Century Contemporary Dance Company: Les Noces, Wild Butterflies
Leipzig Ballet: Corrente II
National Theater, Taipei, Taiwan; April 4, 2015
Century Contemporary Dance Company (世紀當代舞團) artistic director Yao Shu-fen (姚淑芬) met Mario Schröder, her counterpart at Leipzig Ballet, a couple of years ago during a trip to Germany. She liked his contemporary ballet choreography so much that she invited him to collaborate with her company. He quickly said “yes,” and in 2014 visited Taipei to learn more about the country, its dance and her company.
Schröder and CCDC obviously hit it off big time. His Wild Butterflies (狂放的野蝶) made on Yao’s ensemble, is not only an excellent piece of dance, but quite simply one of the best pieces I’ve seen made by a foreign choreographer on a Taiwanese company. He seems to have a complete understanding of the dancers and their talents, and an ability to present them to their absolute best. The dancers clearly responded, performing with great feeling and clarity.
Wild Butterflies is based on Schröder’s impression of a typical day in Taiwan, particularly the busy Ximending area of the city. The butterflies of the title are a metaphor for the fragility and constant metamorphosis of city life.
The opening, with the stage lights lowered and fully visible suggests night. As the lights rise and morning dawns, the dancers – the city, the butterflies – come to life.
Drawing on the dancers’ skills, in with the contemporary dance are moments of classical ballet, martial arts, and even a glimpse of hip hop. The more detailed movement includes lots of fluttering arms and hands. The choreography is busy, but not overly so. Like butterflies, indeed like city people, the peformers flit around pausing occasionally. Sometimes there is urgency as they dash across the stage. Some sections are downright beautiful, perhaps the best being one to Satie’s Gymnopédie No.1 (the music is an eclectic mix), that starts a series of duets, and the following trio set in front of six other dancers standing silhouette against a blue backdrop. Eventually, slowly but surely, shadows reappear and night returns.
Wang Tien-hung’s (王天宏) lighting is outstanding, especially in the earlier and later more shadowy sections, as are Jasper Huang’s (黃嘉祥) gorgeous white costumes, those for the women featuring a delicate insect wing-like appendage at the back that again suggested fragility.
Opening the programme was Yao’s Les Noces (婚禮), originally part of her Stravinsky double-bill (how’s that for being different in Taiwan?) with Rite of Spring (春之祭) that picked up Taiwan’s prestigious Taishin Arts Award for best performance across all the arts in 2010.
Forget any ideas of a 19th-century Russian peasant wedding. Yao very much ploughs her own furrow. The action takes place on a stage covered in white paper, Yao’s view of marriage reflected in the fact that, as the dance progresses, that paper quickly becomes shredded and torn. Coated from head to toe in white gypsum the performers appear ghostly. They move slowly, as if from another world, or at least another time. Memories from the past, perhaps.
There are touching moments, moments of support, but there are others that are anything but, most notably of women being dragged by men as if prize catches. One subsequently gets dumped in a huge pile of scrunched up paper as if being tossed away. And all the time, despite the significant numbers of dancers that are always on stage, there is a sense of being apart, of loneliness.
The only splash of colour on stage comes from a bunch of bright red flowers that is tossed from dancer to dancer, and the highlighting of a woman in red light at one point. There’s plenty of colour behind, though, thanks to some marvellous projections of moody, timeless paintings by noted Taiwanese artist Wang Pan-yuan (王攀元) that serve to amplify the feeling of emptiness and of the bitterness of life. If ever a dance performance made you want to see more of a painter’s work, this is it, although Wang’s exhibitions are rarities indeed.
Yao leaves the biggest surprise to the end. There’s a dramatic change in music, in lighting, and what can only be seen as a break for freedom. When I first saw the piece several years ago, I disliked it a lot, but the more I see it, the more it makes sense.
Sandwiched between the CCDC pieces was Schröder’s Corrente II, actually the third act of Ein Liebestraum (A Dream of Love) danced by Leipzig Ballet. Created as part of the celebrations marking the bicentenary of Richard Wagner’s birth, the piece appropriately features Wagner (the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde), although most of the music comes from Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg’s opus of the same title.
With the aid of yet more excellent lighting, this time by Schröder himself, Paul Zoller and Michael Röger, the use of single stage lights suspended on wires being especially effective, Schröder presents a landscape of individuals and relationships in a dance that expresses the complications of love, and in particular the tensions that it can create.
The dancers are sometimes seen in close up, sometimes at a distance, sometimes as a group and as part of a larger whole. The opening section sees each dancer get a moment in a single spotlight. Each solo has its own power and each is different. What links them is an overwhelming sense of lonlieness and insecurity, a feeling only intensified when Schroder briefly lights the whole stage and we see them together in space, but a distance apart in almost every other way.
As it progresses, the dramatic thrust of Lidburg’s attractive and most listenable-to score in particular is demonstrated in the dance. Schröder neatly picks up on all its layering, occasional flurries and sensuality. A brighter middle section has the dancers come together. Little mini-dramas develop, but always, always there is a sense of fragility, that theme that is veined deeply through the programme.
Leipzig Ballet are relatively unknown outside Germany, even in the rest of Europe, but this makes one want to see more of them, and of Schröder’s work. And CCDC? Yao Shu-fen has significant experience abroad. She seems far more willing to approach and engage overseas artists and choreographers (rather than getting hung up on whizzy specialist multimedia creators and effects) than do many Taiwanese directors. She has an ambition and the strength to realise the possibilities that can bring that one feels is not always there. On the basis of this programme, the all-round benefits for her company and her dancers are clearly evident. Indeed, sitting in the National Theater, it didn’t take a huge leap of imagination to visualise this programme and her company on a major European theatre stage.