Various Venues, Taipei
April 26-28, 2019
Three days; thirty artists or companies from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore; over sixty performances and other events. That was the Taipei’s inaugural Want to Dance (艋舺國際舞蹈節) festival, staged in the city’s Wanhua district; and what a cracking weekend it sound out to be.
Co-curators Chung Po-yuan (鍾伯淵), director of the Shinehouse Theatre (由曉劇場), and Keng Yi-wei (耿一偉), former director of the Taipei Arts Festival and now dramaturg of the National Kaohsiung Centre for the Arts (Weiwuying, 衛武營國家藝術文化中心), did a fine job putting together a programme of dance was wide-ranging in style. Finished works, works in progress and seeds of ideas, anything from fifteen to over forty minutes. All were interesting, as indeed were the many venues pressed into service.
Perhaps it had something to do with those venues (not always easy to find, even armed with the excellent festival programme), and the rushing from A to B to catch the next show, but the weekend had a real ‘festival fringe’ feel to it. It was also a hugely friendly affair, staffed largely by a team of ever-helpful volunteers.
Want to Dance was about much more than performances, though. As Keng explained, the festival is not just about putting on entertaining shows and selling tickets. He and Chung wanted the festival to be a proper gathering of choreographers, curators, commentators and dance lovers. They wanted to provide a platform for independent artists, who so often struggle to stage performances; a platform for exchange; and a place where the future of dance could be discussed. From what I saw, they achieved all that.
Earlier this year, Taiwan lost one engaging and outgoing dance personalities when choreographer Chang Ting-ting (張婷婷) died from cancer. The festival got off to a fine start with a special performance of her A Blooming Tree (一棵開花的樹) from her T.T.C. Dance (張婷婷獨立製作) at the Monga-Longshan Cultural & Creative space (艋舺龍山文創).
Inspired by the poem A Blossoming Tree by Taiwanese painter and poet Xi Mu-rong (席慕容), Chang translates the text into dance, deconstructing and reconstructing meanings of memories, emotions, and feelings. The poem talks of chance meetings that seem to have been forever coming, but also of passing by and leaving and “my heart, my withered heart, crying!” All that is there in this reworking for a man and three women in a largely lyrical dance of what seemed to be moments of memories, and frequently of yearning, all added to by the music of Hsieh Wei-chin (謝瑋秦). No doubt the knowledge that Chang Ting-ting is no longer with us played its part, but it all felt desperately poignant.
A Blooming Tree was preceded by a sharing of the outcomes of a butoh workshop led by Emiko Agatsuma, a senior member of Dairakudakan Butoh, one of Japan’s leading companies. While the familiar whitewashed bodies, open-legged stance and fragmented motion were all there, anyone expecting twenty minutes of all ultra-slow movement got something of a surprise. Butoh has many forms and, like all movement arts, is changing. Here there were plenty of dynamic moments too.
Also on the first night, She and Her Dreams of All Hues (她與她色彩斑斕的夢) created and performed by Chang Yun-chen (張勻甄), presented a woman sinking into her dreams. Still very much the first steps in developing an idea, Chang was at first buried in masses of white fabric. When she appeared, it was like a creature emerging from a pupa. Meaning was rather enigmatic as memories came, got tangled and went again. Sometimes meaning even emerged unintentionally, as when she created the image of a bride, something she later told me she didn’t realise she had done until people mentioned it to her.
Dreams and fragments of memory popped up as a theme elsewhere too, most notably in Grey Fragment (灰色片段) by Liu Jun-de (劉俊德).
Among the venues pressed into use for Want to Dance was Warehouse A of the former Taiwan Sugar Corporation complex in Dali Street, now a protected building and part of the Sugar Refinery Cultural Park (糖廍文化園區). It’s lovely red brick exterior and a large-span indoor space gave atmosphere to everything performed there.
We are not human at all by Chuang Po-Hsiang (莊博翔) proved to be one of the festival highlights; forty minutes of top-notch choreography, excellently performed. The ensemble of nine dancers were largely in close quarters, like animals who live in extremely close quarters or that huddle together to survive. As they shifted around one another, at the heart of the group was usually Lai Yun-chi (賴耘琪), initially the weaker member of community, manipulated by the others, but in the end, the dominant individual.
I got on less well with Death Mirror Chant (亡鏡吟) by Vinci Mok@Moving Arts (莫穎詩@形藝祭) from Hong Kong, a semi-promenade performance that shifted from outside the warehouse, to inside, to back out again. ‘Wandering into the death mirror, will life will become more brave,’ asked the programme note. ‘Or less considered? Or more unscrupulous?’ Maybe it was just the end of a long day but I got very little of that, meaning in the butoh-style production remaining so deeply hidden that it actually communicated very little, apart from a sense of helplessness from a fifth ‘naked’ dancer. Things picked up with the arrival of projections, but why on a wall at right-angles to most of the audience rather than facing them?
Among the more unusual venues to stage performances was the Huajiang House Overpass (華江整宅天橋), a series of footbridges above a busy road junction. BJ4 by Fang Jyun-wei (方駿圍) takes its title from the BJ4 catchphrase, the pronunciation of which in Mandarin resembles ‘no need to explain’. Fang’s hip hop choreography began with some graffiti and went on to tell a short story involving two men and a pair of shoes. It was the night-time urban setting that made it, though; the rush of the traffic beneath, the lights, and the fact that the audience had to run to keep up with the action, all adding to the fun.
Among other works performed on the Overbridge was the very appropriately titled Once Upon a Time on the Bridge (天橋上的戀人啊!) by Wing Troupe (鳥組人演劇團), a twist on the usual prince-princess fairy story.
I also enjoyed I know that nothing is what I know (我知道沒有什麼是我知道的) by Lin Yi-chi (林憶圻). With just about as many people as possible squeezed into a small 2nd-floor room at the Shinehouse Art Space (曉地方藝文空間), this was dance about as up close and personal as it gets. As per the title, meaning remained decidedly hidden as we watched Lin move, breathe, interact with a small model dinosaur, and simply lay still and listen. Perhaps it was the closeness, but the internalised energy somehow transmitted itself beautifully in dance that was totally engaging from start to finish.
Among other highlights was another chance to see Andy Lin’s (林則安) exquisite solo Arabesque (阿拉貝斯克), that’s simply about movement to music. First presented at Taipei National University of the Arts in 2017, it has deservedly since done well in international competitions. Also about the connection between movement and music was In The Moment (琴與人的當下) by Jane Wang (王箏) and live violinist Alex Chen (陳韜).
Some artists looked at the dancing body, NoN default by Billy Chang (張逸軍) questioning the usually accepted and expected aesthetics. Perfect by Maya Dance Theatre from Singapore, a work in progress, looked at body image and the search for that perfect body, asking whether it can ever be achieved or if it’s all just a state of mind.
Unfinished: Impressions of Our Hometown (未完成：印象竹鄉) by Lei Dance Theater (艸雨田舞蹈劇場) looked at Hakka culture from the Hsinchu area of Taiwan. Salsa and ballroom dance came courtesy of Con Salball by Chiang Chieh-shi (江婕希) and Hung Jui-hsien (洪睿絃), in a contemporary approach to the forms. There was even Middle-Eastern dance and storytelling from Keelung Bellydance (綻放中東舞團), whose To Be Continued (2019綻時) told of a woman’s secret.
Away from the stage there were plenty of opportunities for networking and discussion. One session aimed at new audiences looked at the perennial issue of understanding dance, while another considered staging dance festivals. Perhaps the most interesting was one that considered the issues surrounding ecology, current situation and future development of independent dance-makers in Taiwan. I was unable to attend but, as an outsider (or at least a part-outsider) looking in, perhaps focusing on dance’s foundations, policies that focus on artist development, mentoring and opportunities for small-scale performance (some excellent work is done by the likes of Cloud Gate Art Makers Project, 雲門創計畫, and Ho Hsiao-mei’s Meimage Dance, 何曉玫MeimageDance, but more is needed), thus building a healthy artist base, rather than spending millions on often underused large theatres and arts centres, might be a start.
All in all, a super three-days of dance; a festival that really did feel like a festival. That was undoubtedly helped by the many and varied performances, and the unusual spaces, but what really made it special was the friendly, welcoming, open atmosphere. If Want to Dance returns in 2020, as I understand is hoped, please don’t lose that.