Dance in all its variety: Shinehouse Theatre’s Want to Dance Festival

Various venues, Taipei
April 21-23, 2023

Read David Mead’s second report focusing on the festival’s Exchange Programs.

It is a valuable platform for artists, in particular emerging independent artists who find it difficult to get performance opportunities and exposure. But the Want to Dance Festival (艋舺國際舞蹈節) presented by Taipei’s go-ahead and ambitious Shinehouse Theatre (曉劇場) is much more than that. Now in its fifth edition and an important fixture in Taipei’s arts calendar, it’s also an opportunity for exchange, for networking and, with a number of producers and programmers from Europe and Asia present, for looking towards future collaborations.

Over the three packed days, artists from 15 countries presented 74 works at the company’s Wan Theater and 16 less traditional venues, all in the closely situated in the Wanhua district of the city. Working out a schedule of what to watch was difficult. Seeing everything you wanted to was impossible.

Who is he? Twilight zone by Tomoshi Shioya (on the Huajiang House Overpass)
Photo Lin Zheng-yi

Curated by artistic director Chung Po-yuan (鍾伯淵) and theatre scholar Keng Yi-wei (耿一偉), Want to Dance was divided into three sections. ‘Open Call’ gave 21 Taiwanese and nine international artists (selected from over 100 applications) the opportunity to showcase their latest ideas in a range of venues. The ‘Exchange Program’ invited 12 choreographers from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Japan to present 20 to 30-minute works in a traditional theatre setting; and, finally, there were two ‘Curator Programs’ from Laos and Taiwan.

Remarkable by anyone’s standards. Also impressive was the organisation, the friendly and helpful staff, and the excellent 68-page programme book. Linking things together was the theme of ‘Connection,’ rather appropriate given that this was the first Want to Dance since Taiwan’s travel restrictions were fully lifted.

Performances were diverse including circus, acrobatics, contemporary dance, physical theatre, and a few that defied categorisation. A few were a little rough around the edges; one or two in the centre too. Some made you think, some made you laugh, some made you almost cry. Some left you simply admiring the technique.

My Manifesto and Euphoria by Huang Teng-sheng
were danced by students from TNUA
Photo Lin Zheng-yi

The occasional one also highlighted contemporary dance’s perennial problem that, while some artists want to ever further push boundaries, most viewers, certainly those outside the industry who tend to have a much narrower idea of what dance is, are very reluctant to go along with them. It’s a conundrum that doesn’t help the perception that the art form is ‘difficult,’ and leave it somewhat niche and audiences small. Significantly, a large percentage of the Want to Dance audience appeared to be closely connected to professional dance or academia.

The three Exchange programmes will be covered in a second review, but there was so much more. Indeed, it was impossible to see even close to everything. The Tanbu Cultural Park and Shinehouse’s own Wan Theater, repurposed from a sugar warehouse and only opened in 2022, formed the festival hub, but there were plenty of other venues pressed into service. Some unusual ones too, most notably the footbridges of the Huajiang House intersection, the site for Tomoshi Shioya’s Who is he? Twilight zone..

Seen on Friday evening at the Longshan Culture and Creative Base, Winter harbor (渡冬天堂) by Chiu Wei Yao (邱瑋耀) drew on reflections on the collision between tribal cultures and self-identification. Like one or two other works, that inspiration was difficult to discern however.

Xu Ya-xin in Flower and Bomb by Wu I-fan and Gesang Dance Theater

More impressive was Flower and Bomb (花與炸彈) by Wu I-fan (吳依凡) for Gesang Dance Theater (格桑製作) may require more development, but its connection with the war in Ukraine and the spirit of its people could hardly have been more visible. Xu Ya-xin (許雅昕) gave a powerful portrayal in a work that cleverly used sunflowers, and their beauty when arranged in a vase, with the stark realities of hand grenades and conflict.

Outdoors at the Tanbu Cultural Park, and squeezed in between Exchange programmes on Saturday, Giga | Super Critters | Giga by Sei Kigawa and Dance Company DE PAY’S MAN (the company name is derived from the Surrealist expression ‘dépaysement’) proved an odd but quirky affair. Based on Japan’s oldest cartoon, Choju Jinbutsu Giga, it starts with a story of a rabbit crossing a river, which is then by a monkey and wrestles with a frog, the characters cleverly and simply identified by masks or hats. A fish and a bird also put in appearances as the narrative is conflated with the theme of environmental protection. It was all very energetic and made great use of props, if a little unfocused.

Giga | Super Critters | Giga by Sei Kigawa and Dance Company DE PAY’S MAN

Immediately afterwards but indoors in Tanbu Cultural Park’s Warehouse A, Connection by Yang Jimmin (楊景名) for Ya-Zhi Dance Company (雅緻藝術舞蹈團) brought a welcome dose of superb technique and great partnering from performers and sisters Hsieh Yi-chun (謝宜君) and Hsieh Chia-hua (謝佳樺).

It was a beautiful, all too short demonstration of tacit understanding and mutual awareness and perception. The timing and togetherness were exceptional, the two dancers feeling, sensing each other in the space through breath.

Hsieh Yi-chun and Hsieh Chia-hua in Connection

That, and a couple of other pieces, notably the My Manifesto (我的宣言) and Euphoria (亢奮) double-bill by choreographer Huang Teng-sheng (黃騰生) and students from Taipei National University of the Arts, did highlight an issue. As fabulous as the festival is, as much as watching dance in unusual places is fun and welcome, I can’t help being a little concerned about some of the very hard surfaces performed on. The floor in Warehouse A is solid concrete. No covering. Dancers are always going to take whatever opportunities they can. They just get on with it. It’s what they do. And I do like watching in such non-traditional places. But it should perhaps be looked at because it does feel like an accident or injury waiting to happen.

There was so much more that it proved impossible to catch. I loved the sound of Creature by József Trefeli Company from Geneva, which deconstructs and recycles traditional dances and props (sticks, masks, costumes and so on) with a view to making them more relevant to modern-day audiences.

A Love Letter for the Island by Satsangdance
Photo Lin Zheng-yi

Themes did not get more local than that in A Love Letter for the Island (Hō͘土地ê情批) by Satsangdance (靚舞集), a celebration of rivers, streets and gorgeous scenery of the island. I would also like to have seen Remainder (消亡中的餘留者) by D-Antidote Production (身體處方) founder and choreographer Chuang Po-hsiang (莊博翔), which reflected on time and the incredible communion of cultural diversity found in Taiwan. Upon Our Farewell, the Northern Snow Stops (我們離別的時候,北方不再下雪了) by Liao Szu-wei (廖思瑋) another TNUA student was yet another.

Besides the Longshan Culture and Creative Base and Tanbu Cultural Park, there were also performances at the Bopiliao Historic Block, including a reprise of Tomoshi Shioya’s Who is he? Twilight zone; U-mkt and Fashion Institute. It really was incredibly varied and successful weekend.

Read David Mead’s second report focusing on the festival’s Exchange Programs.