A ‘Boléro’ with a difference and more: TNUA’s Focus Dance Company 2019

Zhongli Arts Hall, Taiwan
April 21, 2019

David Mead

Two new works by professional choreographers dominate this year’s Cumulus (朵) programme by Focus Dance Company (焦點舞團), the performance ensemble of Taipei National University of the Arts (TNUA, 台北國立藝術大學).

Originally called Fandango and commissioned for a flamenco-influenced ballet by Ida Rubenstein that premiered in 1928 (where it was an instant hit), Maurice Ravel’s Boléro has since been tackled by countless choreographers. Some have taken a large-scale approach such as Maurice Béjart in his classic 1962 version, while others have relied on just a couple of dancers. Most agree about the music’s character though, associating it with love, passion and sometimes death. But while the composer is said to have acknowledged the musical-sexual nature of his work, it was actually inspired by something rather more mundane: the pulsing, rhythmic throbbing sound of machinery in one of the factories he recalled visiting with his engineer father.

Underpinned by the relentless beat of the snare drum and repetition, the music builds slowly until its dramatic end. Most choreographers follow that idea, grinding out and slowly developing one idea until it culminates in an explosion of movement fireworks. There is none of that in Tung I-fen’s (董怡芬) ‘Boléro’ for TNUA, and certainly no sexuality. But ‘dare to be different’ as they say.

Focus Dance 2019 in Great Freedom by Tung I-fenPhoto Hsieh Cheng-han
Focus Dance 2019 in Great Freedom by Tung I-fen
Photo Hsieh Cheng-han

The fact it’s not called ‘Boléro’ but Great Freedom (搖晃的自由) says a great deal in itself. Tung’s choreography certainly provides for far more personal expression for the students. It’s wide-ranging movement vocabulary and colourful costumes are breath of fresh air and light years away from the rest of works on the programme. In their dance, and especially in one series of solos and duets where they show a lot of individuality, maybe there’s a nod towards the future and freedom from university restrictions.

But whereas Ravel had one tune and stuck to it, Tung shifts around in a myriad of ideas that come and go, mostly never being referenced again. Unlike the score, there is no constant as movement vocabulary and mood change. Tung speaks of being inspired by the score and finding freedom in it. Presumably, she hears it differently (perfectly possible) because while there is at times an incredibly close association between music and dance, often that link seems tenuous indeed.

Focus Dance 2019 in Great Freedom by Tung I-fenPhoto Hsieh Cheng-han
Focus Dance 2019 in Great Freedom by Tung I-fen
Photo Hsieh Cheng-han

An opening ‘catwalk’ that introduces the dancers works a treat, as does a variation on a theme towards the end. I also enjoyed that run of individual moments when we actually saw some personality for once, even if it did feel like the music’s phrasing and intonations were being ignored. I think I even spotted a dash of hip hop. Not exactly a TNUA staple! But elsewhere, an early pause in the music (oddly, the only one) jars, and a section for five men that’s all about lifts and showing their strength (and in which some set ups were rather telegraphed) seems out of kilter too. There’s also a cheesy to Spanish dance that comes from nowhere, has little to do with any other movement in the work, and disappears equally quickly.

But maybe the doubts are partly caused by the surprise of seeing Boléro just done differently. Tung’s approach certainly asks questions. It would be interesting to see if a second viewing causes similar reactions.

Given his background that includes Complexions Contemporary Ballet, Nederlands Dance Theater, and Crystal Pite’s Kidd Pivot, the omens always looked good for Bryan Arias’ The Sky Seen from the Moon. Sure enough, once you get past the unfortunate opening that has the dancers wandering around the stage as the audience file in after the intermission (it’s so unengaging that everyone found chatting to their neighbour more appealing), it’s rather enjoyable.

Focus Dance 2019 in The Earth Seen from the Moon by Bryan AriasPhoto Hsieh Cheng-han
Focus Dance 2019 in The Sky Seen from the Moon by Bryan Arias
Photo Hsieh Cheng-han

It’s about an exploration of human connections and space, the earthbound, real and physical kind rather than the outer space kind, although the dance does have a sense of weightlessness at times. Pite’s influence is evident in the way Arias has the ensemble effortlessly construct sculptural friezes that melt apart before being rebuilt differently elsewhere. A duet features some beautifully smooth supports with the odd faster quirky moment thrown in. It was almost a shame that a second couple interrupted it. The music, a mix of Praveen, Camilla Hannah and Nils Frahm, matches everything perfectly.

But what on earth was that silly-looking, cartoon-like tiny cotton-wool cloud doing sat about the stage?

The five student works on the programme were all pleasant enough, but do you do wonder why TNUA student choreography almost always has to dressed and lit so alike? Does everything have to be in black and various greys and beiges? I’m all for companies and even universities having a style (although the latter is rather more debateable) but are we really seeing student choreography and creativity in full bloom, or the university’s take on what choreography should be? Four of the pieces in the show also feature fluttering hands (including Arias’) or, in one case, feet. It felt more than a coincidence. The latest choreographic fad, I wonder?

Still, there was much fine dancing, as one would expect. Siao Rong – Linear (消融 – 延) by Lin Jyun-yi (林俊毅) is largely contemplative, the dance featuring lots of folding and unfolding bodies. How nice to see a choreographer daring to be slow and take his time. With Hsieh Chih-ying (謝知穎), Lin also presented Rehabilitation (復原), an intense duet in which Yeh Yung-chen (葉詠甄) and Hsieh Cheng-yu (謝承佑) barely took their eyes off one another.

Somewhere Between Us (我們之間) by Wang Chih-shen (王志慎) is based on human interaction and messages that cannot be transmitted in words. The five dancers gave the sense of being a gang. They are as one, yet within the group there are little moments of competition. The opening, an increasingly fast-moving and complex series of touches and pushes away in silence was especially well done.

There were friends of a different sort in In A Tiny Little Story (一件關於你和我們的事) by Lau Pui Lon (劉沛麟), which had a vaguely wistful feel. Completing the line-up was 10° into the SKIN by Tan Sen Kai (陳森財) and Cheng wei (鄭媙), a pleasing enough duet but one whose meaning remained hidden.