Dreams, determination, passion: Ballet in Tandem looks at the state of ballet in Taiwan

Starved of much in the way of public funding, largely ignored by the three national theatres, unsure of its place in the education system for talented students and at university, and with issues around teaching standards, classical ballet has long struggled in Taiwan. And yet, for generations, a few dancers, teachers and directors have battled on, dreaming that it will eventually be better recognised and find a place in the country’s dance landscape.

In the new feature-length documentary Ballet in Tandem (舞徑), director Yang Wei-hsin (楊偉新) casts his eye over the situation, weaving together the stories of three Taiwanese dancers from across the generations, in each case emphasising the dedication, hard work and discipline the art form requires.

Kuo Jung-an, one of the featured dancers in a moment from Ballet in Tandem

The film is very much a look at the scene as it is through the eyes of the threesome, in doing so, glancing back at some of the history of classical ballet on the island, thus providing some context for the struggles faced by today’s dancers, choreographers and directors. It is nicely paced and the footage neatly edited.

The first half is pretty much given over to introducing the three main subjects.

High school student Kuo Jung-an (郭蓉安) tries to square her dreams of becoming a full-time dancer with the realities of Taiwan’s education system and the concerns of her mother. Having earned a scholarship to attend a short course at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow, she’s heard questioning why she seems so far behind the other dancers she meets. That becomes a regular theme.

Ballet in Tandem
Kuo Jung-an at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy

In Seoul, we meet Liang Shui-huai (梁世懷), a soloist at the Universal Ballet of Korea. Nothing is said overtly, but the size and status of the 70-dancer company immediately invites comparison with the situation in Taiwan. Like the very small number of other Taiwanese ballet dancers to make it with a major overseas company (interestingly, almost all have been male), he got there through sheer self-belief and determination, and studying overseas. Like Kuo, he too makes the point that he found himself technically lacking compared to others.

Liang highlights the belief, widespread among dance educators in Taiwan, that specialisation in ballet is a dead end, and that you shouldn’t specialise in any one form. Hence, in the country’s Talented Student Programme that runs from elementary school up, students study modern and Chinese dance alongside ballet, with the latter usually coming a poor third. Unsaid here, but which may explain ballet’s standing, is the view among a few, including in higher education, that it is also somehow ‘un-Taiwanese’, which does rather make you wonder why Graham technique, the bedrock of the programme’s contemporary dance training and as American as it comes, is considered differently.

At one point, we even hear that old chestnut that ‘Asians are not suited to ballet’ Kuo says she heard it in high school. She doesn’t say who from, but the inference is from teachers.

Ballet in Tandem
Li Chiao teaching

Back in Taiwan is Li Chiao (李巧), who founded Taipei Theatre Ballet, Taiwan’s first professional ballet company in 1981 (it only lasted four years), and then the Four Seasons Dance Center in 1986, where she attempted to follow the professional school model. Li, we hear, was pretty much self-taught thanks to a lack of local resources. She tells of how, when she went to Russia, she realised just how far behind ballet in Taiwan was. The inference is, it still is.

Despite glimmers of hope, in reality little has changed. The lack of resources and career opportunities is laid bare, although the point is made that professional contemporary dance in Taiwan is actually little better off with Cloud Gate Dance Theatre the only company paying performers a year-round salary. Compared to most countries, public funding for dance, indeed for the arts generally, is low across all genres.

Ballet in Tandem
Li Chiao teaching

Yu Neng-sheng (余能盛), director of Formosa Ballet (福爾摩沙芭蕾舞團; formerly Chamber Ballet Taipei, 台北室內芭蕾), explains how he lacks the finances to pay dancers. Hsu Chin-feng (徐進豐) of Capital Ballet (台北首督芭蕾舞團), which remarkably, given the artistic climate, has now been staging productions for over 30 years, wonders aloud how he will put together next year’s show. Dancers talk of how much they are paid. It is frightening little. One observes that she would be better off working at 7-Eleven (a convenience store chain)

Ballet in Tandem paints a very good picture of the state of ballet in Taiwan today, but it’s also frustrating. While it prompts the viewer to ask questions, it never asks them directly itself and never tries to seek answers. There are a lot of people we do not hear from.

Ballet’s position in the Talented Student Programme comes up again and again. Lin Li-chuan (林立川), former soloist at Atlanta Ballet explains how it is mandatory, yet there is no clear goal. There are also undoubtedly training issues in the programme, evidenced by the standards (pointe work especially) too often seen in performance. But, ultimately, given the lack of support for ballet professionally, what is it there to achieve?

A moment from Ballet in Tandem

Li tells of the lack of continuity in teaching, something I have heard teachers mention too, and is probably not helped by the three-tier school system in which students change schools at 12 and 15. That is not to say that all teachers should teach the same way, or in the same style. Technique is certainly not fixed. But there has to be some consistency.

She is also concerned about a lack of understanding of ballet pedagogy. She makes the very valid point that knowing how to dance and knowing how to teach are very different things.

Quite possibly, many are unwilling to speak out for fear of jeopardising their funding, teaching position or whatever. There are also divisions and conflicts within ballet itself, hinted at by the highly-regarded dancer Shi Ya-ling (時雅玲), who passed away in 2019, but which the film tends to skirt around.

Ballet in Tandem
Students in class

Nowhere do we hear from policy makers as to why policy marginalises ballet. Why does the education system, which we hear dilutes real technique training, remain as it is? Has change ever been considered? While dancers these days need to be able to perform across genres, is there a case for each senior high school (students aged 15-18) in the Talented Student Programme focusing on a particular genre, as schools do in the West.

We hear that similar specialisation happens very successfully in Korea, although the importance of the presence of professional companies that provide role models and give students something to aspire to be part of is also emphasised. The generalist approach simply does not work for ballet in particular, where dancers need to specialise early and be ready to join companies at 18 or 19.

Kuo Jung-an (right) being coached in a scene from Ballet in Tandem

Attacking the current system or policy makers is hardly likely to force progress, however. It is certainly not going to create the consensus that Wang Tzer-Shing (王澤馨), who previously danced in America for 12 years and now runs a well-regarded school in Taipei besides organising the popular International Ballet Star Galas in Taiwan, rightly observes is the only way change will come. That’s easy to say. Achieving such agreement is likely to be very difficult.

While Ballet in Tandem at least part draws back the curtain on ballet on the island, it’s also a film riddled with doubts and uncertainties across decades and that persist today. It ends with the thought that, “If we work hard enough, we can get there.” Certainly, Taiwan is not short of dancers and teachers fully-committed, totally-dedicated, to the art form. I wish I could be optimistic, but unless there is a sea change in attitudes among policy makers, across society, and those in ballet really start to lobby and really work together, very sadly, I have my doubts.

Ballet in Tandem (舞徑)
Director: Yang Wei-hsin (楊偉新)
Languages: Chinese and English with Chinese and English subtitles
Running Time: 143 Minutes

Ballet in Tandem