Taipei National University of the Arts, Taiwan
December 15, 2016
While TNUA (國立臺北藝術大學) dancers have performed well in a number of contemporary ballets over the years, more classically-oriented work and anything involving pointe has generally been another story. That’s not surprising. The students simply don’t get to spend the necessary time on it. So, it was a delight to find that the excerpts from Act II of Giselle that opened the evening were rather well danced, with some impressive solo work and, as far as the staging would allow, a nice sense of mood. In fact, the whole show (under the banner 輕•狂, Fly High) was excellent. Overseen by Wu Su-chun (吳素君) as artistic director, I would go as far as to say it was one of the best for some years.
Huang Yu-mien (黃渝棉) was an excellent Giselle, her face and body exuding beautifully the otherworldly sadness that is called for. Hu Yu-cheng (胡育政), as Albrecht, was a really solid partner; great lifts and supports, all made to look easy; with good turns and batterie to go with it, although he does have a bit of a habit of hinging forward when preparing to jump. There were a couple of stylistic niceties that didn’t appeal to me, but most disappointing was the lack of sense of character or his feelings for Giselle, though admittedly not that easy to achieve when only the sections shown were danced. Also impressive was Hsiao Yi-han (蕭翊涵), a very steely-looking Myrtha; a lady definitely not to be messed with.
The TNUA dancers showed some excellent corps work, everyone moving in unison, although I did spot a couple of unattractive looking working feet. The pointework throughout was good, solid with not a wobble in sight; certainly no a suggestion of any heart-in-mouth moments.
As impressive as it was, what excerpting can do is destroy the sense of story, though. Here, there was no Albrecht making his forlorn way to Giselle’s grave; Giselle’s startling first entry, zero to top speed in a millisecond; the Wilis dancing Hilarion to death – indeed, Hilarion at all; Giselle defending her lover from the same fate; and their final parting. The missing opening in particular removed any context and the big ensemble ending with both leads centre-stage in front of the corps was just plain wrong (musically as well as narratively, if you managed to see any). While excerpting dances usually works for the Russian classics, that’s because there the story is merely a hook on which to show technique (most notably The Sleeping Beauty but large chunks of Swan Lake too). When it comes to the dance in ballets such as Giselle where the story is absolutely integral, the effect is huge.
Still, as a piece of semi-abstract dance, it worked, and top marks to all for making it do so. I suspect all three leads would comfortably hold their own in the full Act II, and it would be interesting to see whether Huang and Hsu could successfully tackle the rather different mood and acting skills required for Act I.
There were more restrained but strong emotions of grief in the sumptuous all-male Guang Ling Verse (廣陵散) by Zhang Xiao-xiong (張曉雄), who describes it as demonstrating how people self-reflect on their actions or inactions, and how they frequently engage in spiritual pursuit and show great dignity at times of turmoil. Unlike the Giselle, there is no attempt at overt narrative, and yet the emotion. and depth of it, in both the dance and music seemed much more deeply felt. It certainly reached out over the footlights in a way that the Giselle did not, especially the sublime duet that forms the heart of the piece.
The music plays a big part of course, a rearrangement by Guan Pinghu (管平湖) of the score of the same title, one of the ancient masterpieces of Chinese music. Legend has it that it was given by supernatural spirits to artist, scholar and composer Ji Kang (嵇康), someone highly critical of Confucianism, who challenged many social conventions of his time, and who was considered seditious for doing so. At his moment of execution for offences against the court, it is said he performed it before sighing that it too will soon be extinct. Ji King’s words suggest he believed that those who do not seek political fame and despise kow-towing to those in authority were in danger of also becoming extinct.
Guang Ling Verse is gorgeous and oozes quality. So, albeit in a very different way, did Chang Kuo-wei’s (張國韋) Alternate Realm (鏡界), a near-perfect bringing together of dance, staging and music that I absolutely loved right from the off. . Remarkably, Chang is only 26 and still a choreography student at TNUA.
Integral to the dance are six mirrored screens that are shifted around the stage. Sometimes they stand apart, sometimes they form a wall. That moving around constantly changes the stage space. More interesting, though, is the way it creates new visual perspectives on the dance and additional layers of the performing image. The choreography is full of return and rewind, always referencing itself. The movement is an interesting mix of contemporary dance with moments of breakin’ and other elements from hip-hop, the latter always done smoothly and subtlely, never looking out of place.
Rounding off the evening, the students performed admirably in adapted excerpts from Cursive (行草) by Cloud Gate Dance Theatre (雲門舞集) artistic director Lin Hwai-min (林懷民). Lin’s dance is about more than movement and making shapes, though, and I just felt something was not quite there: maybe the sense of breath, the subtlety, the sense of the movement coming from the inside. The missing projections from the full work had an effect too.