TAI Body Theatre: Sym-Body

Experimental Theater, National Theater, Taipei
April 19, 2024

Truku artist Watan Tusi founded TAI Body Theatre (TAI身體劇場) in 2012, his idea being to experiment and explore the body vocabulary of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples. Apart from traditional rituals and spectator performances, are there any new possibilities for indigenous music and dance, he wondered.

In Sym-Body (走光的身體, literally the ‘naked body’), co-created with Ising Suaiyung, he attempts to get to the heart of the issues surrounding the presentation of traditional culture. As Watan Tusi has observed, when indigenous song and dance is presented on a theatre stage, people think they are seeing tradition. In fact, by placing it on that stage, by removing it from its true situation and context, it has become detached from its home culture.

TAI Body Theatre in Sym-Body
Photo Ken Wang

That raises questions several tricky questions, not least whether it can still truly be called ‘authentic.’ But then, what is ‘authentic’ anyway, given that dance and tradition have always been in a state of constant change? There is no ‘year zero’ in which tradition starts. And if we are going to talk authenticity, who decides anyway, given that it means different things to different people at different times? That leads us to whether dance, music, song, whatever, is still ‘indigenous’ or not; and whether there is a form of Orientalism at play from those watching, and indeed in which those performing are presumably consenting.

TAI Body Theatre does not give answers, leaving it for the audience to muse. But such questions can provoke strong opinions. I have even had it suggested to me that ‘non-authentic’ dances should not publicised or written about. Surely, presenting things in a way that informs or questions (as TAI Body Theatre are doing) is a rather better approach than censorship.

Back to Sym-Body. As we made our way up to the 3rd floor Experimental Theater, a red poster in the lift lobby announced the evening’s schedule, the time the audience would enter, speeches and the dance repertoire to be performed, concluding with the ‘Grand Dance’ that typically concludes programmes whether on a theatre stage or in one of the many indigenous tourist villages.

TAI Body Theatre in Sym-Body
Photo Ken Wang

Such villages are great tourist attractions. There can be no doubt that, when done well, they aid cultural understanding. But they can also very easily create misunderstandings as display and entertainment takes the lead.

In the theatre, a scaffolding of bamboo poles draped casually with bunting in the form of flags of many nations sat centre-stage. As the piece opens, a dancer within the framework starts to move between the poles. The scene suggests they are metaphorically imprisoned within.

When he opens a transparent sheet of plastic, which reappears throughout the piece, it not only distorts his image as we see him, but also acts as a sort of a mirror on themselves. In both cases it presents a distortion of reality. Not quite an illusion maybe, but certainly not authentic. The point is very clear.

When the frame is dismantled. The poles are places around the edges of the stage, the ‘prison’ now defining the performance area.

Performers take it in turns to walk in and address the audience with a megaphone. The tone is impassioned and touristy as they announce our arrival at the performance.

More speech towards the end of Sym-Body sees the dancers in turn tell a story created by themselves, each trying to play on words with their mother tongue. I think it’s a comment on the oral tradition and how it can lead to change, but I’m not entirely sure. In between the words, there is dance rooted in indigenous forms (I’m trying to be careful with my words!).

Sym-Body is at times obscure. I will admit that the emphasis on speech made it extra difficult for me. But Watan Tusi does make his point. And if it sparks reflection, by the watcher and the watched, outsiders or tourists and indigenous people, on how culture is and should be presented and thus understood, and the implications thereof, it can only be for the good.