Featuring Tjimur Dance Theatre, Resident Island Dance Theatre and Dua Shin Te Production
Streamed live from Weiwuying, Kaohsiung
November 7, 2020
With international travel killed off by border closure and quarantine rules, this year’s Taiwan Dance Platform at (臺灣舞蹈平台) at Weiwuying in Kaohsiung turned its attention to home companies. The Dance Together triple bill (在一起三舞作) opened with Pingdung-based Tjimur Dance Theatre (蒂摩爾古薪舞集) and a sign-language version of Varhung – Heart to Heart (Varhung – 心事誰人知), acclaimed by many as one of the best dance works seen at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2018.
Tjimur Dance Theatre choreographer Baru Madiljin’s work is noted for giving a contemporary take on the traditions and lives of Taiwan’s indigenous Paiwan people. In Varhung — Heart to Heart, he uses movement inspired by the picking, peeling of layers, separating, tying and binding as the local shell ginger plant is harvested, and traditional Paiwan four-step dance and music, to tell of people’s lives and loves, dreams and difficulties.
Madiljin’s transformation of those everyday actions into compelling contemporary dance is extraordinary. At times the choreography seems almost ritualistic as bodies shift in time to the pulsing electroacoustic soundtrack. Often the dancers gently sway and undulate rhythmically. In the silence of the opening, you cannot hear it, but those bodies make their own music. The loose-fitting, beige tops and wide legged-trousers emphasise the movement a treat.
As the dance builds, bursts of explosive action with loud use of breath, punctuate calmer moments as if something cannot be held in any longer. There are lyrical moments too, while a tipsy take on the four-step dance symbolises speaking the truth. The sign-language is so seamlessly built into the choreography it feels totally natural. A chain hung from above is used to effect, symbolically binding the dancers in different ways.
A word from the Paiwan language, ‘varhung’ can be translated as the expression of internal feelings and emotions of all kinds. Private joy, anger, sadness and more are certainly all made visible. Paiwan people might not usually talk much about what’s on their minds, but Madiljin’s dance is full of honesty, the dancers’ faces full expression. There is almost a sense of them having a cathartic experience as they reveal through movement their deepest secrets, fears and desires.
Watching Varhung – Heart to Heart, even as a live streaming, it’s easy to see why Tjimur Dance Theatre are among those at the forefront of Taiwan’s contemporary dance companies. This version of the work is outstanding. In fact, in some ways I prefer it to the full-length original. I found myself forgetting about the worries, concerns and difficulties happening in life. That takes some doing these days. The dance is embracing and compelling. It lingers in the memory afterwards.
Equally impressive was the programme-closing A Piece of Cake by Liu Yen-cheng (劉彥成) for his Taipei-based Dua Shin Te Production (大身體製造). I’ve not seen the full-length version, but this often witty, cut-down 30-minute edition is a delight.
Liu’s starting point is that life is a dream; sometimes real, sometimes illusory. And that is precisely what he and performers Wang Chu-hua (王筑樺) and Shen Le (沈樂) present, starting with the sight of Wang putting make-up on. It could have been desperately dull, but the stylised movement makes it always interesting. I also loved the unexpected and seamless perfect arabesque that Wang draws on several occasions.
Just as important is the partnership between Wang, who often has a mischievous glint in her eye, and the short and stocky Shen Le, who plays more of a straight man role. They have something special. Their timing as humorous gesture mixed with serious moments was outstanding.
Liu is full of inventive ideas. All are given time to play out but none get so long that they overstay their welcome. Apples and balls are used as make-up, a razor, deoderant and more. A playful scene with party poppers gets out of hand and descends into an argument, played out with fast moving gestures and touch. Out of nowhere comes a drunken dance in unison.
The boundary between reality and illusion is also touched on by Liu not attempting to hide the crew as they shift props. Indeed, they even interrupt a slightly sentimental dance to ‘The Day We Fell in Love’ by The Ovations, causing the music to stop dead for a few seconds, so they can lay a mat on the floor.
Life can’t always be smooth, but everything will be alright in the end, says Liu. After the crisis is over and the problems have gone away, it will be light. The sunshine will return. Life will be a piece of cake. And to round things off, there is indeed cake. After an upbeat coda that is a little cheesy but equally great fun and guaranteed to make you smile, the cast tuck in. Deservedly too!
In the centre of the evening, Pingtung-based Resident Island Dance Theatre (滯留島舞蹈劇場) presented Ice Age (冰河時期). Still very much a work-in-progress, it’s a collaboration between the company’s founder and choreographer Chang Chung-an (張忠安), who is visually impaired and whose work often considers issues around disability, and Maylis Arrabit from France, who usually but not exclusively dances from her wheelchair.
The travel restrictions that have come with the pandemic has meant the pair have had to find a new way of working together. Their physical distance is evident in the opening that sees Chang at first perform behind the bars of a cage (a situation many have felt themselves to be in during the past year), then with Arrabit on a screen. She echoes how many feel, commenting how time “starts to feel a bit long” and how she is starting to get bored; and muses about what to do and those who break the ‘rules’.
A duet between Juan Yi-chen (阮怡蓁) and the wheelchair-bound Zheng You-cheng (鄭祐承) is sometimes subtle, sometimes playful. Much is made of the chair’s ability to glide and turn but I particularly like that they don’t try to do too much. I am told the possibilities of the sport wheelchair are still being explored but it would be a shame if the creative team try to do too much and lose feeling this dance presently has. When they are joined by Fang Shih-yun (方士允), a section in silhouette includes some very effective images that make full use of the spokes of the chair’s wheels.
The connections between sections might not be entirely clear as yet, and perhaps the stated focus on different ways people support each other within their own cultural environment needs tightening up, but there is much here to like. Chang and Arrabit also have plenty of time as the final work is not due to premiere until late in 2021. It will be interesting to see how it pans out.