Peiju Chien-Pott returns to Taiwan with the Martha Graham Dance Company

David Mead talks to the celebrated American modern dance company’s principal dancer and looks ahead to the forthcoming visit to Taipei.

It’s been twelve years since the Martha Graham Company’s (瑪莎葛蘭姆舞團) last visit to Taiwan. Then, it was local star Sheu Fang-yi (許芳宜) who was the dancer everyone flocked to see. But next month they are back with another Taiwanese principal dancer for audiences to admire: Peiju Chien-Pott (簡珮如), once described as “dramatically daring and physically chameleon-esque,” and a dancer who, “communicates the emotional message of the Graham works with such beautiful clarity.”

Last summer, Peiju performed at the opening ceremony of the Universiade but this will be the first time that local dance-goers have had the chance to see her on stage in a theatre since she left for New York. “It’s been ten years. I’ve been hoping and dreaming I could come back and perform for Taiwanese audiences,” she says.

It will also be a rare chance for her parents to see her dance. “About two and a half years ago, the company went to Beijing and Shanghai to perform. That was the first time they were able to see me perform with the company. But they are so excited about my debut in Taipei.”

Peiju Chien-PottPhoto Thomas Concordia
Peiju Chien-Pott
Photo Thomas Concordia

As a young child, Peiju says she danced simply because it made her happy. “I always loved moving my body. I enjoyed the movement when my body responded to the music I heard, and then my emotions followed.”

Having started formal training aged 10 with ballet and Chinese folk dance, she excelled at high school, winning a place on the seven-year training programme at Taipei National University of the Arts. It was only in the second year of college that thoughts of being a professional dancer really took hold, though. “I was invited to perform with Taipei Crossover Dance Company (台北越界舞團). That was the first time I was invited to work with professional dancers, the first time I was treated like a professional dancer, and really it gave me the idea that that’s what I wanted to be.”

Although Graham technique is taught at TNUA, dancing with the Graham company was far from Peiju’s thoughts even then. “In college, I had half a semester that was taught by Ross Parkes. To be honest, I wasn’t very into it,” she says laughing. “Ross was a very strict teacher, and everyone was a bit stressed out in class and with the technique. I found it very hard.”

She continues, “Really, it was only after I moved to the US and I got to see more Graham work that I really understood the technique itself and how it linked to the repertoire. It was only then that everything started to make sense. I learned more about the company, the philosophy of Martha Graham, her use of the body and, of course, the drama. I really enjoyed watching those deep, dramatic Graham works, especially ones from 1940s and those based on Greek myths. They helped me to understand that I could use the Graham body language as a tool to talk, to act, and for the movement to make sense. Mind you, the technique itself is still very hard. I still take class every day so as not to lose the principles of contraction and release.”

Peiju Chien-Pott with Ben Schultz in rehearsal for Martha Graham’s The Rite of SpringPhoto Melissa Sherwood
Peiju Chien-Pott with Ben Schultz in rehearsal for Martha Graham’s
The Rite of Spring
Photo Melissa Sherwood

Peiju has interpreted many famous Graham roles, but does she have a favourite work? “I have lots,” she says, laughing again. “Cave of the Heart is one. Very dramatic, based on a Greek myth about Medea. But I think my overall favourite is The Rite of Spring, which will be performed in Taiwan. I’m very excited about that. The Stravinsky score, is so powerful, and combined with Graham’s drama, it’s overwhelming.”

When Peiju first saw the Martha Graham Company in Taiwan in 2006, her last year in college, it performed pretty much only Graham’s work. “But it is different now. It’s taken a different path to attract broader audiences. So, we do pieces by contemporary choreographers as well,” Peiju explains, which very much suits her desire to find different ways to move, to break habits, take risks and get out of her comfort zone.

Among contemporary dance-makers are Pontus Lidberg, who created Woodland on the company, and Bulareyaung Pagarlava (布拉瑞揚), who made part of Lamentation Variations, a work inspired by Graham’s iconic solo. Both will be performed in Taipei. Then there was Mats Ek, who made the duet, AXE, on Peiju. “It was fascinating. I love that work. He was very particular about what he wanted,” she recalls. “Every single gesture was important. There is some dark humour in the work too. It was just very special.”

Ben Schultz and PeiJu Chien-Pott in Martha Graham’s The Rite of SpringPhoto Wang Xiao Jing
Ben Schultz and PeiJu Chien-Pott in Martha Graham’s The Rite of Spring
Photo Wang Xiao Jing

Away from the Graham company, Peiju still has dance ambitions. In Taiwan, she founded the PJ Contemporary Dance Company (簡珮如當代舞蹈空間). “I’m hoping to produce work every year; not my own but in collaboration with other choreographers. I also want to use it to open up opportunities for current college students to perform with a company. I was so privileged to dance with Taipei Crossover Company when I was a student. It changed my ambitions and thoughts about the future. I just want to provide the same opportunity for some of today’s talented young dancers.”

Away from the stage, Peiju is mother to a 7-year old daughter. Balancing family and professional life was difficult at first, she says. “I tour a lot and my husband, Samuel (a former Graham company soloist) is also very busy with his own company and school, Nimbus Dance Works. Childcare really had to be planned well ahead. I think it took four or five years to find the balance. But it’s great when I go home after a work day or a big tour to relax by talking and playing with my daughter. It’s totally different from work.”

Finally, what advice would she offer today’s young dancers? “You have to be happy when you dance, although there is no short cut to success,” she says. “You have to find what it is that makes you want to dance. You have to search for those moments that bring satisfaction for you, and remember those every time you dance.” As she once observed, sometimes “your mindset can be more crucial than your limbs!”

PeiJu Chien-Pott and Leslie Andrea Williams in Martha Graham’s ChroniclePhoto Brigid Pierce
PeiJu Chien-Pott and Leslie Andrea Williams in Martha Graham’s Chronicle
Photo Brigid Pierce

The Martha Graham Dance Company are presenting two programmes of classics and newer work at the Sun-Yat Sen Memorial Hall from March 16-18, both rounding off with a real Graham heavyweight piece. For Programme A, that’s Chronicle from 1936, Graham’s stirring response to the rise of fascism and the power that can be unleashed by the collective will. Programme B will conclude with Graham’s dramatic Rite of Spring, made in 1984 when, remarkably, she was aged 90.

Elsewhere, Programme A features Lamentation Variations; Dark Meadow Suite, made in 1946 and one of Graham’s most psychological and abstract works; and Ekstasis, not her long lost 1933 solo (it was her experiments with the use of the pelvis for the original work that gave birth to her technique), but a reimagining by Virginie Mécène for Peiju, to haunting new music by Catalan composer Ramon Humet. It was for Ekstasis that Peiju received the prestigious Bessie Award for Outstanding Performer in Dance.

Programme B also includes the 1936, Steps in the Street, actually a section from Chronicle and a response to the devastation and isolation that war always leaves; and Errand in the Maze from 1947, a duet loosely inspired by the Greek myth of Theseus in which a woman journeys into a labyrinth that may be in her own mind and confronts her own fears. Finally, and leaping forward seventy years, Lidberg’s Woodland takes imagery of woodland, moonlight and wandering creatures he heard in the score as its starting point.

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