Somehow, probably in the flurry of my own pre-Taipei existence, I never knew that ArtsCross has a theme. Or if I was told it, I’d forgotten. By theme I mean the phrase that the ten anointed choreographers were given in advance, and upon which they could, if they so chose, base their creation.
Two years ago in Beijing the theme was Dancing in a Shaking World. This year, given all that’s been happening globally, the joke is that maybe it ought to have been dubbed Dancing in a More Shaking World. But in 2011 it is, instead, Uncertain…Waiting.
It’s going to be interesting to see how this phrase is interpreted by the dance-makers.
Today they and the 36 dancers selected after Monday’s auditions began working together on the pieces that will be shown to the Taiwanese public later this month. This was the day when numbers became names — although perhaps for Avatara it might be said that what she now has is a comparatively sizable number of names. Yesterday, as compensation for surrendering the majority of her top choices to others in order to balance out the schedule, there was a bending of ’the rules. Consequently she’ll be working with 14 dancers rather than the previous maximum six.
If anyone can handle the larger load she’s the one. But more on that in a bit.
Avatara is one of four choreographers in the TNUA studios from 6.30–9.30pm. The other are there from 3–6pm, hence my feeling this afternoon of wanting to be in six places at once. Rather than bemoan an impossibility I drifted from one studio to another, ideally taking enough time to pick up a fact, witness a valuable exchange or capture an atmosphere.
YU Yen-Fang is a Taiwanese dancer-choreographer. Having spent considerable time in the USA and Europe, her English is excellent. Thus I learnt that she’s deeply interested in improvisation, and regards herself as a director rather than a dictator (the word she actually used was ‘queen’) who wants to guide her seven dancers to go ‘in and out of the comfort zone.’ Sometimes she starts to go with them, initially joining in an improvisational task then quietly slipping away to observe them continue it. ‘I like things that are not set and that I cannot reach easily,’ she explained in her let’s-sit-on-the-floor-and-introduce-ourselves moment.
Alexander Whitley is a British-born dancer-choreographer, formerly a member of the Rambert company but now attached to Random. The five dancers with him worked with an air of calm purpose, generating movement material with facility as he watched, juxtaposed the results and set new tasks. The most ice-breakingthat I saw was based on such simple but effective games of trust as ’you fall and we’ll all catch you if we can,’ which Whitley soon morphed into ‘each of you pick one person whom you try and catch when they fall.’ The ensuing acts of rescue were agreeably unpredictable and, for those involved, even a little giggly. Laughter is a good way for a group to bond.
There was little room for humour in the studios overseen by the choreographers from mainland China. The discipline, however, was impressive. In all three cases their dancers were receiving instructions in how to refine the movement they ‘d been given, and sometimes it was being demonstrated by the choreographers themselves. This was certainly true of ZHANG Jianmin, head of the choreography department at the Beijing Dance Academy. It was plain, as I watched him working in do-as-I-do fashion with three out of the six members of his cast, that the man knows exactly what he wants. There are nuanced forms and shapes to arrive at, and one of the best ways to achieve this was have the dancers repeat them again and again until they were imprinted on their muscle memories. Initially seemed less interesting to watch than Yen-Fang or Alex’s sessions, because here things were far less playful or exploratory. But gradually I began to question and even came to revise my opinion. Repetition also deepens the imprint of movement on the mind’s eye of those who witness it.
Yet I wonder what surprises, if any, are in store for the mainland Chinese dance-makers. Should there be surprises for people making new work? How much value can be placed on unpredictability in the creative act or the creative arts? More specifically, have these faculty members from the BDA arrived in Taipei with preconceived notions about what work they will make? And, if so, would it be fair to dub them ‘pre-conceptualists’?
I’m joking, but only in part. Still, in all fairness the term may not be entirely accurate. Maybe it’s simply a question of methodology. Rather than opting for the more organic, getting-to-know-you games of discovery other choreographers favour, those particular trio seems to have clear, strong ideas of what literal steps their work will involve. So why ’waste time’ (the quotations marks are mine) pursuing anything else? They just get down to it.
That’s certainly how it seemed in ZHANG Xiaomej’s studio, where her six dancers were concentrating on ritual moves involving sticks entwined with artificial flowers. Ditto in the space presided over by the magnetic LI Shanshan. Her focus was completely on one strapping, shirltess young Taiwanese lad who was executing. with laudable control, a series of slow/fast steps with twists - a solo version of the kind of tricky phrases Shanshan was dishing out to the auditionees yesterday. Clearly this lady knows her stuff.
LAI Tsui-shuang, from Taiwan, has the most modest-seeming project in ArtsCross: a six-minute duet. But, just as in a short dance review where every word counts even more, it may be that in a short dance piece with a small cast every move bears the weight of inevitability and thus only the most necessary gestures, steps or interactions should be allowed to happen. (Not being a choreographer I’m making a conjectural leap here.) In any case, what I saw during a merequarter-hour was a young woman in a brown dress repeatedly running towards her male counterpart and, at the last moment, turning round so that he lifts and carries her forward from the bottom of her back. That was the intention anyway. The couple in question never quite got it right — that is to say, they did not achieve the seamless, full-bodiedzest that seemed to be required of them. Was she running at the best speed, and would she turn at the right moment, and where would he provide her with the most secure support? Was he strong enough, or was his stamina being sapped? Was she soft enough for him to grab, and did she trust him enough to surrender herself to him?
I was thinking that a whole piece could be made out of just one repeated action which may never be fully or ‘successfully‘ realised; its continued failure (underscored by the we-must-live-in-hope possibility that they’d finally get it on the next attempt) would become a personification of uncertainty and waiting. This, however, is just my own digressive musing and not at all Tsui-shang’s intention. Indeed, I might have to ask her to articulate just what it she’s aiming for. Suffice to say that under her patient scrutiny the undercurrents of determination and frustration in the dancers’ bodies and demeanour were almost palpable.
Back to Yen-Fang’s space, where the spirit of spontaneity was deepening. It was especially good to see the shy or supposedly less confident young women (who’d said as much about themselves earlier) more than holding their own in a group improv centred around one twitchily paranoid individual at a time, each of whom was surrounded by a pack of space-invading bystanders. A sign of this task’s efficacy: although maintaining a fly-on-the-wallrole, I still felt I was a part of the amorphously microcosmic society Yen-Fang’s dancers were embodying simply by me being privy to it.
Meanwhile Alex’s lot next door had rapidly coalesced into a quintet you wanted to watch. The five of them spilled out a series of loose-flungyet accurate moves that showed how gratifyingly soon in a process collective commitment can be developed.
Onto the evening sessions. I couldn’t resist starting out with the force of nature otherwise known as Avatara. She speaks a mixture of English and nascent Mandarin that, due to her Spanish heritage, I can’t help but call ’Spandarin.’ More to the point, she’s simply delightful to be around — forthright, funny, hard-working and strong.
So how did Avatara manage a room with 14 dancers, none of whom speak English as a first-language (and half of whom are members of Beijing Dance Academy)? By being clear about what she wants to achieve or, more specifically, how she wants to go about achieving it. Collaboratively, that is, and to the maximum in terms of what you will give of yourself.
In the first few minutes the dancers learnt about her, but she also learnt about them. First their names, which she repeated (with the correct cadences), and then by asking each one to say what they liked about dance. Next it was name your favourite colour. (Most answered in combinations, and several said white.) This was a clever strategy on Avatara’s part for, as she later told me, she’s thinking to use the individual colour choices preferences, duly noted by her, to find costumes for the finished piece.
She then asked them to, first, really think about and then draw what they most secretly feared. These little art works Avatara subsequently shuffled about and distributed at random, with each dancer using first a hip, then a rib (the left one!) and then a tendon (the right) to ’draw’ whatever particular fear they’d just been handed — as if there were a pen or pencil sticking out or attached to a specific body part. This was a good means of loosen their bodies up and watching them closely at the same time. (So interesting to see what impulses such a part-focused exercise releases in the rest of the body.) Setting aside potential confusions, the dancers pretty much whole-heartedly surrendered to the instructions they were given.
Avatara is plainly luxuriating in the space she’s using and the amount of people at her disposal. I left them and slipped over to watch YAO Shu-Fen’s six dancers, plus three understudies. All nine wore surgical masks as they acrobatically maneuvered their way over, about and upon a few low (only two-high) mattresses. Apparently this is a reworking of a piece made some years ago called Dream Hatched, but incorporating the needs, influences and, perhaps, dreams of a new cast. ‘It’s their age and their time’ that Shu-Fensays she wants to make visible. Watching their energetic somersaults, rolls and flip-flops I was reminded of a slightly softened-upversion of the slam-bangrisk-takingwork of New York-based Elizabeth Streb. I also suddenly found myself wondering what it would be like to see a handful of OAPs trying to do something similar. Maybe Dream Hatched could be the next Kontakthof.
I was starting to run out of steam by the time I made it over to the studios of the Taiwanese BULAREYAUNG Pagarlava and British-based Khamlane Halsackda. Not many notes, and too little concentration. And so I ended the evening where it began, back with Avatara’s ‘army’ where the mood was one of sweat-soaked and physically challenging fun. The group was being pushed to its physical limits via stamina-testing games of trust rooted in the solar plexus (the source of Avatara’s own gutsy force as a dancer). Dancers pulled and pivoted in turn-and-grab exercises or embarked upon weighty, body-draggingwalks (with one person gripping the ankles of another trying to stride forward). Call it Avatara’s paella-like version of boot camp. All the push-pull activity carried loads of strenuous, earthy uncertainty, but at the same time there was nothing the least faint-hearted or stagnant about any of it. I can hardly wait to see more.