Dance Theatre, Taipei National University of the Arts
March 25 & 27, 2016
Each programme for Boundless (無垠), this year’s production by Focus Dance Company (焦點舞團), the student-led company of Taipei National University of the Arts (TNUA, 國立臺北藝術大學), consists of several student-choreographed works sandwiched between two by established dance-makers.
The must-see piece of both programmes at TNUA’s own theatre was undoubtedly Japanese choreographer Toru Shimazaki’s Patch Work. Originally made for the School of the Royal Ballet of Flanders in 2008, and restaged here with a few updates, it’s a winner through and through; one of those pieces you just love right from the off.
A suite of dances, it comes in five sections, perfectly balanced with opening and closing ensemble dances, two duets, and an exuberant number for the boys in the middle. After an unusual opening that sees the dancers lying on the floor drumming their fingers, it explodes into a hive of activity. It made one think of a bustling marketplace, everyone coming and going, everyone busy doing their own thing. You almost didn’t know where to look.
The two duets are calmer. Both are full of interest. In the first there’s lots of giving support, pulling away and coming back. It’s pure, contemporary dance at its best. The second has a slightly romantic edge to it, with a bit of a hint of narrative (intended or not), all in a simple pool of light that makes you really focus in on what’s happening. All four couples I saw excellent, but I thought Wang Tzu-yen (王姿妍) and Chen Guang-xuan (陳廣軒) in the first, and Peng Yi-chen (彭乙臻) and Lee Yi-chin (李奕騏) in the second, both on Friday 25th, had the edge. In the middle is an exuberant dance for the boys.
The final section is simply marvellous; a fiesta of movement. The costumes may be all black but the dance is anything but. It buzzes with life as the foot-tapping rhythms take hold.
At both performances I could have sat through it again; immediately. Patch Work is also the sort of piece that just makes you want to get up and join in. The music helps enormously, a mix of pieces from Taraf de Haidoucks, a Romanian gypsy folk music group, Gordon Bregovic, Philip Glass and the US-based, Gambia-born, Foday Musa Suso.
Not only did I having a good time, but the dancers looked like they were enjoying it too. I actually saw some expression, a hint of personality, even some smiles, none more so than from Hung Wan-ning (洪婉寧) in Sunday 27th’s closing section.
The opening No Name (無名) by Yang Ming-lung (楊銘隆), a former faculty member who now teaches at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in the US was more difficult.
Yang frequently combines the traditional and the modern, and No Name is no different. The pipa music is an interesting accompaniment but while it was slightly easier going second time around, the standard modern dance used just seems to movement for movement’s sake (and not even particularly interesting movement at that).
The opening is striking as golden figures in silhouette move like amphibians, or maybe water insects, pond skimmers and such, all sharp movements and sudden stops. When the lights come up, we see that the costumes are actually a riot of colour. There’s a series of solos, duets and trios that give everyone a moment in the spotlight, but while there’s the odd recurring image, connections between them appear tenuous. The final ‘flying image’ stays in the memory, but little else.
All of the student-made works had promise. All featured good ideas, and all the choreographers seemed to have given a lot of thought to design; choreography was rarely only about movement. One or two pieces very good indeed, but many suffered from a weak structure. Too often dances were made of two distinct parts, with very different music, sometimes with a completely different mood. That’s fine if there’s a link, a connection, but frequently it was not there; or at least it was lost on me. More than one work also had an unnecessary coda, usually in silence, and nearly all ended with a fade to black. There are other ways! At times, it felt like the choreographers were working to some given set of rules.
The best student piece was undoubtedly Nonlinear (非線性) by Hsu Ting-wei ( 許庭瑋). Well-structured, it features a seething mass of bodies in black in a dimly lit stage. It very definitely has something of the night or the industrial underground about it with the dance a perfect match for the rumbling, oppressive, industrial music by German artist Senking (Jens Messel). Excellent.
Ballet at TNUA is usually a disappointment, both choreographically and technically. So, three very well-deserved cheers for Lu Wen-shan (呂汶珊) and her A Detail of Pattern is Movement. The title is William Forsythe-like, and so in many ways is the dance (lots of extensions and slightly unusual takes on classical positions, in amongst the regular grand jetés and so on), but this is one of the best student choreographed, and was one of the best performed, ballet pieces I’ve seen from Focus Dance in many a year.
On a stripped back stage we hear instructions: “To the side…to the mid-point…one, two, three…” and in case we had forgotten, “The detail of the pattern is movement.” Often, it seems like everyone is putting their own twist on the instructions such is the level of variation. Sometimes it’s a feast of ensemble movement, sometimes the dancers pair off, each couple in their own part of the stage defined by a square of light. The only let down was one 15-second spell when two of the men attempted fouetté rond de jambs (why?) and pirouettes with the leg extended in second, neither of which were done well.
I also enjoyed hugely How Did You Do? (你也這樣嗎?) by Chien Ying-hsuan, as I think did everyone. It features five school students talking to each other and discussing with their (unseen but heard) teacher things that they liked. Naturally, being children, some answers are a bit too close to the truth, albeit given innocently. The characterisation and acting was excellent. At times it was very funny. The smiles continued into the second part, although the join really needs looking at. Humour can be very personal, and putting it in dance is so often asking for trouble, but Chien and her cast of five pulled it off brilliantly.
Why, though, were the cast miked? The TNUA theatre is hardly huge. Apart from the fact it ramped the volume up ridiculously, doing so meant that heard voices came in large part from speakers way above the stage, making them somewhat disembowelled from the performers.
Chien also choreographed 『』 (think of it as two quotation marks with nothing between), which made rather less impact. Apparently it is connected with looking for the true self.
Ku Dian-jiang (古殿強) also contributed two pieces. Wonderland opens wonderfully. The image of two men in formal white shirts and black shorts immediately draws the attention. At first it seems like two friends dancing, but the longer it goes on, the more the idea grows that it’s actually someone else, maybe imagined. If it had ended after what I’ll call section two, it would have been a cracking piece (such was the continuity that some in the audience thought it had ended), but what followed had a very different feel and didn’t really gel at all.
Ku’s Lily (百合), worked less well, although again the designs and images created were striking. It features much grounded stomping around in formation, the dancers in very modern white tops and hipsters. Despite the modern costumes, it has a very earthy, aboriginal quality, helped along by the Paiwan music. There’s was total change in mood just before the end, the cast lining up downstage before rather badly attempting to mime smoking (I think that’s what it was), before walking slowly upstage, hips wiggling. If it is an attempt at ironic humour, it fails.
Movement Moment, a solo by Huang Yen-lin (黃彥霖) features the dancer-choreographer in a changing pool of light, her rippling body full of animalistic grace. I didn’t get the idea that it coming from within though, and the dance lost quality as it got faster and more expansive. Much better was From Me to Myself (自對己), choreographed and danced by Lee Yi-chi (李奕騏), which had a beautiful simplicity about it. About memories and things lodged in our subconscious, the mood was set well by Lee building a building a house out of toy bricks to There’s No Place Like Home, while a later duet with a jacket on a line was very nicely put together. The Bach was a perfect fit.
Completing the line-ups were Before the Independence (獨立以前) by Chen Guang-xuan (陳廣軒) and Leave (離離) by Tseng Wen-yu (曾文譽), both of which struggle to leave an impression.
Focus Dance continues on tour to Taichung, Changhua, Chiayi, Taoyuan and Kaohsiung.