Students shine in Taiwan university performances

National Taiwan University of Sport; Metropolitan Hall, Taipei; April 6, 2017
National Taiwan University of the Arts; Metropolitan Hall, Taipei; April 8, 2017
National Taiwan University of the Arts; NTUA Performing Arts Centre, Banqiao; April 15, 2017

David Mead

The arrival of spring in Taiwan brings with it a rush of performances by university dance departments (akin to conservatoires such as London Contemporary Dance School in the UK). April saw three interesting programmes, two from the National Taiwan University of the Arts in Banqiao (NTUA, 國立台灣藝術大學; not to be confused with the Taipei National University of the Arts, TNUA, 台北國立藝術大學, reviewed here), and the National Taiwan University of Sport (NTUS, 國立臺灣體育運動大學) from Taichung.

NTUS can always be relied on for a strong cohort of male dancers. Twelve Men in the City (京城十二少) by Bao Er-ji (寶爾基) and Leng Jing (冷靜) certainly showed this year’s group off to their best in an evening under the overall banner, Brilliancy (極光).

A serious looking start features the men arriving in the market place as traders, circus performers and such like. As if the rather obviously fake snake and bird of prey wasn’t clue enough, when one of the dancers hurts his back doing a few flips and limps away clutching it in mock agony, you know this isn’t going to be quite what you might have thought. It gets better. An extremely camp figure appears. Brilliantly played, full of marvellous asides and glances at the audience, it was all so over the top it was hilarious.

one another by Liao Kun-sheng of National Taiwan University of SportPhoto Chen Wei-sheng
one another by Liao Kun-sheng of National Taiwan University of Sport
Photo Chen Wei-sheng

Best of all, though, was the moment when a sudden return to serious looking martial arts dance suddenly and seamlessly morphed into a 12-piece rock band, complete with headbanging and goodness knows what else. That did it for me. I, along with everyone else, roared with laughter; and quite rightly too.

Of the student choreography, one another, a male duet by Liao Kun-sheng (廖坤勝) for himself and Li Yuan-hao (李原豪), featured the two dancers largely in separate ‘rooms’ (squares of light), their dance indicating we might be looking at the same person in two places or two times. The quality and expression was superb, and the Levi Patel’s Reflection, the perfect music. In my book, the best student piece of the season.

National Taiwan University of the Arts in Impromptu I II III IV by Chen Wu-kangPhoto NTUA
National Taiwan University of the Arts in Impromptu I II III IV by Chen Wu-kang
Photo NTUA

NTUA runs daytime and evening degree courses with separate performances. Unsurprisingly, the highlight of the evening course show, Walking Travelers (不滯旅人), on April 8 at the Metropolitan Hall was Impromptu I II III IV by Chen Wu-kang (陳武康) of Horse.

After a playful opening, the middle section is one of those where there is so much going on it’s impossible to see the full picture. At first you think it’s just a bit of a mess, everyone doing their own thing, but then you start to spot moments of togetherness between a couple of dancers, not necessarily particularly close to each other in the space: maybe action and reaction, maybe unison, maybe mirroring. It ends with a highly structured section that includes a lot rhythmic clapping in a line. It sounds dull. It’s not, especially when it’s as well and as cleverly put together as here.

Chain Reaction by Lu Mei-lunPhoto NTUA
Chain Reaction by Lu Mei-lun
Photo NTUA

The student choreography was full of ideas and well-structured. My favourite was Chain Reaction (連鎖效應) by Lu Mei-lun (盧美云), which focused on connectedness was full of interesting partner work with a lot of unusual and very good giving support and taking of weight.

Elsewhere, Relationship (有關係) by Lin Pei-yu (林佩諭) featured the most unusual staging with herself and Lai You-feng (賴有豐) playing everything out in and around a roughly 200cm x 80cm open-sided box, and for which most of the time they were indeed squeezed inside. Read it as you will, two people at separate times in the same space but brought together, or two in the same space and time, but it was certainly different and, as a ‘short’, worked very well.

Also admirable was the energy in the excellent Melt (融) by Huang Yan-jie (黃彥傑). A combination of Chinese dance and martial arts it was jammed with colour and passionate, exciting, surging movement. Finally, at last a university performance produced a good classical ballet work in the shape of Classical Movement by Lu Zhi-yi (呂芷儀), which was full of nice patterns and good dancing, including some good turns and jumps from the three men.

Feast, dance from Taiwan's indigenous Amis people, by Li Jun-weiPhoto Lin Ding-Tai
Feast, dance from Taiwan’s indigenous Amis people, by Li Jun-wei
Photo Lin Ding-Tai

NTUA’s evening course students tend to come from different backgrounds to their full-time daytime counterparts, their work dramatically-based and dance theatre-oriented. This year’s graduation performance on April 15, Ballooner (氣球乘行者), proved no different. What was different, though was the opening Feast (宴靈) by Li Jun-wei (李俊瑋). A lively and warm harvest-time celebration from Taiwan’s indigenous Amis (Pangcah) people, it saw the colourful and traditionally-attired dancers enter from the foyer and work along the aisles before weaving their song and dance patterns on the stage.

As usual, what followed varied in style and approach although common to all was the portrayal of emotional ups and downs and they told their various stories. Among the most appealing was Time Without Time (沒有時間的時間) by Lin Zhi-xuan (林芷暄). It benefitted from a strong structure, an intelligent choice of music (Spanish Sahara by English indie rock band Foals) and gorgeous designs including a semi-transparent curtain made of glittering black strips. When the cast performed behind it, it was like watching through a slightly frosted window. There were more gorgeous designs, this time the black dresses, in The Other Side (彼岸) by Huang Yun-ru (黃韻茹).

Time without time by Lin Zhi-xuanPhoto Lin Ding-tai
Time without time by Lin Zhi-xuan
Photo Lin Ding-tai

There was also a strong number for the six men, Naked (裸), and which they weren’t, by the way, by Huang Xuan-mo (黃軒墨).

All the performances in all three shows were committed and brimmed with the necessary energy and enthusiasm. All the works also all featured good ideas but too often suffered from the young choreographers feeling they needed to use every one they had, the predictable result being a lack of focus and clarity. Sometimes it really is best to put a few things aside.

That’s nothing new and neither is poor musicality, sadly, an increasing issue with students everywhere it seems. Too often, accompaniment seems very much be an afterthought, and that’s before we get to some poor combinations and editing.

Sometimes that spoiled potentially good work. In the second NTUA show, Time Without Time used a single piece of music that fitted the action perfectly. Contrast that with Liberty Avenue by Huang Shi-hao (黃仕豪), for example, which started with Hark the Herald Angels Sing (OK, it’s strong but…), followed by Shubert’s Ave Maria, appallingly faded out mid-phrase. And, yes, that does matter. That was a shame, because the rest of the work, to music by Codey Wilson and Thomas Bergersen and that was full of powerful, frequently grounded dance that clearly took its cue from Hofesh Shechter, worked a treat and was very well performed indeed.

Finally, praise all round for excellent programme books that would put may professional companies to shame. One thing though, please, please can you make sure they are legible. Tiny print and faint white on black are both very difficult to read!

Note that many of the English titles in this review are not ‘official’ but are our translations from the Chinese.