (何郁玟) colourful lyrical contemporary ballet “Tour” (遡遊). Best, though, was faculty member Su An-li’s (安莉蘇) “Winter Love” (冬戀). I’ll admit that my heart sank a little when I saw it was danced in part to Arvo Part’s “Spiegel im Spiegel”, which, as beautiful as it is, is surely the most overused piece of music by choreographers. Su contrasts Part’s emotional score with dance that is powerful and angular. Part’s title translates as “mirrors in the mirror”, and her choreography does just that, a range of similar images being created and endlessly repeated with variations as if being reflected continuously between dancers. Even more interesting was the final section, to Edith Piaf singing “Hymne a l’amour”, written to her lover, French boxer, Marcel Cerdan. I’m not entirely convinced that anyone can beat Piaf’s powerful voice and emotionally-heavy lyrics, the late Pina Bausch at her best excepted perhaps, but Su comes very close.

The Taipei University Dance Department (臺北市立大學舞蹈系) evening was a mixed bag, some good contemporary pieces standing tall alongside some very debateable ballet. Li Shu-hui’s (李淑惠) “Fascinating stage” (the title works better in Chinese, 迷人的舞台) in particular featured leaden choreography that was completely the opposite to what the accompanying Joplin rags called for. Although the women wore pointe shoes here and in other ballet pieces, quite why is a good question given so little was actually done on pointe. A few balances was about as far as it went most of the time. Whether that was because the dancers weren’t able was unclear, although some of the turn out even on a simple bourrée was very weak indeed. Whatever, there’s no point putting dancers in pointe shoes if they are not going to be used.

This year’s National Taiwan University of the Arts (國立臺灣藝術大學) show was a pleasant enough all-Chinese dance affair. A somewhat unexciting evening suffered a little from props not behaving themselves; several refused to be caught when thrown and water sleeves got tangled on headdresses on several occasions.

More interesting things were going on over at the Huashan 1914 Creative Park, where Ting-ting Chang (張婷婷) and her TTCDance presented a “Dance Round Table” (2013圓桌舞蹈計畫) with the theme of New Asian Inspiration, three mixed programmes of mostly new work that reminded me much of the Resolution season at The Place in London. Chang deserves a lot of credit for being brave enough to put on three days of work presented largely by emerging choreographers or at least little known in Taiwan. The three programmes were interesting, but, as is always the case with this sort of thing, the standard of choreography and performance varied enormously. New work, or work by a previously outstanding dancer, does not necessarily mean quality work.

Yu Cheng-chieh and Johnny Tu in Yu's 'She said, he said'.  Photo © Fred Ho

Yu Cheng-chieh and Johnny Tu in Yu’s ‘She said, he said’.
Photo © Fred Ho

Shining brightest by far was Yu Cheng-chieh’s (余承婕) and Johnny Tu’s (涂展鹏) “She said, he said” (雌雄莫“辯”). Yu, who presently works out of California, has previously danced with the Cloud Gate and Jose Limon companies and others, and has made work for both the Beijing and Guangdong Modern Dance Companies. It shows. Essentially a conversation and, at times, argument in movement, the piece has a very natural, unforced feeling about it, with both Yu and Tu clearly at home in each other’s company.

Also looking good was “A Wonder Place” (想去的地方) by Hsu Chen-wei (許程崴), a graduate student at TNUA. Hsu and her fellow dancer Wu Ping-cheng (吳秉錚) were clearly playing out a relationship in a piece that is full of soft falls and gentle partnering. But while, classy, like the other pieces on that particular programme, it is far from experimental or particularly exciting, and there was the feeling that Hsu was playing it safe somewhat. Former Cloud Gate and City Contemporary Dance Company (Hong Kong) dancer Wu Yi-shan’s (吳易珊) “Cross-Talk” (相一身) has its moments, especially when dancers Chang Chien-chih (張堅志) and Chang Chieh-kuei (張堅貴) actually get round to moving, but there is far too much sitting around talking to one another.

But “Cross-Talk” was a joy compared to an excerpt from “Infinite” (冉), choreographed and danced by Beijing-based Hou Ying (侯瑩). Neither experimental nor interesting, it is one of the most numbing pieces I’ve seen in a long time. Long periods consist of travel along two straight lines, Hou on the floor drawing what seem to be shapes with her hand. Of course, excerpts don’t always make sense, and it is entirely possible that some clarity would come from seeing the whole piece, but I doubt it. In the post show Q&A, someone asked about the meaning. Hou’s long reply was as empty as her choreography. On the same programme and also from China, Eagle Ho’s (何其沃) “Self Roasted Crane” (鹽焗鶴) did not fare much better, but at least you could see there was a point to it.

Shi Pei-jun, Ye Xin and Zhou Zhi-rou in Zhan Tian-zhen's 'Moonlight' at the Tsai Jue-yueh Dance Foundation's Christmas event. Photo © Tsai Jue-yueh Dance Foundation

Shi Pei-jun, Ye Xin and Zhou Zhi-rou in Zhan Tian-zhen’s ‘Moonlight’ at the Tsai Jue-yueh Dance Foundation’s Christmas event.
Photo © Tsai Jue-yueh Dance Foundation

The Tsai Jue-yueh studio on a sunnier day!  Photo © Tsai Jue-yueh Dance Foundation

The Tsai Jue-yueh studio on a sunnier day!
Photo © Tsai Jue-yueh Dance Foundation

As always, there was a good turn out for the Tsai Jue-yueh Foundation (蔡瑞月舞蹈研究社) arranged Christmas performance at their reconstructed Tsai Jue-Yueh studio (also known as the Rose Historic Site). Tsai was an early pioneer of modern dance to Taiwan in the 1940s and 1950s.

The front of the Japanese style studio opens out, the studio becoming the stage, with the audience in the garden. The weather was awful. It was cold and rainy, but free yellow rain smocks were provided and a remarkably good atmosphere prevailed. There was also some excellent work from the older teenage dancers of Prima Ballet in particular; far better than any seen in any university dance concert.

The month concluded with two excellent programmes at the National Theater. The main house programme “1+1”, comprising works by Yao Shu-fen (姚淑芬) and Ho Hsaio-mei (何曉玫) are reviewed separately.

Upstairs in the black box Experimental Theater”, Tjimur Dance Theatre (蒂摩爾古薪舞集) presented “Umaq: Stone House” (umaq‧烏瑪). The company is from the Paiwan tribe from the far south of Taiwan, and artistic director Ljuzen Madilin (廖怡馨) and rising choreographer Balu Madilin’s (巴魯‧瑪迪霖) blending of aesthetics from indigenous art, music and dance with more contemporary elements is always interesting.

‘Umaq’ is Paiwan for ‘home’, but it is a concept with multiple meanings, the umaq being not only the place where people come when they are alive, but also the place they return to after they die. As such, it is a place for a family (in the widest sense), for people who ‘keep watch,’ and for ancestral spirits.

Tjimur Dance Theatre in 'Umaq-Stone House'.  Photo © Tjimur Dance Theatre

Tjimur Dance Theatre in ‘Umaq-Stone House’.
Photo © Tjimur Dance Theatre

The combination of traditional and modern allowed for a rich, multi-layered evening. The often innovative and mostly well-structured dance is accompanied by a mix of traditional song, sang by the performers and that gives a sense of the eternal, and diverse electronic music. It was interesting to see how the former helped shape, inform and give new perspectives on the contemporary dance vocabulary. A special mention for the designs too. The stage is cleverly split into sections, songs, for example, sung from a bench stage right, with most of the modern dance taking place centre and stage left. Also impressive were the simple yet hugely effective projections backing projections representing a traditional Paiwan house.

Also in December, the i-dance improvisation festival  and Scarecrow Contemporary Dance Company’s (稻草人現代舞蹈團) “Step in MOCA” (2013足in‧複合體) site-specific evening at the Museum of Contemporary Art are reviewed separately elsewhere.