Looking towards a new era: Taiwan Ballet Company

David Mead reports on the recently formed Taiwan Ballet Company (台灣芭蕾舞團), and its performance on February 17, 2019 at the historic Rose Studio in Taipei.

Ballet and Taiwan. Not two words that are usually associated with each other. Taiwan is a modern dance country people will tell you, which is largely true, although the foundations of most of the island’s modern dance companies are less solid than one might think (Cloud Gate Dance Theatre apart).

The talent is undoubtedly there, but there are too often issues with training, money is short, and there is a perception that the media and those who influence cultural policy in government, education and theatres are simply not interested. And, even if you are very good, there is nowhere to go. While a handful of local ballet dancers have made it into the ranks of major companies, it invariably involves training and then performing abroad.

Taiwan Ballet Company in NocturnePhoto courtesy Taiwan Ballet Company
Taiwan Ballet Company in Nocturne
Photo courtesy Taiwan Ballet Company

Over the years there have been a number of ballet companies on the island, mostly small, all part-time or ‘pick-up’ in nature. There are success stories, not least the part-time Capital Ballet Taipei (台北首督芭蕾舞團), now celebrating its 30th anniversary, but it’s a difficult environment. There have been other shoots too but, in general, occasional ballet springs have failed to blossom into full summers

The latest company to step into this uncertain world is the Taiwan Ballet Company, led by Chuang Yuan-ting (莊媛婷), who talks of wanting to improve the lot of ballet and ballet dancers in Taiwan, to nurture and provide opportunities for young Taiwanese ballet talents, and to give the local ballet loving public something they can admire and enjoy. While respecting ballet’s history and heritage, Chaung also seeks to move ballet on, making it relevant to today. A recent performance at the Rose Studio in Taipei did all that.

Wang Hsuan-hui in Flying NotesPhoto courtesy Taiwan Ballet Company
Wang Hsuan-hui in Flying Notes
Photo courtesy Taiwan Ballet Company

It’s a setting you really can’t go wrong with, even if the cool February weather was hardly ideal. For once, the windowed, folding doors of the studio remained closed, providing an agreeable backdrop to the action in front. It proved to be an afternoon of much promise that included a bit more than a splash of the new alongside a few more familiar things, dancers that were clearly talented and choreography in a range of styles that was largely rather pleasing. It was the ‘new’ that stood out.

Kaohsiung-born composer Tyzen Hsiao (蕭泰然) is noted for his integration of the flavours of Taiwanese music with Western classicism, romanticism and modernism. He has regularly referred to the island and events in works, perhaps most notably the bloody February 28 incident in his Overture 1947, composed in 1994.

Like that piece, his earlier 1988 composition, Violin Concerto in D major, blends East and West while also imparting a sense of sentimental longing for one’s home (Hsiao lived in the US for many years). That sense of yearning is very much apparent in Chuang’s She is so beautiful (她~是如此美麗) danced to the third movement of the work. She freely admits to having always been deeply touched by the music; not that you need to be told that, because it’s there in the dance, right before your eyes.

The seamless choreography is blends classical and modern influences. There’s a lot of use of curve of the upper body. Gestures are seamlessly integrated. It flows gorgeously and is full of feeling, occasionally hinting at sorrow and anger. Emphasising the idea of longing is lead dancer Yang Feng-di (楊楓笛), who frequently performs apart from the ensemble of six women. Quite, quite lovely.

Hung Cheng-wei and Liu Yu-chuanin the Peasant pas de deux from GisellePhoto courtesy Taiwan Ballet Company
Hung Cheng-wei and Liu Yu-chuan
in the Peasant pas de deux from Giselle
Photo courtesy Taiwan Ballet Company

Equally enjoyable, albeit in a different way, was Chaung’s Flying Notes (飛躍的音符), an upbeat work to Mendelssohn’s Violin Sonata in F minor. The neoclassical in nature, often spiky choreography was danced with just the right attack by the cast of five in their striking blue outfits.

Her opening Nocturne (夜曲), to part of Tchaikovsky’s well-known Serenade for Strings, had earlier made for a pleasing opener. The music, the wafting airy dresses and the choreography all seemed to hint at Balanchine’s iconic Serenade, but without ever getting that bit too close.

Wang Hsuan-hui in an Act III Aurora solo from The Sleeping BeautyPhoto courtesy Taiwan Ballet Company
Wang Hsuan-hui in an Act III Aurora solo from The Sleeping Beauty
Photo courtesy Taiwan Ballet Company

Elsewhere, the afternoon featured excerpts from Russian versions of classics staged by Edgar Chan. Most solid was the Peasant pas de deux from Petipa’s take on Giselle (吉賽兒), danced by Liu Yu-chuan (劉郁川) and Hung Cheng-wei (洪晟瑋), although I wished it hadn’t drifted towards bravura quite so much on a couple of occasions. Better, in terms of romantic style, was Chen Wen-hua’s (陳玟樺) Act I solo from the same ballet.

Chao shu-qing (趙書清) belied her young years in the Act II Cupid solo from Don Quixote (唐吉軻德), and Wang Hsuan-hui (王暄惠) gave a mostly solid presentation of a solo from Act II of Paquita (帕吉達) saving well a couple of off-balance moments towards the end (let’s remember the outdoor conditions, though).

Two better known solos allowed a couple of other dancers to shine: Liu in an Aurora solo from Act III of The Sleeping Beauty (睡美人), and Chen in the Kitri solo from Act III of Don Quixote, both performing nicely indeed.

All those gala-style solos do allow for out and out technique to be shown off, but while one understands the need for them, I would suggest that it is rather new works that is where the future of the company should lie, and if there is some sort of Taiwanese connection as in Chuang’s She is so beautiful, so much the better. And thinking back to that ballet, it would be great if it could be developed and the whole score used.

Chaung’s out and out classical, and rather aptly titled A New Era (my translation, 嶄新年華) to a few moments from Paulli’s Conservatoire (there’s a ballet rarely seen) gave a suitably upbeat close the programme, and allowed Hung to show off his batterie and turns.

Liu Yu-chuan, Hung Cheng-wei and Wang Hsuan-hui in A New EraPhoto courtesy Taiwan Ballet Company
Liu Yu-chuan, Hung Cheng-wei and Wang Hsuan-hui in A New Era
Photo courtesy Taiwan Ballet Company

Whether the Taiwan Ballet Company will join the likes of Capital Ballet Taipei and become permanent fixtures in the island’s dance scene, or even Allen Yu’s (余能盛) newer but larger-scale Formosa Ballet (福爾摩沙芭蕾舞團), which attracts big audiences for its annual short season, only time will tell. The foundations are being dug though, and if time, effort and determination count for anything, Chuang and her ensemble have a decent chance. On this showing, they deserve support. It’s easy to look at the environment, shrug the shoulders and think it’s just not worth trying, but if ballet in Taiwan is going to ever really make a mark, it needs more people to really fight for it. I, for one, hope that Chuang and her Taipei Ballet Company make it and don’t become another casualty of Taiwan’s far too long ballet winter.

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