Ai~Sa sa: A vibrant, fun evening with Tjimur Dance Theatre

Experimental Theater, Taipei
November 29, 2019

David Mead

Edinburgh Fringe favourites Tjimur Dance Theater (蒂摩爾古薪舞集) from the south of Taiwan have had a globetrotting 2019, performing their unique brand of contemporary dance infused with Paiwan life at the Vancouver International Dance Festival, the Brighton Festival and the Dance Bridges Festival in Kolkata. That’s besides hosting their own festival in July and all their community and schools work.

Despite the busy schedule, choreographer Baru Madiljin (巴魯·瑪迪霖) has still found time to create a new production, Ai~Sa sa (哎~撒撒). The work draws on how new expressions have crept into the local Paiwan language and become part of everyday speech, and how society is changing as people migrate from their traditional mountain lands to modern towns and cities. A largely light-hearted and quirky look at contemporary Paiwan life, it buzzes with energy from start to finish.

Tjimur Dance Theatre in Ai~Sa sa by Baru MadiljinPhoto Chen Chang-chih
Tjimur Dance Theatre in Ai~Sa sa by Baru Madiljin
Photo Chen Chang-chih

Madiljin explains that the title itself is one of those new expressions, ‘ai, sa sa’ being a sort of interjection to laugh at one’s own attitue; or sometimes a gasp of surprise or a sort of way of telling yourself to ‘get over it’.

There are smiles even before it starts. The usual straight-laced National Theater pre-show announcements are ditched for the cast’s own version, recorded after a few beers, it sounds. In between giggling, and among other things, we are told that we are expected to behave since they really don’t want to call the police; and that includes no sneaky photos, no popping out for a pee, and no falling asleep. Not that there was much chance of the latter!

It opens with the cast of four on stools having a few too many beers. The scene suggests a warm evening and a group of friends relaxing, but the dance is warm in others ways too. It reaches out. It connects. As the performers live the piece to the full, we get to see all their personalities; and they have costumes to match. Meng Tzu-en (蒙慈恩), the sole female, is a woman of today, very definitely one of the boys, but also with a softer underbelly. The men are bright and brash with costumes to match: Chiang Sheng-hsiang (江聖祥) in lurid lime green shirt and mustard trousers, and Yang Ching-Hao (楊淨皓) in shiny purple top. Sitting somewhere between them in his large polka-dot skirt is the fabulously over-the-top Ljaucu Tapurakac (舞祖·達卜拉旮茲). And don’t forget the variously coloured flip-flops (that would later double as cellphones), in which they dance with ease.

Ljaucu Tapurakac, Chiang Sheng-hsiang, Meng Tzu-en and Yang Ching-hao in Ai~sa saPhoto Chen Chang-chih
Ljaucu Tapurakac, Chiang Sheng-hsiang, Meng Tzu-en and Yang Ching-hao in Ai~sa sa
Photo Chen Chang-chih

With its use of everyday gesture and references to local life, the dance is vibrant too. At times it’s so energy sapping that you marvel at how the foursome keep going. It’s helped along enormously by the accompanying music, much of it by Hervé Rigaud, from a CD of French songs that Madiljin found abandoned on a Paris street. That set him wondering what humans really need and desire most. His conclusion? Being wanted but especially love, which as he observes, brings people together but almost inevitably brings downs too.

The cast get a much-needed occasional breather when the live action is interrupted by film shown on a TV. “One must undergo all human emotions,” Madiljin wrote. “You have to peel away each layer to see what lies beneath.” And sure enough, one of those films sees the cast peeling onions and crying, to the strains of Edith Piaf singing ‘Mon Amour’. And there is love and togetherness in Ai~Sa sa too as Piaf’s music crops up again in a rare slower moment, this time ‘La Vie en rose’ sung by Tapurakac.

Meng Tzu-en (foreground) with Ljaucu Tapurakac and Chiang Sheng-hsiang in Ai~sa sa by Tjimur Dance TheatrePhoto Chen Chang-chih
Meng Tzu-en (foreground) with Ljaucu Tapurakac and Chiang Sheng-hsiang in Ai~sa sa by Tjimur Dance Theatre
Photo Chen Chang-chih

There are more film metaphors for life and relationships. There’s the sweet and sour of red and green apples, half-eaten and in embrace. Ribs are chopped, the meat and bones left broken. “Was it love we ran out of? Or was it fate? Ah, former intimacy, heartlessly torn apart,” Madiljin muses in the programme.

It ends in party mode and a delightful coming together of audience and performers as a few of those watching join the cast on stage and, arms linked, indulge in a brief traditional dance.

Ai~Sa sa. Tears and laughter; pain and grief. A super piece of dance theatre and a hugely enjoyable evening. One of the best, most engaging throughout pieces I’ve seen in Taipei this year.