Dance Theater, TNUA, Taipei, Taiwan; December 21, 2013.

David Mead

TNUA in Anna Sokolow's 'Rooms'. Photo © TNUA

TNUA in Anna Sokolow’s ‘Rooms’.
Photo © TNUA

Dance evenings at the Taipei National University of the Arts (國立臺北藝術大學) are always worth catching, with programmes usually interesting and varied. The university’s College of Dance is unusual in Taiwan in that programmes regularly feature existing works, often notable ones. That’s important. Learning how to perform already created pieces in the manner intended demands particular skills and is an important part of any dancer’s education. Other universities should do it too. Dancers should not only be allowed to work on new pieces, created on them personally.

All five pieces on the programme were existing choreographies, although two had undergone significant change from the original version. Best was a lengthy excerpt from Tibetan choreographer Sang Jijia’s (桑吉加) Sticks (火柴人), originally made for the Guangdong Modern Dance Company. Sang, who spent several years studying and working with William Forsythe and who is now Artist-in-Residence with Beijing Dance LDTX is one of the most innovative contemporary choreographers to come out of China to date.

The idea for “Sticks” comes from a tradition of using stick figures as a tool to help record and remember dances. It is an accomplished work that suits the young TNUA dancers perfectly. Dominating the stage is a large, white, rectangular table that acts as a resting place and barrier, although as dancers lay on and under it, perhaps also a bed or grave. There is a frequently sense that stories are being told, although essentially it is a pure dance piece, the students moving around, along, across and under the table, sometimes as great speed and with daring, and always in a highly polished manner.

TNUA in Tung I-fen's 'Sound of Numbers'. Photo © TNUA

TNUA in Tung I-fen’s ‘Sound of Numbers’.
Photo © TNUA

Two pieces started life during the summer at ArtsCross 2013 in London, a collaboration between TNUA, the Beijing Dance Academy and Middlesex University. Both are clearly recognisable from their previous incarnations, although both now have significantly more dancers. Tung I-fen’s “Sound of Numbers” is the more structurally complex piece of the two. It’s all based on sequences of numbers, with dancers creating different relationships in different sections. As good as the choreography is, unfortunately (on this showing at least) the work has lost almost all of the sense of spontaneity and play of the ArtsCross version, and has turned into being all about the steps. In contrast, Su Wei-chia’s “Free Steps”, previously a rather serious, if beautiful, piece, has morphed into a delightfully cheerful work. Built around structured improvisation, couples move around the stage often using jokey steps. There’s often a sense that each has a story to tell; certainly a relationship. It all provided much needed colour in an otherwise rather serious programme.

Of most interest to anyone with a liking for dance history was Anna Sokolow’s “Rooms”. Reconstructed from the Labanotation, the 1955 work depicts the isolation of the urban dweller, if anything and even more appropriate a subject today than then. In most of the sections, each dancer sits in or dances around a chair, reaching into space, always close to his or her neighbour, yet always out of touch.

Sokolow is largely unknown in Europe, and if “Rooms” is a reflection of her work in general, I’m not surprised. Although not in the same class, parts reminded me of some of Anthony Tudor and Agnes de Mille’s work from the same period. The choreography is hard going. Structurally, it is interesting, but the movement itself is not particularly inspired, and is monotonous and rather repetitive. The fact it’s done in subdued light, with parts in slow-motion, doesn’t help. It’s also long, even with a couple of sections taken out. Add to all that the fact it’s very much a dance reflective of its time, which for all its historical interest does look and feel somewhat dated, and you can see the problems.

When “Rooms” was first danced, noted American critic John Martin wrote, “Its ultimate aim seems to be to induce you to jump as inconspicuously as possible into the nearest river.” The TNUA dancers didn’t quite have that effect, but restlessness in the audience was evident. It’s all very well dancers learning steps but in “Rooms” much more is needed. Notation and steps can only give you so much. As the programme noted correctly, Sokolow insisted that movement had to come from within and that superficial gesture was unacceptable – a view shared by other dance makers of her time including ballet Tudor, whose work is equally unfashionable. “Rooms” demands just that internalisation. In essence, it’s a study in desperation and clearly depends on the dancers understanding, identifying with and being able to communicate just that. I suspect it really needs mature, experienced performers if it is to succeed fully in portraying powerfully the intended sense of loneliness. Here, with the odd exception, and through no fault of their own, the young cast did not make me believe.

TNUA in Kong Ho-ping's 'Moon Dance'. Photo © TNUA

TNUA in Kong Ho-ping’s ‘Moon Dance’.
Photo © TNUA

Also on the programme was Kong Ho-ping’s (孔和平) “Moon Dance” (跳月), a revival of a Chinese dance piece from 1992 that is rather more classically-oriented than much of his more recent work.