Focus Dance Company 2024

Festival Theater, Taipei National University of the Arts
March 22 & 23, 2024

Like most university performance companies, Focus Dance Company (焦點舞團) of Taipei National University of the Arts (國立臺北藝術大學) is part of the performers’ transformation from student to professional, a time when they get to deal with the likes of administration, school visits, publicity and fund-raising, as well as choreography and performance. And international exchange too, with this year visits to Munich, Singapore and New York besides the usual Taiwan tour.

In their home theatre, this year’s two programmes under the season title, Luminary (曜), in total presented six works by students, alongside Self-Portrait (自畫像) by Hung Tsai-hsi (洪綵希) and Hofesh Shechter’s arrestingly powerful In your rooms. As always, the dancing was top drawer. It’s easy to see why so many TNUA graduates can be found in companies across Europe.

Focus Dance Company in Hofesh Shechter’s In Your Rooms
Photo Chang Chia-hao

Although dating from 2007, since expanded for a larger cast, Shechter’s In your rooms remains one of his best. Rounding off each performance, both casts captured superbly the pent-up power and physicality of the work in a 20-minute version staged by long-time Shechter Company member Chang Chien-ming (張建明), himself a TNUA graduate.

The piece is fragmented. Dancers are sometimes seen in ones and twos, often for just a few seconds. Isolated by the light, effectively in their own rooms of the title, they stare or writhe. One senses a angsty yearning, a searching for who knows what. When larger interactions come, the dance is contorted and disjointed, is allied with frustration and aggression, and is always high energy. Always too, a surprising sense of rhythm, amplified by Shechter and Nell Catchpole’s accompaniment.

Breathtaking and quite fabulous.

Tseng Po-hsun (standing) and ensemble in Self-Portrait by Hung Tsai-shi
Photo Chang Chia-hao

Also on both programmes, where it rounded off the first half, Hung’s Self-Portrait (自畫像) is a large-cast work that reflects on the dark side of humanity.

It has a very dramatic opening. Two men in the centre of a circle of prone bodies. There’s tension, a powerful sense of ritual, which continues for a while when those others wake and rise. It’s dark and unsettling, streaks of red fabric on the formal suits of the men in particular adding to the mood.

There are plenty more dramatic moments, not least when the women dance with hair down, hiding faces as it flies around like an extra limb. But that opening feeling does get a bit lost at times, matters not helped by feels like constant ape-like scurrying around on all fours. For all it paints vivid pictures and features some dramatic dance, some tightening up would not come amiss.

Yeh Cheng-jung and Chou Tzu-yu in The Gifts by Yeh Cheng-jung
Photo Chang Chia-hao

On to student choreography, both programmes opened with The Gifts by Yeh Cheng-jung (葉承融), a pleasing contemporary ballet. Pretty much all the student work had excellent openings that grabbed the attention immediately, in this case a static lift that has the woman resemble a soaring bird, a variation of which is repeated at the end.

Performed to Max Richter’s ‘Flowers of Herself,’ an outtake from his composition for Wayne McGregor’s ballet, Woolf Works, the choreography is airy with a sense of freedom. There are lots of entrances and exits but Yeh handles the ensemble easily. Group moments melt nicely into solos and duets, the latter including the seemingly now obligatory all-male moment.

Cheng Tsai-ni in The Gifts by Yeh Cheng-jung
Photo Chang Chia-hao

It is busy at times, but then so is the music, its intertwining rhythms originally designed to evoke a bustling street scene of Woolf’s “carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging.”

Just one minor gripe (and not for the first time in TNUA ballet choreography): the Graham-like low running on and off. Why? It gives the dance a strange groundedness that is at odds with the rest of the movement. Surely TNUA dancers can run in other ways too.

Chou Tzu-yu (above) in Rugged Road by Yeh Cheng-jung
Photo Chang Chia-hao

Yeh turned to Richter again for his Rugged Road (崎路), this time his Andante Loops, which he pairs with ‘Pantomime’ by Manchester ensemble Claro Intelector, a track where subtle rhythms emerge from the murk.

“Success comes through failure” says the programme note. Sure enough, what we see is a woman on a journey of struggle, supported physically and emotionally by an ensemble of six in what it’s impossible not to read as a comment on a student dancer’s journey. It does lose its way a little when the music switches, the dance feeling more like abstract movement, albeit very appealing abstract movement. It ends unresolved, the journey, as life, forever continuing on.

Also Paradise by Yeh Cheng-jung
(l-r: Kuo Yen-hua, Tseng Po-hsun, Hsu Ya-shin)
Photo Chang Chia-hao

Clearly a thoughtful choreographer, and one with talent, Yeh’s third contribution, Also Paradise (也是天堂) is a look at the nature of memories and how they can be weighty in the mind. But all in a thematic rather than specific sense.

As Hsu Ya-shin (許雅昕) is carried and supported by Kuo yen-hua (郭研華) and Tseng Po-hsun (曾柏勛), it feels like a peek into a moment. We come in after the beginning and leave before the end. There’s clever use of blackout to divide sections, the white dress of the three dancers standing out against the darkness that bathes the stage. Of Yeh’s three works, Also Paradise feels the least complete, a sketch for something longer perhaps. It’s certainly easy to imagine it being extended and ideas developed.

A group of people or just humans by Kuo Yen-hua
(Chiang Yu-wei with l-r behind: Chen Yun-wen, Kuo Yen-hua, Jian Tz-shiun,
Chao Hsuan, Yeh Cheng-rong)
Photo Chang Chia-hao

A group of people or just humans (人群或是群人還是就只是人) by Kuo Yen-hua (郭研華) is about being unique, being individual, but also being part of a group. And it does exactly what is sets out to do. It also stood out for simply being different. For a start, it’s brightly lit, with the cast of six in everyday clothes. When they walk on one by one, personality is immediately visible, none more so than from Chiang Yu-wei (江育葳), who stood out in particular in both performances. Amongst the often gestural movement (one quirky moment even sees them wave to the audience), little things count for a lot: a look, a gesture, a moment of eye contact. It feels very human. I liked it a lot.

Chiang turned choreographer for Tentative (暫定), which involves two female dancers, a lot of clothes, and some mime; mostly unconvincing mime. It struggled to communicate. Much of it was in silence, which didn’t help. Neither did the very short, obscure programme note.

Unfairy Tales by Yeh Chien-jou
Photo Chang Chia-hao

In Unfairy Tales (而非童話), Yeh Chien-jou (葉芊柔) sets out to consider how life is a drama and confusing the genuine with the fake. While that seems to have got somewhat lost on the choreographic journey, it is quirkily appealing and features some super group sequences with its seven dancers in a line. Top marks for the bright red and white costumes too. Mimicking smoking a cigarette was not the greatest idea, though, and especially by someone who has clearly never done so. Realistic it was not!

No Return (無歸) by Chiu Min-chang (邱民昌) is a classy looking Chinese dance influenced work, although the arched backs and poses of the women in particular suggest something rather more Latin. Again, it has dark figures in the gloom as it builds to a dramatic end.

No Return by Chiu Min-chang
Photo Chang Chia-hao

They do like gloom at TNUA, although lighting designer Tai Cai-ru (戴寀如) proves time and again that you can have shadows and darkness and still see. She does wonders in making sure the important things are visible, her always gorgeous lighting cleverly picking out figures and emphasising features.

Last but not least, a solo. Whisper (呢喃) by Chen Chi-hsun (陳繼勳) takes us deep into disorienting thoughts and the night. An empty space. A solitary figure. In another fabulous opening and dressed in a skirt that looks like the ripped shreds of a wedding dress, Tseng Po-hsun (曾柏勛) dances largely with his back to us, in its own way, emphasising the shadows inherent in the piece. It’s very effective. We can see, but can’t see. Later there are beautiful deep back bends and lots of expressive use of arms.