Connecting with Taiwan: Edinburgh Fringe’s Taiwan Season moves online

David Mead

Over the six editions since its launch in 2014, the Taiwan Season has become an Edinburgh Fringe ‘must see’ for dance lovers in particular. Last year was perhaps the best yet. Audiences certainly thought so with many shows at the usual Dance Base and Summerhall venues sold out.

Thanks to COVID-19, there is no live Fringe this year, although some of the main venues have put together online programmes full of appealing work. ZOO’s dance programme is especially impressive. The Taiwan Season lives on too. Responding to the challenge of the pandemic, Chen Pin-chuan (陳斌全), director of the Cultural Division of the Taipei Representative Office in the UK, and Taiwan Season curator and producer Yeh Jih-wen (葉紀紋), have cooked up a virtual programme of cultural close encounters.

Spread across twelve sessions from August 4 to 28, Connecting with Taiwan is a thrice-weekly series of interviews with the leaders of the four companies who were set to present work at this year’s Fringe, alongside in depth webinars featuring producers, presenters, researchers and educators discussing a range of topics across Taiwanese performing arts more generally.

Lai Hung-chung's BoundlessPhoto Hung Dance
Lai Hung-chung’s Boundless
Photo Hung Dance

Starting on August 4, the interviews will be streamed each Tuesday, and repeated the following Thursday. While they will include excerpts from the works originally scheduled, it was decided not to stream the four works in full. As Chen and Yeh point out, dance made to be watched live in three dimensions does not always work on film or online in in two dimensions. They are also keen to reserve them for the audiences they hope will come to watch at Dance Base and Summerhall next year.

They open with two young choreographers who made a big impact during 2019 at Taipei’s National Experimental Theater. First, Cheng Hao (鄭皓) will speak about how his background in mathematics gives him a unique perspective on both abstract ideas and live performance, realised in his originally scheduled, Touchdown (觸底的形色). Drawing on ideas from quantum physics and featuring a blackboard-like surface and chalk as a means of charting Cheng’s ceaselessly nimble movement, the National Theater & Concert Hall commission is part dance, part art installation. I remember finding the construction and deconstruction of what you could call ‘an artwork within an artwork’, incredibly absorbing.

The following week, Lai Hung-chung (賴翃中) will discusses his intense and richly layered work, Boundless (無盡·天空) for Hung Dance (翃舞製作). When I saw this in Taipei, I compared it to finding yourself inside the mind of someone trying to find their way out of a series of troubled dreams. It also makes striking use of props from traditional culture, including pheasant feathers and rattan sticks.

FightersPhoto Les Petites Choses Production
Photo Les Petites Choses Production

Next up is Yang Nai-hsuan (楊乃璇) talking about her Fighters (五虎將) for Les Petites Choses Production (小事製作). Drawn from one of the most famous and popular works of classical Chinese literature, Yang brings to life five god-like characters in a fusion of hip hop and contemporary dance backed by a folk-techno soundtrack.

Finally, Lin Hsiu-wei (林秀偉), who founded Tai Gu Tales Dance Theatre (太古踏舞團) way back in 1988, will discuss the fusion of Eastern cultural traditions and contemporary Western practices that have been the company’s trademark for over thirty years, and specifically The Back of Beyond (無盡胎藏), a work shaped by a personal concern for how human beings co-exist with each other and their environment. Rooted in such entwined concepts as light and dark, and love and hate, the dance is a sort of theatrical dream-ritual that charts the cycle of life from birth to death and rebirth.

The Back of BeyondPhoto Tai Gu Tales Dance Theatre
The Back of Beyond
Photo Tai Gu Tales Dance Theatre

The four pieces will also form part of a showcase featuring work from fourteen countries being curated by the Fringe Society, organisers of the festival.

Good news is that while audiences cannot see the four companies in the flesh this year, three of them will be returning in 2021. The missing ensemble will be Hung Dance, who have other commitments next summer and so have reluctantly had to withdraw.

On Wednesdays and Fridays, starting August 5 and 7, the focus shifts to a series of webinars (all in English) that examine a range of topics, and that should prove ideal for anyone curious about the current state of the arts in Taiwan, or keen to know how to tap into them.

The discussions lead off with two sessions reflecting on the present and future role of Taiwan’s arts and culture centres. Featuring guest speakers from Taiwan and Scotland, the first will try to frame the possibility of future international exchanges in a time of great change and closed borders, while the second will look at multi-community arts education and development.

In the second week, attention is placed on contemporary performance for disabled artists, a subject rarely to the fore in Taiwan where disabled artists face significant challenges and where performances involving them remain few and far between. It’s an area Yeh considers especially ripe for international exchange and collaboration.

The second session of that week, ‘Body Stories: Intermezzo and others’, includes showcasing the performance Intermezzo, a dream-like hymn for the body in everyday life presented in musical chapters based on the intermezzo.

Next up, there’s a look at notions and methods of cross-cultural creation and collaboration, and the sometimes tricky subject of cultural translation and identity politics. That’s followed by a session looking at expanded ideas of choreography, performance and live art; the notion of performing archives and identities; and the creative process of accommodating live works in gallery settings.

Taiwan SeasonIndigenous art in Taiwan is now very much to the fore and has become a tool for reclaiming sovereignty and rights. The first session of the final week considers the cultural context of production, and will include a talk with TAI Body Theatre (TAI身體劇場) about how the company has found ways to assert cultural power through choreography.

How to deal with tradition (and indeed what tradition is) is often a sensitive subject among indigenous peoples around the world. Closing the season, the final session, ‘Curating Indigeneity in Taiwan’, considers indigenous curatorial process and methods of dealing with tradition and art, taking Pulima Art Festival (Pulima藝術節) as an example.

Both the interviews and webinars will remain available online so that people can go back and watch them later.

It is a Taiwan Season with a difference, but also maybe reflective of things to come. As Chen says, moving online does bring opportunities. “Now we can promote the Taiwan Season globally. Previously, people could only participate if they were at the event. Now they can participate from anywhere. The physical events will always be very important but we are starting to understand how we can use the internet not only to promote the season but make conversations happen and increase understanding. It can also add to the experience for those who attend performances.” He, and Yeh, are confident the new-look season will deliver.

For more details and to register for the webinars, visit the Taiwan Season website.