National Theater, Taipei
September 22, 2017
The theme of this year’s forthcoming Dancing in Autumn season at the Taipei’s National Theatre is “The extraordinary in the ordinary” and, although Salute is not part of that, in many ways, that phrase sums up this programme put together by the undoubted star of Taiwanese dance, Sheu Fang-yi (許芳宜).
She is unquestionably a remarkable performer. She moves with a rare clarity and precision, and has the stage presence to go with it. Back in 2010, after 15 successful years with the Martha Graham Dance Company, 11 as a principal dancer, she decided to chart a different course and formed Fang-Yi Sheu & Artists (許芳宜&藝術家), a platform for the exchange of ideas with artists from home and abroad. It also gives an outlet for her own choreographic ambitions, with two of her recent works seen here.
Sheu says that Salute is not about her but a tribute to all artists who love dance, a nod from one perhaps approaching the end of her stage career (although she insists she has no immediate plans for retirement; and on the basis of this show, why should she?) to those who came before her and to those who are already following in her footsteps. For her Taiwanese fans, though, is was all about her.
Salute also features two pieces by long-standing friend Russell Maliphant. One, a solo danced by himself, is a 12-minute play on the relationship between movement, light and shadow. To music by Andy Cowton based on work by Bach, Maliphant moves in the half-light, folding, unfolding, reaching, circling. A man alone with his thoughts, his dance, it seems. As in the following 2×2, Michael Hulls’ lighting is perfect.
2×2 continues the play between dance and light, but is a more dynamic affair for a couple, here Maliphant’s wife, Dana Fouras, and Sheu, who each perform in their own boxes of light. Their dance comes together and separates so smoothly, the blur as limbs arc through the space especially staying in the memory.
It was Sheu’s choreography that was most anticipated, though. Her Interweave, which opened the evening, stems from a week-long project at the National Theater in Beijing in 2015, when she took part in a workshop with young dancers from China, South Korea and Taiwan, and brings together two performers from each of those countries.
Ordinarily dressed in white T-shirts and old jeans, the six dancers do indeed interweave initially, each following a personal stepping pattern that takes them around and between one another. It concludes with a similar variation on the theme. Sheu frequently has smaller groups break from the ensemble, the others sitting or standing (or into a held handstand and headstand). There’s some neat use of the different heights of male and female dancers in a couple of ‘little and large’ duets.
But while Interweave is pleasantly constructed, it lacks much in the way of contrast, of edge, of stand-out moment or sparkle. It’s also a bit of a mess musically, snatches of Steve Reich’s Clapping Music chopped up with Zbigniew Preisner’s Prayer. The lighting isn’t a patch on that by Hulls. It’s far too busy and starkly bright at times; an opportunity missed. As a whole, it was very much the ‘ordinary’ in the evening.
Altogether better is I Have My Heart (我心我行), which premiered in Beijing last November. It may have two dancers, but starting and ending with a black and white film shot in a wintry New York City, it’s about as personal as it gets.
It’s not narrative as such, although there’s a lot that can be read into things as we see Sheu’s inner voices played out in movement with the line between reality and symbolism often blurred. Often, those voices conflict. Frequently, she seems to be fighting with herself, playing out the arguments. But in among the anger, the sadness and regrets, are moments of calm and of happiness.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the nature of the piece, I Have My Heart is at its best when Sheu is on stage alone. The highlight is a long solo in which she first rails against a table, pushing at it as if she wants to banish from her life forever whatever it represents. But then a calm descends. There’s a moment when she balances on the table’s edge, giving the impression of floating, weightless, a sort of ecstasy taking over. When she moves to the table top, the dance flows like warm, melted chocolate.
But there is some ordinary among the extraordinary here too. I was much less taken with the moments with former Boston ballet dancer Altankhuyag Dugaraa from Mongolia. Their duets tend to feature a lot of realistic gesture (at one point she only pulls back at the last minute from throttling him) that leaves little to the imagination. A later short and very balletic solo for Dugaraa comes from nowhere and not only lacked clarity but felt strangely at odds with the rest of the piece.
The soundtrack and narration work well, the music a mix of the ever-atmospheric Max Ricther and a score by the rather less well-known Han Yao-zhong (姚仲涵).
Apparently, Sheu once got a fortune cookie in New York that read, “A ship in harbor is safe, but that’s not why ships are built.”. That sums up dance and the approach that should be taken to choreography and, indeed, art generally. We’ve long known Sheu is an extraordinary dancer, but while Salute may have been a bit of an in and out evening choreographically, nothing was ever achieved by not taking a chance, and you have to salute her for that. There’s definitely no need to dock for the final time just yet.