Capital Ballet Taipei in Variations on a Rococo Theme

Metropolitan Hall, Taipei
October 13, 2019

David Mead

It’s a challenge being a ballet company in Taiwan. While there’s a sizeable audience for large-scale story ballets, smaller-scale work and non-narrative ballet is more difficult. Then there’s the issue of funding, where modern dance has long been looked on more favourably; and training, which is not always all it might be, although there are plenty of enthusiastic and keen dancers. All that makes it all the more remarkable that Capital Ballet Taipei (台北首督芭蕾舞團) have now been in existence for 26 years, making it one of the oldest dance companies in the country.

This autumn’s programme, Variations on a Rococo Theme (洛可可主題變奏曲) was overshadowed by the death from cancer during the summer of long-time dancer Shih Ya-ling (時雅玲). She is already sorely missed and the show closed with a moving photographic tribute to the much-loved performer.

It was a show of two very different halves. Danced to Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme in which the composer shows his respect for Mozart, artistic director Hsu Chin-fong’s (徐進豐) ballet of the same title made for a pleasant opener. It’s very much about the music and the dance, the two absolutely entwined.

Capital Ballet Taipei in Variations on a Rococo ThemePhoto Courtesy Capital Ballet Taipei
Capital Ballet Taipei in Variations on a Rococo Theme
Photo Courtesy Capital Ballet Taipei

The ballet’s best moments come when Hsu focuses on classical dance. At times the choreography is delightfully light and delicate. At the ballet’s heart is a pas de deux for Wang Li-wen (王莉文) and Yu Che-yu (余哲宇), backed by a small chorus of other dancers. The sometimes inventive lifts were all solidly done although too many moves felt rather stop-start with too many split-second pauses. You could easily imagine the dancers asking ‘are you ready’ before many of them.

Hsu has never been afraid to add a dash of contemporary movement that suits the dancers, although it’s not always totally successful. His lack of men (Yu was the only one) means that he also has to get creative with his other partnering. One scene that sees four of the women tumbling or rolling over each other was inventive. I could have done without Yu’s gymnastic dive forward rolls and straddle-sits, though, even if they were smoothly done. He did bring a smile towards the end, though, entering behind two women, holding their arms like you would reins of a pair of horses. Neat!

After the break, Scherzo Trilogy (三首詼諧曲) is effectively three separate pieces which are then pulled together at the end. The somewhat tenuous link comes through bold designs on clothing and commentary on life.

'Gossip Women' from Scherzo TrilogyPhoto Courtesy Capital Ballet Taipei
‘Gossip Women’ from Scherzo Trilogy
Photo Courtesy Capital Ballet Taipei

Gossip Women (間語三姝) sees Wang, Tang Feng-yi (唐鳳儀) and Tang Wan-yu (唐婉瑜) in enormous 18th-century hooped dresses and opulent hair-doss. A splash of colour came via their bright red lipstick. It was light and quite witty at times as the pushier two of the trio continually ganged up on the third.

The third section, ‘Cool Men’ (酷哥), has two women in black suits and sunglasses, security-man style. It’s very modern and was well-danced, but has far too long in silence at the beginning.

The middle section, ‘Dancing Dolls and a Small Black Man’ (跳舞娃娃與小黑人) brought a bit of an intake of breath. A pair of women in classical tutus are joined by Yu, blacked-up and costumed as a golliwog, the three performing to Debussy’s ‘Golliwog’s Cakewalk’ from Children’s Corner and Le Petit Négre, plus La Ronde des Lutins by Bazzini. Yu danced the caricature with bounce and enthusiasm.

From a personal perspective, it was unfortunate to say the least, although I’m sure well-intentioned. But let’s not forget the West seems to have no problem with equally clumsy caricatures of Chinese people in productions of The Nutcracker especially. The shame of it is, that pretty much the same effect could have been achieved without that make-up and even with music in a similar style by an African-American composer such as Scott Joplin.

That moment doesn’t take the gloss off Capital Ballet’s achievement, though. A very healthy percentage of the audience were enthusiastic youngsters, which was pleasing to see. I feel sure the spirit of Shih Ya-ling will be willing them on to future successful productions.