Taiwan x 2 at Dance Base: 038 and Together Alone

Dance Base, Edinburgh
August 8 & 9, 2017

David Mead

★★★★★  038 by Kuo-shin Chuang Pangcah Dance Theatre
★★★  Together Alone by Zoltán Vakulya and Chen-wei Lee

The Taiwan Season’s fourth consecutive year at the Edinburgh Fringe brings five very unique and individual shows to the stages at Dance Base and Summerhall. Best of the two productions at Dance Base is 038 by Kuo-shin Chuang Pangcah Dance Theatre (莊國鑫原住民舞蹈劇場) at Dance Base. Titled after the telephone dialling code for Hualian on Taiwan’s east coast, home to the company and the indigenous Pangcah people, it addresses those questions of home and identity that seem to be such a recurring theme on this year’s Fringe.

Specifically, 038 reflects on the anxieties and uncertainties of returning home. Will it match up to the images we have in our heads, the pictures we see or the songs we hear? Chuang Kuo-shin’s (莊國鑫) dance is minimalist. The nine women, all in grey smocks, often dance as one as they shunt, shuffle, and sprint on the spot.

Accompanied by an ever driving onwards, pulsing score by Chen Yi-ting (陳依婷), the dance carries a strong sense of travel, of wanting to reach home, but also of uncertainty about what one might find there. Although quite contemporary in nature, the choreography includes several references to the region’s indigenous dance. There is repetition, but such is the power and emotion that it’s never dull.

038 by Kuo-Shin Chuang Pangcah Dance TheatrePhoto Maria Falconer
038 by Kuo-Shin Chuang Pangcah Dance Theatre
Photo Maria Falconer

The dancers show great quality but strength too. As they move, eyes often stare ahead, wide open. The determination and sense of purpose is quite striking. The unison work is outstanding too; indeed, I’ll be amazed if there’s anything as good anywhere else on the Fringe.

No doubt it helps that I seem to have some sort of unexplained personal attachment to Eastern Taiwan. I do get a tingle in the spine taking that train journey myself (it is a beautiful ride), and when I see dance from the region, but I found 038 terrifically powerful and utterly compelling. And yes, it did set those tingles off, especially when images of rural Eastern Taiwan, the mountains and the coast are projected.

I was altogether less taken by the Taiwan Season’s other Dance Base show, Together Alone (孤單在一起) created and performed naked throughout by Zoltán Vakulya and Chen-wei Lee (李貞葳). It purports to explore the value and meaning of a relationship, its tensions, pleasures, and so on, and to show the power of being together. Yet, mostly, it feels quite cold and mechanical. Yes, the couple are in the same space and always in contact (the start excepted) but it’s only intimate in the sense that they are physically close and attached. There is little sense of any emotion in the relationship but maybe that’s what they intended because they really are together but alone.

Zoltán Vakulya and Chen-Wei Lee in Together AlonePhoto Maria Falconer
Zoltán Vakulya and Chen-Wei Lee in Together Alone
Photo Maria Falconer

Having said all that, Vakulya and Lee’s contrasting personal styles and physicality makes for an interesting combination. The opening, in which they walk around the stage, each responding to the other’s changes of direction, is engaging. When they come together, it’s gently. In turn, one stands behind the other slowly guiding the limbs of whoever is in front. A common improvisation exercise maybe, but when it’s as well done in performance as this, it looks very good. The lighting here is extremely clinical, though; a sign of things to come.

There’s an upbeat jive section, one of the few places where the couple actually appeared to look at each other, before a lot of rolling over and round one another on the floor. When they stand and swing their arms for a time, it feels almost robotic, like little more than a pulsing pump. When they repeatedly put their tongues into the other’s mouths, it’s even more so.

So, what of the nudity? It certainly reveals the beauty of the human form and allows some beautiful pictures to be painted, especially later when the lighting is softer and more focused. But it’s as if Vakulya and Lee want to draw attention to it that way alone. Perhaps their blocking of any other connotation is what makes the overall effect so cool. I also wonder if cutting the piece by 20 minutes and the lack of the usual lighting artwork above the stage (both a consequence of Fringe scheduling) adversely affects the work.

038 and Together Alone continue at Dance Base to August 27.