Change Tempo (Su Pin-wen and Alexandre Fandard)

The Place, London
October 6, 2023

Part of this year’s Dance Umbrella, Change Tempo brought to London two overseas artists whose work is known for challenging cultural biases. Both Su Pin-wen (蘇品文) and Alexandre Fandard are engaging performers with considerable stage presence. Yet both works, in their own way, fail to deliver fully on initial promise.

Created in 2018 and taking inspiration from a mid-1990s book that instructs young women how they should behave, Su’s Girl’s Notes (少女須知) is the opening part of a trilogy that seeks to interrogate notions of gender.

The essence of the book is that all men are conceited and arrogant, and hope that women will depend on them. However brilliant the woman, they should ‘play their game’ and pretend they are helpless.

Su’s demeanour, the way she smiles knowingly, sometimes even finding it difficult not to laugh, and the glint in her eye tells us things are a little tongue-in-cheek and Girl’s Notes is effectively a commentary on the book. A sort of review in movement and (almost) without words, although if you had to box it, ‘performance art’ would be a good term given there is no dance as most people understand it.

Su Pin-wen in Girl’s Notes
Photo Lin Jun-yong/National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts (Weiwuying)

While Su identifies as ‘he/him,’ the image presented throughout is female. His long, bleached yellow hair is braided in a pony-tail. When we first see him, he’s in a white dress, the choice of colour probably quite deliberate. When he disrobes, the external body on view is unmistakably woman.

He moves slowly and gracefully, appearing a little shy. A book is balanced on his head throughout. I believe it’s supposed to imply the hardness of women’s lives rather than an exercise in deportment. Not that you would have guessed. And the effect is rather broken when it falls off.

Given that not a great deal happens over the work’s forty minutes, Su is surprisingly engaging, although the background music from the excellent on-stage pianist Lin Mai-ke (林麥可) helps enormously. Moments unfold slowly. In Girl’s Notes, little things are important. Su’s approach works well, allowing everything to be seen clearly and absorbed.

Traditionally, Taiwan was a conservative, masculine nation, attitudes that remained until much more recently than in the West, although things have now moved on a lot. It is an over simplification, but, essentially, men were expected to be at least the main breadwinner while a woman’s place was at home. So, we see Su making a drink. Beans are ground (rather amusingly the grinder clutched to her stomach), water is boiled, the beverage savoured at ease. The later What a Girl Needs to Know (After) (少女須知(後)) takes cooking a stage further as he creates a hot meal live on stage.

Later, there’s an angelic pose with arms across the chest and a classical reclining figure picture. There’s also some hip and pelvis swivelling. None are cute or provocative but so some extent can be seen as stereotypical female images.

Towards the end, Su reads in Chinese. It’s about what a young female needs to do to act cute, understandings of which vary culturally and individually. It’s certainly not a term I associate with women, although young children and animals perhaps. I am assuming we are meant to hear the words given that a written translation (which could have been better) is provided, but the delivery is muffled and difficult to pick up over the piano. A projection of the text would have been far better and allowed the audience to understand it in the moment.

The subject matter of Girl’s Notes is certainly worthy of attention but, for all its potential and appealing images, it ultimately doesn’t say much. It doesn’t even raise many questions although, in my mind, those that it does are as much to do with appropriateness and the depiction of the female body than anything else. But does it challenge notions of gender, feminism or nudity as is claimed. Sadly, because they are all important topics, not really.

Alexandre Fandard in Comme un Symbole
Photo Benedicte Ramfjord

In his solo Comme un symbol, Alexandre Fandard takes on the figure of disaffected urban youth. After the audience arrive to offstage shouts and yells that sound like they are coming from some dark, night-time street, he arrives to show us the masculine figure we expect.

Light, and more particularly black is an essential part of the scene. Fandard never leaves a patch of light surrounded by darkness that allows us to paint our own background. It feels like he’s under a street light. He’s aggressive. He’s angry. He rails and throws punches at figures we imagine in the distance but who we cannot see. As Rodrig de Sa’s soundscape crackles with tension, he’s also very compelling. Thanks to his cap and Chloé Seiller’s lighting, we never fully see his face. He is in many ways a stereotype. He matches our expectations.

But we soon discover this figure is more complex than he first seems. In a scene full of articulated gestural movement to percussion, he seems strangely fragile. He turns slowly, arms out. It’s as if he’s being driven, not in control.

It ends unexpectedly with Fandard singing ‘Der Leiermann’ from Winterreise by Franz Schubert, which tells of an old hurdy-gurdy man people walk past without noticing. The political, critical commentary could not be clearer as it includes the lines, “No one wants to listen, no one looks at him.” It’s also not exactly the sort of music you expect to hear in a work about urban youth. It induces a sort of calm, a sense of vulnerability even. And he does finally show his face. Yet, for all the picture painted is impressive, like those who walk past that old musician and as with Girl’s Notes, I found myself feeling little.