Joy, tears and more: Want to Dance Festival’s Exchange Program

Wan Theater, Taipei
April 22, 2023

Click here for David Mead’s look at other Want to Dance programmes and the festival generally.

The three Exchange programmes of Shinehouse Theater’s (曉劇場) Want to Dance Festival (艋舺國際舞蹈節) at the company’s Wan Theater each consisted of four diverse works around 20 minutes long. In feel, it was not unlike The Place’s Resolution, but with just short pauses rather than intervals between each, and all three on the same day. Like the rest of the festival, the productions were about as diverse as they come, although the best quartet definitely came first.

Opening Program I, It was a pleasure to revisit Ice Age (冰河時期) by Chang Chung-an (張忠安) and Maylis Arrabit for Resident Island Dance Theatre (滯留島舞蹈劇場), which made such an impact at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2022. Sadly, Arrabit could not be in Taipei, but the excerpt shown worked just as well reconfigured for three performers. The fully able-bodied Juan Yi-chen (阮怡蓁) and Fang Shih-yun (方士允) were again superb, but it was the wheelchair-bound Cheng Yu-cheng, not only very musical but someone blessed with one of those faces and bodies that is full of experience and stories, who really brought power to the piece.

Juan Yi-chen and Cheng Yu-cheng of Resident Island Dance Theatre in Ice Age
Photo Cai Zhi-fan

More excellent technique followed from choreographer-dancer Chen Wei-yi (陳薇伊) in her gentle One day (有一天), which has the feeling of someone running through thoughts and events as they lay in bed or otherwise relax at home.

Terry-fy (毛鬙鬙) by former full-time dancer with Hong Kong’s City Contemporary Dance Company, Tsang King-fai (曾景輝) brought something rather different. The work originates in Tsang’s fear of hairy creatures. In shaggy full-body suit, he appears somewhere between human and four-legged animal before slowly emerging and, it felt, overcoming that phobia and finding out who he really is.

Terry-fy by Tsang King-fai
Photo Cai Zhi-fan

And so to Sky ~ World challenge in Taiwan~ by Reisa Shimojima from Japan, which everyone very quickly referred to as ‘the diaper piece.’ A serious theme for sure, bit also utterly mad, and utterly brilliant.

Shimojima created the original Sky for her own company, KEDAGORO (下島礼紗) in 2018. She was initially inspired by the Japanese dark side ‘United Red Army Incident’ of the 1970s, a lynching in which friends involved in an armed revolutionary movement killed each other, and events involving the occult religious group Aum Shinrikyo in the late 1980s and early 1990s, which again included murders within the cult as well as indiscriminate terrorist attacks using the biochemical agent Sarin on the Tokyo subway. From there, she extended her ideas to look group ideology and mass madness can occur within a dance company. As she rightly observes, the theme is essentially peer pressure, which can occur in many situations.

Sky ~ World challenge in Taiwan~ took the idea to Taiwan, the work being created on a new cast of local performers. It just brims with energy and ideas. The cast are all in oversize nappies (diapers), initially worn pulled down just enough the leave room for bottoms to be smacked. And they are. All of them. Faces get slapped later too. There’s a huge paper bag with a pig’s head on it. And ice. House brick-sized cubes. A lot of them. They’re passed around and held, particularly by one unfortunate man who ends up with an armful, which slowly melt, leaving him in a pool of water. How he held on for so long, I have no idea. There’s an English guy who pleads for someone to tell him what is going on, not understanding the speech and demands. A dinner is cooked. And eaten. Oh yes, and some fine music and marching dance too.

It was very funny and hugely entertaining. But as bonkers as this Sky is, Shimojima’s masterstrole is making you think too. The situation, the community painted, could apply to in any number of places. Why do people go along with things? Even when they are plainly ridiculous. What makes them refuse to rebel, even in the most trying of circumstances. Is peer pressure really that great?

Shimojima says she would like to create more versions in other countries, tapping into the essence and ethnicity of each. Please, please bring it to the UK!

Wong Pik-kei in Bird Watching
Photo Cai Zhi-fan

Program II started in unusual vein, the audience entering to the sight of Hong Kong choreographer-dancer Wong Pik-kei (黃碧琪) standing in a long red dress. Nothing odd in that you may think. But it was pulled up over her head, leaving the rest of her body completely naked.

Wong’s Bird-Watching (睇·女) is described as an exploration of how the woman‘s desire of sex is presented in different social structures, ethics and cultures. There’s some ‘cracking’ and shaking of the body that reflects the accompanying soundscape, a few interesting shadows on the back wall, and a moment of involvement for one unfortunate front row audience member which one presumes has something to do with turning the tables and being watched rather than watching.

Thai Po-hung in Eclipse by Wu Chien-wei
Photo Cai Zhi-fan

Maybe it’s an indication of cultural difference, but I stopped finding nudity on stage per se exciting or provocative a long time ago. I can’t say that I felt it challenged sex or gender stereotypes either.

It was a fair bet things would pick up with Eclipse (全蝕) by the always elegant dancer, founder and director of Tussock Dance Theater (野草舞蹈聚落), Wu Chien-wei (吳建緯). They did.

His forceful solo, danced by Tsai Po-hung (蔡博鴻), mixed moments of athletic grace with more edgy broken interludes, the movement building in intensity with the music. A few enigmatic moments too, not least the miming of what looked like sewing his arm, and later his lips. Wu is a fine choreographer whose work demands to be watched; and we did. Avidly.

Still a work in progress, it will be fascinating to see where he takes it.

Rounding off Program II were two solid ideas that, as yet, do not quite deliver. Behind the Shadow (剪影) by Lin Yi-chi (林憶圻) saw her shifting under a large cream-coloured sheet. There were some nice shadows created, but little more. Things got slightly more interesting, her emergence feeling like a birth but, frightened by street sounds and voices in the soundtrack, she soon returns to her metaphorical and literal comfort blanket.

In very local vein, Wanhua Women (萬華女流) by Yen Chieh-Hsuan (嚴婕瑄) came about after fieldwork during her Wanhua residency. It integrates daily sounds and the area’s tea shop culture into a monologue of a woman tired of having too many children at home, rather neatly illustrated by a line of yellow plastic ducklings. I was unconvinced by the beer drinking and singing but it’s a concept that promises much.

Yen Chieh-hsuan in Wanhua Women
Photo Cai Zhi-fan

The evening’s Program III kicked off with Padan Pendulum Man (Padan 搖擺人) by Chiu Wei-yao (邱瑋耀), a Bunun, one of the indigenous tribes in Taiwan. The setting of a man on a mud-covered mat, a small tree in one corner, is striking. It looks and feels very aboriginal. There is a powerful suggestion timelessness, but also of connection with the past, with elders, and even with the spirits of those no longer with us. He later dances with the tree, shaking it violently, causing its leaves to fall, their return to the earth reflecting the idea of a falling back to the roots of one’s own culture.

Singaporean performer Pat Toh’s starting point for her Topography of Breath was that the body evidences one’s life. In her home Singapore, she notes how it has become a form of human capital to be disciplined for constant growth. Capitalist society demands faster, longer, stronger performance from its subjects, she believes. It’s a point of view.

Pat Toh in Topography of Breath
Photo Cai Zhi-fan

Toh spent large chunks of her 20 minutes standing on the spot hyperventilating to a microphone. There was also extended shadow boxing. Her programme note hints they reflect endurance and high intensity interval training. Maybe but I was not convinced. If that wasn’t enough, she also launched into a tedious fast-paced monologue about how difficult it was being an artist. Whether merely a simple statement of fact or an attempt to make us feel sorry for her or understand her position, or all three, nothing she said was new or indeed unknown when she set out on her career. It all felt desperately self-indulgent.

Dance has a very broad definition for some, to the extent that anything involving the body counts. Not for me. Not for most others too. Certainly not for those outside the industry or academia. This might have been ‘performance art’ but it was a long way from dance. At least Toh left the house lights up, which meant people could read their programmes (many did), instead giving her their full attention.

Wu I-fan’s Grandma’s Clothes
Photo Cai Zhi-fan

Anyone who has been tasked with going through a recently deceased loved one’s belongings will likely have found empathy with Wu I-fan’s (吳依凡) Grandma’s Clothes (阿嬤的衣服), presented here in a solo version.

Wu dances pas de deux with his grandmother’s clothes. They, and other objects from those who have passed on are connections. They are loaded with memories. All have irreplaceable meaning. They cannot help but provoke emotion. Here, the dissonant music and dance suggested pain, anguish and loss, but also love and affection. It was very thoughtful, very moving, and very intimate.

Chang Chien-hao and Jan Möllmer in What is Danger
Photo Cai Zhi-fan

The Exchange programme rounded off with What is Danger? (什麼是危險?) by Chang Chien-Hao (張堅豪) and German-dancer Jan Möllmer. It may still be a work in progress but it is already very appealing.

As it is today, the duet is essentially a series of exercises and sequences that play with ideas of danger and competition. There’s a lot of stimulating one another to go to the next level. For example, who can climb highest on the large stepladder? Who can balance most precariously on top? It’s largely quite playful and very good natured, the ‘games’ interspersed with moments of very watchable, often unison, dance. It was a fine way to round things off.

Click here for David Mead’s look at other Want to Dance programmes and the festival generally.