Taiwan universities in four programmes of style and surprises

Metropolitan Hall, Taipei
Hwa Gang Dance Company (Chinese Culture University): April 10, 2018
National Taiwan University of the Arts: April 13, 2018
National Taiwan University of Sport: April 20, 2018
Taipei University: April 22, 2018

David Mead

April at Taipei’s Metropolitan Hall is the month for university dance department performances (in Taiwan, they are akin to conservatoires), the shows invariably a mixed programme of around ten pieces in a range of dance styles, often including the best of the year’s student choreographers alongside works by teachers.

Leading off this year was the Chinese Culture University’s Hwa Gang Dance Company (華岡藝展) in an evening titled Confluence (匯境), in which the stand out work yet again came from Su An-li (蘇安莉). Right from the opening walking section, her Silent Dialogue demands that you watch. Originally created for Capital Ballet Taipei (台北首督芭蕾舞團), it’s essentially a dance about body and rhythm and the relationships between those and the dancer. The slightly dark in mood and contemporary, well-crafted choreography, is rammed with interest and innovative structure and demands that you watch. Even the musical combination of Philip Glass and Max Richter works well.

Hwa Gang Dance Company in Wind Asking by Wu Man-liPhoto Lee Wei-bin
Hwa Gang Dance Company in Wind Asking by Wu Man-li
Photo Lee Wei-bin

The other contemporary works were equally full of energy, especially Windy* (起風了) by Yen Tsui-chen (顏翠珍). In their gorgeous icy blue costumes, there was a nice sense of the dancers being buffeted around by the wind. Musically and choreographically, it did feel a little like three separate pieces, though.

Of the two ballet pieces, I thoroughly enjoyed Wu Man-li’s (伍曼麗) Wind Asking* (風問), a well-constructed ballet full of interesting and pleasing patterns. It’s truly non-stop, dancers constantly coming and going. Yet, it never feels rushed. There was some especially impressive work and excellent partnering from the three men. The other ballet piece, Wei Pei-lin’s (魏沛霖) Like this* (如斯) could almost have been called ‘Like Serenade’, so many references to the Balanchine classic does it include (I think inserting a chunk of the iconic opening in the way Wei did was a step too far, though). What it didn’t have was Mr B’s clarity and sharpness. The first section especially rather stutters along, the dance having a lot of the sort of posing one sees in old sepia photographs, although the second half is better.

All three Chinese dance pieces were pleasing and full of nice patterns. True and False* 虛實 by Cheng Wei-ling (鄭維怜) had the most energy but my favourite was Morning Dew* (晨曦初露) by Lu Tsui-tzu (盧翠滋), a calming piece where the white-clad dancers reminded me of early morning clouds on a summer day.

National Taiwan University of the Artsin Earth by Hsu Wei-poPhoto Chen Chang-chih
National Taiwan University of the Arts in Earth by Hsu Wei-po
Photo Chen Chang-chih

All of the Hwa Gang choreography was by teachers, but for the National Taiwan University of the Arts (國立臺灣藝術大學) Toward Hearts: The Story of Salmon (鮭魚·歸於; something got lost in translation), it was five students who took centre-stage.

Perhaps more than any other Taiwanese university, NTUA always seem to produce variety in student choreography. In an evening of largely very accomplished work, two pieces stood out, both by Hsu Wei-po (許瑋博). His Earth* (大地) gets off to a dramatic start with dancers in earthen-coloured robes leaping and flying. The choreography has a sense of ritual to it. Dramatic and exciting, it was a great start to the evening.

National Taiwan University of the Arts in Journey by Hsu Wei-poPhoto Chen Chang-chih
National Taiwan University of the Arts in Journey by Hsu Wei-po
Photo Chen Chang-chih

Even better is Hsu’s contemporary ballet, Journey* (旅行), an extremely well-structured effort with lots of pleasing dance, including a short pas de deux. Hsu also shows that increasingly rare quality among students: musicality. His two choices by Zoe Keating fitting perfectly. The ballet yells ‘birds’ from the opening cocking of the dancers’ heads (incredibly well done) to the way the cast gather and swoop, to their elegant white costumes. So evocative is one section near the end, you almost feel like you are among seabirds on a sunny beach. The only disappointment is that it wasn’t on pointe. Indeed, the choreography suggests that was the original plan, loaded as it is with bourrées. Why do they always look ineffectual and even a little silly on demi-pointe?

Hsu’s third contribution to the programme, the Chinese-dance inspired Mulan* (木蘭) is full of imposing movement and powerful elegance, and demonstrated yet again that he is a young choreographer who knows how to handle an ensemble; rare indeed.

National Taiwan University of the Arts in Journey by Hsu Wei-poPhoto Chen Chang-chih
National Taiwan University of the Arts in Journey by Hsu Wei-po
Photo Chen Chang-chih

Elsewhere, Nobody’s Land by Huang Cheng-yan (黃政諺) is a decidedly odd and disturbing work that drops immediately into a dark netherworld, opening with the dishevelled, demon-like dancers apparently stabbing themselves with small dolls. As the nightmare deepens, they later carry them in their mouths as if about to eat them. It is hugely effective, though, and I found it strangely attracting.

Going almost to the other extreme (these NTUA choreographers are certainly versatile), also enjoyed Huang’s Clouds* (雲途), a beautiful piece that made great use of wide-brimmed black hats that incorporated white veils. His ballet, Light* (光), felt confused stylistically, though. It also relies too much on palm-held lights for effect, another overused gimmick in student work.

The Chinese dance Fragrant in the Dew* by (露疑香) by Chiang Zhi-xiang (江祉嫺) with its falling petals, was as graceful as one could wish for; while Scarlet* (赤) by Huang Yu-xuan (黃于軒) oozed exciting energy.

National Taiwan University of Sport in Silent Body by Huang Jian-qi (Ben). Photo Chen Po-yin
National Taiwan University of Sport in Silent Body by Huang Jian-qi (Ben)
Photo Chen Po-yin

A week later it was the turn of the Dance Department of the National Taiwan University of Sport (國立臺灣體育運動大學), visiting from Taichung with their Silent Body* (默身) programme, the Chinese title also referencing the fact that paths taken by dancers become imprinted on mind and body, and can then be written from memory.

The performance included ten works, a mix of student and teacher choreography, the highlight of which was Silent Body* (默身) by Huang Jian-qi (Ben, 黃建彪). It’s essentially a contemporary ballet, although Huang yet again shows his knack of being able to draw on the many differing talents of the students to create an effective whole. And while very much an ensemble work, he doesn’t miss a single opportunity to let individuals shine. It’s unusual for dance in university performances to really reach out and touch you, the pieces are often too short for that, but Silent Body did, the dance to ‘Cum Dederit’ from Vivaldi’s Nisi Dominus in particular conveying mood and softness in the heart. In fact, the musical collage worked remarkably well throughout. Everyone performed well, the men’s partnering particularly strong with many sustained lifts.

National Taiwan University of Sport in Wash Tub by Pan Li-junPhoto Chen Po-yin
National Taiwan University of Sport in Wash Tub by Pan Li-jun
Photo Chen Po-yin

Elsewhere, I enjoyed Bach* (三•巴樂章) by Cai Yu-han, another contemporary ballet that fits the composer’s Viola Concerto in C minor perfectly, and the very jolly and upbeat Tank Stepping* (甕缸踏福) by Pan Li-jun (潘莉君), a reference to the traditional process of making Hakka pickles (although it also reminded me of a laundry), which effectively come to life as dancers. Great fun!

Closing the run of university performances was the Dance Department at Taipei University (臺北市立大學), this celebrating its 20th anniversary with six teacher choreographies, leading off with something most unusual.

In all those 20 years, I suspect there has never been a work like Timing of Fate* (命運的時間) by Wang Ruping (王如萍). A sort of dance equivalent to John Cage’s 4’ 33”, I suspect very few, if any, of the audience had ever seen anything like it. It opens with the dancers taking up poses to the second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No.5. They remain stock still. Every time the music reaches a suitable moment, you expect them to start moving. After all, that is what dance is, isn’t it? Except they don’t. They do switch pose at one point but then again remain motionless until the end, when they walk off. That’s it. Brave or what?

Taipei University in Timing of Fate by Wang RupingPhoto Sandy Ouyang
Taipei University in Timing of Fate by Wang Ruping
Photo Sandy Ouyang

As a picture, the overall stage image is striking and, although the dancers may be stationary, the lack of ‘dance’ provides a space for the mind to imagine its own dance, and to place mini narratives on particular individuals, pairs or trios. Changes in lighting help switch mood but most important is Wang’s choice of the Beethoven. Less so today, but it has often been reckoned by the great classical symphonies are simply not danceable too. The music is just too powerful. Yet here, the music needs to have that power to make the piece work. And weirdly, maybe, work it does, although I suspect it’s the sort of piece you only make once, and possibly will only work for a viewer once. You could probably write a whole PhD about this sort of thing; in fact, someone probably already has, somewhere.

Returning to the conventional, the rest of the performance felt more contemplative than celebratory. However, I also took to Memories* (記憶的溫度) by Lin Wei-hua (林惟華), a work full of yearning to ‘Songs My Mother Taught Me’ from Gypsy Melodies by Dvorák, and Max Richter’s ‘November’ from Memoryhouse, one of his best short pieces. Distant Expedition* (噫吁嚱! 遠征難!) by Bao Er-ji (寶爾基) managed to be exciting, beautiful and reflective.

Taipei University in Memories by Lin Wei-huaPhoto Sandy Ouyang
Taipei University in Memories by Lin Wei-hua
Photo Sandy Ouyang

* English titles of works asterisked are unofficial translations. Translation from Chinese to English is far from an exact science, and we apologise if meaning has been lost.