One week, three universities: celebrating Taiwan’s dancers

National Taiwan University of Physical Education, Hwa Gang Dance Troupe of the Chinese Culture University, and the National Taiwan University of the Arts at the Metropolitan Hall, Taipei
April 12, 14 & 16, 2016
David Mead

The middle week of April proved busy at Taipei’s Metropolitan Hall with three different university dance departments giving annual performances.

First up, on Tuesday 12th, was the National Taiwan University of Physical Education and Sport (國立臺灣體育運動大學) from Taichung with Eternal Imprint (印記), a largely contemporary dance programme of mostly student choreography. Not surprisingly, it was the two pieces by faculty members that stood out, the highlight without doubt being Marriage and Funeral by Huang Jian-biao (Ben, 黃建彪). Danced to an excerpt from Stravinsky’s rasping Les Noces, Huang and the dancers captured perfectly the tensions and unrelenting rhythms in the music.

Zhan Jia-hui’s (詹佳惠) contribution, also called Eternal Imprint ( 印記) not only used all 53 dancers who took to the stage during the evening, but used them well in producing a work that had great power.

The rest of the programme was made up of student works covering a range of styles. The opening N, a contemporary ballet piece by Lian Jia-xuan (連佳宣), stood out for the dancers’ clarity of line and some interesting choreography. Unfortunately the technique looked rather more fragile when pointe shoes were put on, the evening’s out and out classical work to a few selections from La Bayadere by a group of students, faring less well, although it was largely well led by Lin Yun-zheng (林昀正), who produced some expansive leaps and multiple turns.

Marriage and Funeral Photo Chen Wei-sheng
Marriage and Funeral
Photo Chen Wei-sheng

On Thursday 14th it was the turn of the Hwa Gang Dance Troupe (華岡藝展) of the Chinese Culture University (中國文化大學) in Scenery and Image (景·象), comprising nine works that showcased ballet, modern and Chinese dance, all made by faculty members. Almost all of them avoided the usual style of Taiwanese vocational school choreography that puts large numbers of dancers on stage virtually all the time, for which three very big cheers. Even those works that did have double-figure casts often had a lead dancer or couple, thus allowing us to see individuals rather than faceless groups.

The stand-out piece was undoubtedly The Promised Land (應許之地) by Su An-li. (蘇安莉). Against a wonderfully simple but effective set of huge piles of paper, Su and her six dancers created a Dystopian world in which the latter looked like urchins in some sort of wasteland. The first section was especially complex, the performers rolling and falling, lifting and tumbling over one another, constantly changing partners.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 35 tells us that “Roses have thorns” and “All men make faults,” and then there’s the proverb, “No rose is without a thorn.” Well, the women in Rose by Lin Yu-jing (林郁晶) certainly turned out to have them, and the man certainly made a mistake, probably several. It’s a short story of a man who is turned upon by a group of women, hardly surprisingly given his superior attitude towards him. The female ensemble worked excellently, but the piece was lit by a strong performance from the man scorned, Chen You-xiang (陳宥翔).

Almost all the other works had much to commend them, but I especially enjoyed Flying Images (漾影) by Wei Pei-lin (魏沛霖), a gentle soothing opener built around two men; and Farewell Autumn (秋辭) by He Yu-wen (何郁玟), contemporary but with a clear classical influence, that rather appropriately conveyed a sense of longing for someone or something lost. Farewell Autumn also had the bonus of a live violinist for the first section – and what a difference Zhang Zhi-qin (張智欽) made. Wu Man-li’s (伍曼麗) Under the Starry Night (星空夜語) was undoubtedly the best ballet piece of the week, and was tailored nicely to suit the dancers. Of the Chinese dance pieces, I liked The World of Dancing (舞動乾坤) by Zheng Wei-lin, a powerful work to a drumming score, and with some striking red and black costumes.

Garden by Chen Yi-shan of NTUAPhoto Huang Lu-ke
Garden by Chen Yi-shan of NTUA
Photo Huang Lu-ke

Finally, on Saturday 16th the National Taiwan University of the Arts (國立臺灣藝術大學) took to the stage with a programme also named after the closing work, The Madman (靈魂暫停的狂人).

Programme director Yao Shu-fen’s (姚淑芬) The Madman is, well, just a little bit mad. The premise is the there is a madness rooted deep inside all of us that can only be revealed and danced freely when our souls have expired. The first half seems to represent the expiry of our souls. There’s lots of ensemble work, although the cast of 35 was not always as together as it might have been. The second half shows our madness as a circus. There is a huge amount going on, full of colour and energy and life, so much in fact that sometimes you don’t quite know where to look. It was a complete contrast to what is usually seen as these type of performances, and could have been a total disaster, but – for me at least – it worked wonderfully.

So often in student choreography there’s a tendency to try and do too much, not only to dance every second and every note, but to fill the stage will action. That’s understandable, as is the desire to try and give everyone the maximum stage time, but it doesn’t always make for good choreography. So often, one finishes up watching a lot, but actually seeing very little.

Garden (花園) by Chen Yi-shan (陳伊珊) was a classic example (and not the only one). It had some great ideas, and a hugely effective, simple opening, but later sections did not need both a lead duet and a backing small group. Both parts of the choreography were good, but one or the other, please.

Hidden ThornPhoto Huang Lu-ke
Hidden Thorn
Photo Huang Lu-ke

Best of the student works was Hidden Thorn (伏刺) by Xu Yi-qi, which had a mysterious feeling; creatures of the night, perhaps. It was an interesting combination of Chinese dance inspired movement, but with a use of space and groupings that appeared to owe much to modern dance.

What also does not make for good dance is young choreographers attempting to show they know all the choreographic devices available to them. A number of student works through the week felt a little like assignments or assessments where that was a requirement, but let’s remember they are still learning their trade.

Desire (慾望) by Xie Shao-yang stood out for not only not being like that, but for being completely different to anything else seen all week, it featuring a cast of just three, the action all taking place on or under a 4ft square table. Slow moving (out of necessity as much as anything else given the space restrictions), it portrayed passion as an animal instinct, the three dancers embracing sensually and dancing at extremely close quarters with one other, sometimes as a threesome, sometimes as a duet and one under the table. I’m not sure where else the piece could go, but for ten minutes at least it drew you in and was very watchable.

The single and very short classical ballet piece, the pas de six from La Esmeralda neatly reinterpreted for ten, was danced well, with the appropriate liveliness and sunny enthusiasm it so needs. We even got a few decent turns on pointe.