I was refreshingly disorientated by the second Taiwan Dance Platform (4-11 November 2018). Though housed in the vast, spanking new National Kaohsiung Centre for the Arts (also known as Weiwuying), its programme was not pegged around the kind of big-name, prestige productions you might expect to find in such a grand venue, but instead showcased smaller-scale, independent dance. The kind of programme that’s not far in spirit from Aerowaves’ annual Spring Forward festival (with which the Taiwan platform has entered a three-year exchange programme), or the Nordic Ice Hot platform – the difference being that most performances were, as the festival title had it, ‘made in Asia’.
Or to give its full title: ‘Made in Asia?!’ – complete with question mark and exclamation mark slapped on the end. Where the previous 2016 platform, titled ‘Whose Steps Are We Following?’, deliberately but straightforwardly raised the question of non-western cultural identities within the world of contemporary dance, this punctuation on this year’s title felt almost like a riposte to its own question as if to say: made in Asia WTF?!
For me, two pieces exemplified contrasting approaches to what festival director Chien Wen-Pin called ‘the clash and the merging of the East and the West’ – both, unsurprisingly, duets. I-Fang Lin’s En Chinoiseries was a montage of scenes set against video backdrops of (stereo)typical Chinese imagery – night markets, TV karaoke shows, patterned silk dresses, the Taiwanese national anthem – through which wandered a contrasting couple: Lin herself, Taiwan-born but long resident in France, and French musician François Marry. For some of the young Taiwanese I spoke to, the cheesy clichés and touristic images were too much to stomach, but I, being a Londoner, was much less directly affected: it wasn’t about me. For me, the piece was by no means a simple ‘clash and merging’ between East and West, or even between the performers’ other obvious differences (gender, age, one a musician, the other a dancer). Instead, I saw two people navigating the cultural spaces and physical means between them, sometimes in alignment, sometimes in conflict, often isolated and often exchanging or sharing their roles as dancer and singer, leader and follower, performer and witness. True, the burden of cultural stereotypes fell on her shoulders rather than his, but this still felt like a nuanced encounter, rendered subtle by understated performances. To discover, later, that it was a response to Mathilde Monnier’s 1990 piece Chinoiseries (for dancer Monnier, with whom Lin worked for many years, and musician Louis Sclavis) simply added another layer of resonance.
Together Alone – another duet performed by a Taiwanese woman and a European man (Chen-Wei Lee and Hungarian Zoltán Vakulya) – served as a striking counterpart. Instead of accumulating layers, it worked by stripping them away, its bareness evident not only its empty stage and minimal set (just a few neural squiggles of light), but most obviously because its performers were naked throughout. The piece worked in three parts. The first saw the two in an evolving loop of continuous touch, every part of the body playing a part: wrist touched nape, stomach touched rib, crown of head fitted fold of elbow, tongue pushed towards tongue. It was an astonishingly intimate yet also asexual relationship. Or better: presexual, like Adam and Eve, before sin.
An odd lindyhop interlude – contact still kept through the hands – led to an even more intimate coupling as the pair knotted together on the floor like twins in an invisible womb, as closely linked as they were inexorably separate. And that, ultimately, was the point of this deeply affecting piece. Where En Chinoiseries navigated through layers of culture, identity, media and memory, Together Alone pushed past such temporalities towards a core conundrum of the human condition: our necessary co-existence, our inescapable solitude.
Of course, most dance happens somewhere between the poles of the temporal and the existential, the cultural and the corporeal. Ching-Ying Chien’s Vulture had some similarities to the above duets – a female Taiwanese dancer with a male European musician (guitarist Joseph Ashwin) – but it was hard to discern its aim. A remarkably strong and supple dancer, Chien emerged from beneath a black cloth, splaying as if newly hatched before gaining command of her own body, flexing limbs like wings. But the combination of Ashwin’s moody music and her own exceptional physicality failed to spark into something more.
Perhaps nearest to the existential, corporeal world of Together Alone was Matou by Japanese artist Ruri Mito, in which she placed her own body as a kind of painfully contorting sculpture on a pedestal, jutting bones and twisting sinews forming an exoskeleton for some chafed spirit within. There was psychological ambivalence in more conventional dance form in Po-Cheng Tsai’s Split, which turned the stage into kind of uncanny valley of polished, white-clad avatars in odd virtual reality – part physical, part simulation.
A number of other works were more obviously ‘made in Asia’, though each was strikingly different. I-Chin Lin’s The End of the Rainbow was a guided walk through different zones representing a body’s journey at the point of death, replete with Taiwanese funeral songs, ritual enactments, conjurings of ghostly spirits; yet I lacked the cultural knowledge, and felt its subtleties were wasted on me. Curiously, Goblin Party’s Once Upon a Time, which drew on traditional Korean folk tales, costumes and customs, was more widely accessible, perhaps because of its physical slapstick, mischievous attitude, and its playfully inventive use of cloaks, hats and fans.
Fighters, led by Taiwanese choreographer Nai-Hsuan Yang, was a mashup of more familiar elements – kung fu, superhero figures, a TV-show format – that nevertheless escaped my grasp; unlike Along by Hong Kong artist Bruce Cho, a basic but boisterous entertainment for seven guys doing kung fu stunts and showy martial arts moves. Altogether closer to my own turf was Ryuichi Fujimura’s How I Practise My Religion & How Did I Get Here?, a low-key reflection on his long-standing devotion to contemporary dance class, as an amateur enthusiast. With both warmth and humour, Fujimura demonstrated a whole series of moves (moving in lines, leading with different body parts, claiming the space, use of gesture, and so on), combined with a rueful but affectionate acceptance of his own ageing body and his non-dance career.
Not all the performances were actually made in Asia. Hydra was a composite of three pieces by Yuval Pick, put together in France and invited to this platform presumably because it was designed to draw an outside audience into the interior of an impressive building. Its opening male trio in the big outdoor plaza served as the draw – attention-grabbing but not choreographically complex – that led the audience into a foyer area where two women formed distorted mirrors of each other’s breathy actions, and thence into the Concert Hall, where a quartet surged and ebbed like waves breaking and tugging, the vast spaces of the hall vaulting high above them like an architectural sky.
Núria Guiu’s Likes was made in Spain but looked at a global phenomenon: YouTube videos and Facebook likes as vehicles for yoga fusions (with Pilates, voguing and all sorts) and cover dances for international pop hits. By turns witty, provocative and disturbing, it also offered easy transnational recognition – one reason, presumably, why the Taiwan platform selected the piece from Aerowaves’ 2018 Spring Forward festival, as part of their three-year exchange agreement with Aerowaves.
In return, Aerowaves selected a piece from the Taiwan platform for the next Spring Forward in April 2019, in France. Medium, by Indonesian-born, Japan-based artist Rianto, draws on his training in the Javanese dance form lengger, incorporating its gender-crossing performance style, as well as ritual and devotional aspects, and an interplay between dancer and musician. Accompanied by the raw vocals and percussion of musician Cawhati, Rianto moulded the style to his own ends while still connecting to its traditional roots and formal qualities – as if he were the medium and it was the spirit. It was a powerful, eerie performance, and well worthy of selection, but perhaps it also helped that it could readily be labelled ‘made in Asia’ – no disorienting question mark or exclamation mark required.
The next Taiwan Dance Platform will take place in Kaohsiung, 9–13 November 2020.