Taiwan meets Asia and beyond at a Dance Round Table in Taipei

Experimental Theater, National Theater, Taipei
January 12 & 13, 2018

David Mead

The Dance Round Table (圓桌舞蹈計畫) presented by Chang Ting-ting (張婷婷) and her T.T.C Dance (張婷婷獨立製作) has quickly established a reputation for bringing quality work from around the world to Taipei. The dance in this year’s third edition proved as varied as the first two, the mix of solo, duet and small ensemble works, largely by independent artists, always interesting.

Highlight of the Western Poise programme was I U by Judith Argomaniz, director and choreographer of Spanish contemporary dance company LASALA, a work that seems to take place in a world of shadows and that raises questions of identity and the issues individuals sometimes have with it; issues that are highlighted by the fact Jaiotz Osa starts off in sky blue tunic and skirt, and when Garazi Etxaburu joins him, she is in matching top and trousers.

Jaiotz Osa (with Garazi Etxaburu behind) in I U by Judith ArgomanizPhoto Chen Yo-wei
Jaiotz Osa (with Garazi Etxaburu behind) in I U by Judith Argomaniz
Photo Chen Yo-wei

Osa’s remarkably controlled opening dance has a devotional feel to it. It is graceful and smooth, and yet, under it, there is a sense that all is not well. A repeated image sees his fingers spread wide. He appears to grab his mouth and nose, almost as if thinking of ripping the surface away. Etxaburu’s dance picks up on the similar gestures, although she also grabs her neck. Her dance is sharper, more agitated, edgy, and tension-filled, though. At times it’s likes she’s having an argument with herself as she bangs fists on an imaginary table. Her eyes are piercing, determined, set. Later, when she sits astride him, their two bodies combine as if one: her torso, his legs.

Etxaburu and Osa were both remarkably clean and precise, the unison moments quite perfect. With their focus they drilled right into you, defying you to take your eyes off them for a second. Quality indeed.

Jesse Zaritt in Send OffPhoto Chen Yo-wei
Jesse Zaritt in Send Off
Photo Chen Yo-wei

Send Off, choreographed and performed by Jesse Zaritt, former dancer with Shen Wei Dance Arts and Inbal Pinto Dance Company, deals with the attempted sacrifice of Isaac by his father, Abraham. The best part about it is the spoken text from the play, The Queen of the Bathtub by Israeli playwright Hanoch Levin, that accompanies the first section, in which father and son try to make each other feel guilty. As Abraham whinges on about not wanting to do it, Isaac basically tells him to stop moaning and get on with it. It’s all done as a monologue by actor Neil Harris in a Cockney accent. It was always going to be difficult to match and, his face masked by red stretchy fabric, Zaritt never gets close to it, failing totally to pick up on text’s dark humour. As the score shifts to an overlaying of Philip Glass and Blondie’s Heart of Glass, I still have no idea why he gives flowers to the audience or chooses to wrap his left leg around his neck.

all the things I knew but…, a solo by New York University Tisch School for the Arts faculty member Pamela Pietro, opens with her walking, shifting on all fours, then tottering on high heels; and in silence. It’s as uninteresting as it sounds. Once the music starts there’s lots of juddering and shaking (now high on her toes having ditched the shoes). I’m sure it means something to her, but whatever it is, it was lost on me.

Much, much better was Essence, created and danced by Russian couple Anna Shchekleina and Aleksandr Frolov. It’s a dance about themselves, a measure, in a way, of who they are, and of the different ‘me’ that might appear in different situations. From the opening beautifully posed embrace, bodies entwined, the is always something to watch. You never know what is coming next.

Anna Shchekleina and Aleksandr Frolov in EssencePhoto Chen Yo-wei
Anna Shchekleina and Aleksandr Frolov in Essence
Photo Chen Yo-wei

The dance influence swings from contemporary through hip-hop, tango and more. At first, it looks desperately serious, but just to make sure we don’t take it all too much that way, there is the occasional pause and grinning thumbs up to the audience. There’s humour elsewhere too, one very neat section seeing them ‘glued’ together, first, her hand on one of his buttocks, then his on one of hers, then the other two hands together. When the pace picks up, the dance shifts through the space with ease, the unison always perfect.

In the Asia Wave programme, A Major Clown in G-flat by former City Contemporary Dance Company (城市當代舞蹈團) dancer Jennifer Mok (莫嫣) proved a remarkably layered, detailed investigation into the real person behind the painted face, jokes and smiles.

To Stephen Sondheim’s Send in the Clowns, Mok first treats us to the clown we see on stage, although her dance reminded me reminded me as much of a puppet released from its strings. With her floppy movement, hunched shoulders and blank grin, she is quite simply brilliant. Everything has so much detail. There is a lot of action but, and importantly, there are also momentary pauses, those all-important movement commas and full-stops.

A Major Clown in G-flatcreated and perfromed by Jennifer MokPhoto Chang Chen-chou
A Major Clown in G-flat,
created and perfromed by Jennifer Mok
Photo Chang Chen-chou

A brief middle section, performed sat facing the back and in silence, and which is effectively Mok stripping the mask away, sits a little uncomfortably, but things soon pick up fabulously again. Rather than sink into her depression, Mok’s clown chooses to look for the positives, though. To Schubert, her now free-flowing and technically top-notch dance eats up the stage. It is wonderfully optimistic and a joy to watch.

Also appealing was Birdy by Taiwanese choreographer Lai Hung-chung (賴翃中). In modern dress but sporting a ling zi (翎子) headpiece, a long pheasant tail often worn on warriors’ helmets in Chinese opera, Cheng I-han (鄭伊涵) presents an image of a bird, someone who desires to escape from reality. Desperate to be free, she will do whatever it takes to be free, the feather slicing through the air as she expresses her inner struggles. Partner Chien Lin-yi (簡麟懿) symbolises her cage.

Their duet is one of great beauty and control with accented movement among the smooth ones. Cheng in particular has a beautifully fluent and pliant upper body. As the couple’s powerful dance becomes increasingly dynamic, frenzied even, it reminded me of a mating ritual, one in which she seeks to attract him. That is, of course, precisely what she is doing because only by destroying him can she be free. Even so, the end still comes as a bit of a surprise; to him as well as us.

Cheng I-han (right) and Chien Lin-yi in Birdy by Lai Hung-chungPhoto Chang Chen-chou
Cheng I-han (right) and Chien Lin-yi in Birdy by Lai Hung-chung
Photo Chang Chen-chou

Edges (beginnings) by Delhi-based Meghna Bhardwaj opens with her in a shoulder-stand. As her body slowly wakes up, the eye is drawn to a different part in turn: fingers, feet, toes; especially toes. It’s like watching a being exploring its own new body. Later, there are yoga influences, and the dance becomes more upright and fluid, at one point featuring the isolation of different joints and body parts.

No Turning Back (不回家) by former Cloud Gate 2 (雲門2) dancer Chen Yi-en (陳逸恩) and performed by T.T.C Dance is a strange, confused piece. Full of individual dance and gesture, it’s loaded with ideas, perhaps too many. It’s as though Chen felt he had to use every one of them, regardless of whether the whole actually made any sense.

With the cast all in solid, black expressionless face masks, a narrative appears to develop as a woman dances a solo, then collapses. As the other four dancers shift around her, there is lots of cocking of heads. After ignoring her for an age, eventually they attempt to revive her. Initially there’s no response before, out of nowhere, she suddenly regains consciousness. Even more strangely, it’s as though nothing has happened. It’s not long before she is dragging one of the other dancers around. Later, an unexpected unison section also feels out of kilter with everything else. Finally, there’s lots of pushing and shoving and running around, as if whatever society this is, is falling apart. It ends with the once fallen lady running endlessly around the stage to the sound of church bells. Odd; very odd.