National Taiwan University of Sport Graduation Dance Concert: Jiu Sheng

Xinzhuang Culture and Arts Center, New Taipei City, Taiwan
March 22, 2023

Taipei Elementary and Junior High School Talented Programme Annual Performance
Chungshan Hall, Taipei
March 22, 2023

University dance departments in Taiwan are rather closer to conservatoires than those that exist in UK universities outside the main vocational schools. Their performances tend to reflect their individual ethos and approach to the artform and so it was with Jiu Sheng (玖生), the graduation performance of the Dance Department of the National Taiwan University of Sport (國立臺灣體育運動大學舞蹈學系第, NTUS).

A show rammed with the energy and creativity of youth (the title sort of translates to ‘many lives,’ a reference to the fact that, in a way, we constantly die and are reborn throughout life as new times come and go), it was filled with colour and variety in choreography and presentation. The twelve student choreographed pieces all felt different, all communicating and sticking to their theme effectively. All were also very well danced and staged with Lin Li-chun’s (林立羣) superb lighting frequently making an important contribution.

The Disposable Love Doll by Guo Yi-xin
Photo courtesy National Taiwan University of Sport

Some of the contemporary works took on deep subjects, none more so than The Disposable Love Doll (愛的燥鬱昕) by Guo Yi-xin (郭彧昕). A powerful, deeply personal work of mixed emotions, it deals with childhood memories including abuse and being abandoned, not bring able to sleep, crying. But there is love too, and places that offer a sense of security. On top of the telling movement, Guo makes very effective use of speech in the soundtrack, and there are superb projections that sometimes coat the dancers with text. Clever use of unusual angles on other film that appears behind makes it feel like you are looking right inside the soul. A shot of him at a sink, the camera looking up from the plug hole, is especially effective.

A vaguely post-apocalyptic feel is delivered in Plague flea (瘟蚤) by Su Ting-jin (蘇庭津), which presents a mass of bodies, struggling and writhing, as it depicts a world where order has been lost and everything is out of control. When one dancer disappears into a red light stage left at the end, it’s difficult not to read this death.

Choke/breath by Gu Ting-yun
Photo courtesy National Taiwan University of Sport

Choke/breath (扼/息) by Gu Ting-yun (顧庭芸) draws parallels with the idea of metaphorically walking a tightrope, holding one’s breath in case one falls, and trembling as one tiptoed on the ropes of sanity. The opening is especially powerful as, to the potent vocal track, ‘Angelus Novus’ by London-based Japanese singer/composer/producer Hatis Noit, that appropriately hints at personal and social struggles, we see a male dancer and others, shaking, quivering, scratching furiously before falling.

Opposites come together in Hunyuan celestial phenomenon (混元·天象) by Liu You-zheng (劉又瑄), a dance of black and white (literally, in costumes), confrontation and integration, yin and yang. The forces are sometimes played off against each other but sometimes come together more harmoniously. A sort of opposites attract.

Brightest of all, although I’m also not sure I completely got the theme, is Understudy by Lin Qian-yi (林千褆). I was taken by its quirkiness and colour in choreography and costume, though, and especially by a lovely duet in the middle section. An unusual musical mix too: A Vivaldi concerto, Offenbach’s can-can music, Bach’s Air on a G String and Johann Strauss Snr’s Radetzky March, but one that worked.

That person by Zhan Shu-han
Photo courtesy National Taiwan University of Sport

There is no real equivalent of Chinese dance in the West. It comes in all shapes and sizes, from courtly to incredibly athletic. It’s heartening to see its traditions maintained in student performances, and that students want to choreograph in the genre.

That person (伊人) by Zhan Shu-han (詹舒涵) takes inspiration from ‘The Reeds and the Rushes’ a poem from The Book of Songs: The Qin Wind (詩經•秦風), a collection of verse written by various anonymous authors over several centuries from around 800 BC. Traditionally, it was part of the canon of Confucian works that scholars were expected to study, although just how much influence Confucius may have had on them is a subject of debate.

The frosty setting of the poem, the reeds, water (water sleeves to the fore, naturally), and the person of the title standing on the other side of them, were all clearly depicted in Zhan’s refined, beautiful choreography.

Blaze by Liu You-zheng
Photo courtesy National Taiwan University of Sport

A very different style, full of unbridled energy, comes in Blaze (燿) by Liu You-zheng (劉又瑄). A dramatic piece from the Wa Ethnic group of the southwestern Yunnan province of China, it depicts dancing around night-time fires. The colourful red costumes matched perfectly the flames of the accompanying projected backdrop. Indeed, it wasn’t a huge jump to see them as representations of the same.

Waltz of the Snowflakes by Peng Lin-yun and Guo Yun-yun
Photo courtesy National Taiwan University of Sport

For ballet in a school or university show, it’s difficult to go too far wrong with the ‘Snowflakes’ from The Nutcracker, and so it proved. Peng Lin-yun (彭聆雲) and Guo Yun-yun (郭紜妘)’s waltz was full of pleasant patterns reflecting the fluttering, dancing snowflakes of the backing projections. I do wish student choreographers could be dissuaded from slipping fouetté turns into almost everything, though. They rarely fit choreographically or musically (and certainly not in a waltz), and are rarely well performed.

Ballet of a more contemporary nature came in Her, by Zhan Shu-han (詹舒涵). It’s a pleasing dance around a theme of a partner being left behind. A strong sense of loss is conveyed as a man dances with a partner, but who then leaves him for another. A Latin feel came through costumes, lighting and music: Astor Piazzola’s Estaciones Portenas. Not for the only time in the evening, the partnering was considerate and confident. Indeed, it could have been a night spot or milonga.

Her by Zhan Shu-han
Photo courtesy National Taiwan University of Sport

Also on the programme, Hu Xun-yuan (胡旬垣) and Chen I-shing’s (陳翊芯) Gui, bo (圭•卜) was inspired by the how right and wrong are real and not illusory concepts, although I’m not sure that was visible in the dance. The way grains of sand in a pit caught the light beautifully as they were kicked and thrown was beautiful, though. The Circleby Yao Jing-ting (姚靜婷) was inspired by how human nature leads one to do whatever it takes to survive.

The show rounded off in fine, colourful style Sain Baina uu Desert (賽白努大漠) by Chen Ya-nen (陳玥恩). A dance from Mongolia (‘Sain baina uu’ means ‘hello’ in Mongolian), it paints a striking picture of dancers in vast landscape that seems to have no boundaries.

Who knows what comes next for NTUS’ talented graduates, but if they persevere and keep the flames of their dreams alive, no boundaries are what they potentially have too.

Taipei Elementary and Junior High School Talented Programme Annual Performance

The same day saw the annual performance by Taipei’s two elementary and two Junior High Schools in the Talented Student programme (that embeds pre-vocational, specialist dance classes in regular schools) whose younger dancers came together to show the results of their work.

Shuang Yuan Junior High School in Memory Light Corridor by Su Chia-hsien

It was two most enjoyable hours; an evening of energy, enthusiasm and fine large ensemble choreography (everything had 20-30 dancers) featuring ballet, modern, Chinese folk dance and work created with students through improvisation. It was also great not only to see rather more boys on stage than usual (the programme is typically 95% female), especially from Bei An Junior High School (北安國中) but also how accomplished they all were.

Dongmen Elementary School in Dream Box Take-off

Without doubt, most fun was Dream Box Take-off* (夢箱起飛), created by the fourth-grade students (age 10) and teachers of Dongmen Elementary School (東門國小), who, using cardboard boxes and bags of imagination, took the audience on a journey with Dongmen Airlines.

Among the Chinese dance contributions, Yongle Elementary School (永樂國小) fifth-graders presented Night ambush by a brave general to catch a thief* (勇將擒賊夜伏擊) by Du Meng-jie (杜孟潔), a dramatic piece that took us to a world of rampant thieves, but where heroic soldiers waited for an opportunity to ambush them before claiming a big victory.

Yongle Elementary School in Night ambush by a brave general to catch a thief
by Du Meng-jie

Ballet from Bei An’s ninth-grade took us to an appropriately titled Gorgeous Ceremony* (華麗盛典), the piece by Chen Shou-qin (陳壽琴) including some fine partnering from the boys. Their modern dance contribution, Soaring by Hsu Wei-bo (許瑋博) did just that.

Shuang Yuan Junior High School’s (雙園國中) modern dance work Memory Light Corridor* (記憶光廊) by Su Chia-hsien (蘇家賢), performed by the graduating ninth-graders (age 15) saw dancers follow swaying light and shadow on a migratory journey. There was a bit of a sense of heading into the unknown, and it was hard not to draw parallels with their forthcoming graduation and move to senior high school. I also enjoyed the school’s ballet, Morning Splendour* (燦若晨曦) by Ye Qui-feng (葉秋鳳), which was not only neatly-danced but, unusually for this evening, had all the girls looking comfortable on pointe.

Bei An Junior High School in Gorgeous Ceremony by Chen Shou-qin

* The author’s translation of the Chinese titles.