Chien Wei Wu

photo by Xiao-Xiong Zhang

In a modern western-style cafe, close to The Metropolitan Hall in down town Taipei, I met up with Taiwanese artist, Chien Wei Wu who is one of the rehearsal directors for Xiao-Xiong Zhang’s ‘Rite of Sping Part 1 – The Adoration of Earth’. I took the opportunity to get to know him in between plotting and runs of the work for the International Festival of Dance Academies program 20 July 2012.

As a guest of the Global daCi/WDA Dance Summit in Taipei I am exposed to more than 1000 delegates from around the world. Many of them young dancers pre-tertiary and tertiary students gathered to learn, discuss showcase and celebrate dance. Dance is the common thread amongst us all and yet I have been drawn to learn more about one Taiwanese dancer in particular who is a graduate of the TNUA. His real name is Chien Wei Wu or A-Wei for short.

Dressed in loose fitting dance wear with an oversize head scarf hiding his shaven to the skin skull and a long sleeve checkered shirt tied comfortably around his waist, A-Wei greeted me in the dance studio with a welcoming that was warm and sincere.

We first met in a rehearsal for Xiao-Xiong Zhang’s ‘Rite of Spring – Part 1 : The Adoration of Earth’ where A-Wei is the rehearsal assistant.  I had been invited by Xiao-Xiong to observe a contemporary dance class – to see the dancers in action who were an inspiration I’m sure to the many young people converging at this international conference. Personally speaking, I was mesmerized by them all.

Watching the dancers going through their paces, performing the technique with such detail and commitment reminded me of the dedication one needs to adopt and adhere to become a professional dancer on the world stage.  These dancers are definitely on their way to that and I became more curious about one that stood out for me… Chien Wei Wu.

Observing the 30 individual male and female dancers that day was an opportunity for me to gain a small insight into their world, but there was something quite different about A-Wei. He seemed warm towards the other dancers, confident and relaxed in class, but who also added a very different quality and texture to his work which I became curious to learn more about and what it was that drew my eye to him.

At this point I had not been aware that what would transpire from my yearning to understand perspectives of a Taiwanese dancer’s mind, their life as a dancer and how similar or not this would be to one like mine with Western influence (albeit very untypical) would indeed become the beginnings of a friendship.

It never occurred to me that our initial exchange, be it very brief and direct, would be sufficient enough for A-Wei to accept my invitation to be interviewed. All I knew about him was what Xiao-Xiong had mentioned to me that day…”He is like a son to me”. I wondered about this relationship and how in some cultures a ‘son’ has more meaning, how ‘father’ is different to my (an Anglo mix of French, German, English and Irish background) understanding of the term and the the complexity of the role and responsibility to each other.

A-Wei is a pensive man with a short, perfectly proportioned, slim yet muscular build. He is handsome, polite and charming and although I was nervous at first about how our communication would go, how well he would understand me and whether I would discover something about the life of a dancer in Taiwan interesting enough for Antipodean readers and dancers, this nervous feeling quickly subsided. You can tell a lot about someone in the first moments of exchange. It is quite possible that A-Wei is an angel sent from heaven.

The interview, in an American-style cafe, close to The Metropolitan Hall in downtown Taipei, began with my referencing my dance background and connection to Xx, my responses to witnessing his latest work and the observations I made of the dancers in class, why I am interested to learn more about dancers in Taiwan and some of the questions I had prepared.

Confident, clear and completely engaging, A-Wei spoke eloquently about his experience and although much of the recording of this conversation is verbatim to give the reader a sense of being present, I have clarified some of his answers upon meeting up with him again.

Throughout the conversation I discovered I had much in common and of course we knew many of the same people in dance in Australia. One story in particular which I didn’t record in great detail  was about his experience of working with the late Tanja Leidke who was a friend of mine when she was dancing with the Australian Dance Theatre.

Our conversations about the joys of life, love, loss, sacrifice, dance and a whole plethera of funny stories I won’t share have continued over several evenings in bars, the theatre, in taxis, on the metro and in side-street family run restuarants sharing noodle soup, salads, dumplings, cups of tea, beer and on one occasion…very awful white wine which the waiting staff insisted we drank like water to hurry us out of the establishment.

Many of the conversations we had in attempt to solve the world’s problems and secrets and stories we shared, (some exposing deep emotion) brought tears to our eyes. The belly laughter and giggling like high school friends sharing secrets of our coming of age, the discussions we engaged in about dance and working with people with different life experience and the questions we posed to each other, have been the highlight of my recent short visit to Taipei. I have made a friend who is sensitive to humanity, one who is expressive through his love of the arts, fashion, design and anything ‘beautiful’, one that is not afraid of life’s challenges and tackles them head on. He appreciates kind and loving gestures, kindness and thoughtfulness more than grand actions and declarations. This in a nutshell describes my friend Chien Wei Wu.

Can you tell me a little bit about your background, where you’re from and when you started dancing?

I come from the middle of Taiwan from a place called Nantou and my first language is Chinese Mandarin. Nantou is the only city in Taiwan surrounded by the mountain so it’s really beautiful country side.  My grandfather is from Changhai in China and my mum is from Taichung in Taiwan so my mother is the first generation Taiwanese but I am really a mix of the two cultures. My dad grew up in Taiwan but in the country and they still have some Changhai style customs.

My family is really open minded, so when I was near 15 I had some idea I wanted to do something different, I didn’t know what exactly but I asked if I could try dance school. I saw some pictures and videos from tv, and I told myself…”maybe it’s not too bad to try something like this”. At the same time, my father travelled the world for a shoe company, so he went to other countries for his work. So every three months for half a year I didn’t see him. So when I was very younger I developed a very good relationship with my mother. She is like a close friend. In Asian culture, mother is mother and never becomes a friend…our relationship is quite special.

So she is very supportive and comes from a poor family so she worked so she could pay for my school. She was the top one at the school…she is the fourth daughter so she had to go to the city to make money for the family. She couldn’t decide what life she wanted to live. She had to work hard.

I talk to her a lot, and I have a deep memory of something. I said, “you give me a lot of space to try everything because you didn’t have a chance to decide what kind of life you wanted.” She had tears in her eyes and I was just 18 so I always understand why she supports me and gives me everything.

At the TNUA I studied dancing at 15 because it’s like high school and then we continue to university. Xiao-Xiong and the other teacher, Lou Manfei were my first teachers. So I learned a lot from them and they taught me when I was very young and they took care of me when I was just a child.

By the time when I graduated from high school I was thinking about doing contemporary performing arts, but in a way I have learnt a lot about dance technique because when we learn something from the master, they become the father or mother so I will follow their work. Because I don’t want to just learn something for one year, for me I can just copy, but you can not understand why they created it or what is the meaning inside.

So when I was 18 I talked to him (Xiao-Xiong) and say…”maybe you can let me be your young assistant,” to know more like him. But I don’t want to just keep his style… his style is like my soil but I’m the tree to grow up from the soil, so I think it’s really important to have some centre and grow up from the centre. But I don’t know if I’m just thinking like that or everyone is, because every half year at TNUA they change the style of training for a different technique but for me it’s good coz I can try something different. I can understand it and then finish it. I can try an idea and where it comes from and then it’s finished.

We have different classes, like the last year when I studied, I didn’t do contemporary, I chose to do ballet and martial arts to be my training background so it’s quite different. Technique and performance has to be separate. It’s about having a quality I can’t explain which is more than technique.

In 2006 I did a work of Xiao-Xiong and in the moment the music was so super strong and the piece of the music is about the people, surviving in the war. Xiao-Xiong told me, “you have to be yourself,” but for me it’s the most difficult thing to be myself, because I don’t know if I cross the gap I might break it. In my mind and my memory of this I still have this feeling. It was the most difficult piece because it had a deep deep memory. I feel like a delicate human…but we have to try to stand in the work.

I ask myself “why am I doing contemporary…not classical”. I’m not wisdom people with brown hair and blue eyes, I’ll never be a faun on stage and also second thing I want to discover the human being, not a feather, not a guard, not something that happened in a different relating. I was always curious about the people and the situation for life.

Xiao-Xiong describes you as being ‘like a son’. How does one earn that status and what does that mean to you?

I don’t know which position I have to say, coz I can’t just say he is my family…because he has a strong relationship with my family because I think he is my first teacher and the I danced in his work and then he ran Cross Over Dance Company as the artistic director where I danced before I finshied my training at TNUA, so I had a mixed relationship and it’s become a strong relationship for working together.

He is a kind person, so every student if they have a problem he will try to help them. But for me I’m really serious about that because I learn technique from him. I want to discover more and work for him again in a long project and maybe because I’m doing quite good in his work, so the relationship goes into the next level. Because I undstand what he wants from me as a dancer. And I understand what he wants to do and why he wants to do it. I inherited this from him.

So in the class today I mixed the two systems. One comes from Xiao-Xiong and one from Manfei and then another from myself. So I don’t want to say I created my own style but I translated the form to make the class today. And the dancers gave good feedback. For warm up I don’t want to do training, I want to make the dancers warm, easy, wake up the body, have good balance and feel comfortable and have a little energy. They have to relax befor a performance.

In Chinese culture people are not really easy to tell you you are good…they are more likely to say you are bad or not good enough, but for me I don’t worry about that. They need to tell themselves they do a pretty good job and they try the best they can do, don’t say anything bad for them. Because somehow some kids go out from the culture they alway tell the kids they’re not good enough and they will loose their personality for themselves.

You graduated from TNUA in 2007. What doors have been opened since then and where and who have you worked with since?

In my last year I worked with Tanja Leidke and a year before I graduated with Amanda Phillips from Adelaide.

With Tanja I worked on ‘Slide’. Actually she created the piece in Taipei and them we got an invitation to go to Melbourne in 2007 to perform in St Kilda. I have some pictures of this project. I really enjoyed working with her. It’s like I always feel she comes from the other world…she is a surreal person and from her movement and what she wanted to say in a piece is really strange. It was quite different of anything I had done at the time…the concept ideas were similar but the movement very different.

When I heard she passed away it was from one of the other dancers who texted me… I was choked. How come people just die suddenly and the last day we just heard she got the job at Sysney Dance Company and I couldn’t take it. I didn’t believe the message I thought it was a stupid joke. And after a week I realized it was true.

She had a lot of passion for her work so when I worked with her she really concentrated in the work and the dancers body and I remember one day she just asked me, “could you try something…lift your leg and arm and then something else…but she didn’t want to tell me what it meant…she had a picture in her mind and wanted to keep it a little secret. She didn’t want to give me an answer because maybe something happened.

The first time I worked with Amanda was in 2004 at the time I was quite young. It was a workshop in Taipei with Cloud Gate – two months inviting different choreographers in a workshop to make a piece. At the time I just did an audition and I got the job with Amanda, and for me I remember her works like a portrait. She always talking to us about the meaning and she explained her experience for something. She imagined (something in Chinese)… She tried to find a link between the two different cultures, because the body language is quite different. She introduced language from Australia which she wanted to mix. We gave her some ideas when we did improvisation. Maybe for Amanda she is interested about the difference and she wanted to mix the different things. And then I saw her at the Taipei Artists Village again…we worked together again and they introduced some different technology with 3D film. I think they tried to find a way to change art. Lighting, dance, video, color different color. She wanted to challenge people in performing arts. We continued to mix the different cultures – contemporary and classic.
I joined her piece because she got an invitation from taipei artists village.

When I was about 15 I was reall shy and I found it difficultto talk to people so I used to go to the 24 hr bookstore and I was happy there. I was a VIP at the store. You have to spend a lot of money to get the VIP card and I don’t know why , maybe I’m crazy or something. I don’t know if I’m an artist but I want to undstand myself through art. I feel sorry for some people.

What are some of the opportunities and challenges available to emerging artists in Taiwan?

You have to be flexible to everywhere. You have to be like water not a stone, because if you are a stone you can’t fix every shape. But if you are water you can be every shape. So if you want to be ‘just a dancer’ you will die. In Taiwan we have one full-time company so I didn’t want to join the company because it’s like an office job. I can have what I want to have if I chose to do what I want.

I teach class at the Foundation about design and beauty. I talk with the director a lot and she’s like my teacher. She feels like I have good energy. She likes my point of beauty of everything. She invited me to be part of the foundation traveling around the country with aboriginal people. They hasn’t to show something to be successful not just for the job but for young people to have a good classroom, poor people to have a good life. Young people need to have new information, so I travel to different cities to give class.

One day in the studio they are quite successful… the agent can be my grandmother doing beautiful knitting work…and in the case I was talking with about the foundation, they are successful, I’m going to teach a class, they don’t need to listen, the director said, “maybe you can try something different”. So I decided to introduce contemporary arts, so the people can be my grandmother.

Over three months I introduced the painter Frida Khalo  because I introduced her story because it’s dramatic. But the most important reason is because she is a female artist. I did the paper work, change the frame for Fridas work for the tv show, to tell a story like a TV show. What is my link…my link his her work. The most important work of Frida. So I used almost 2 months to tell the story. From the structure, from the meaning of the color of the painting, the room, everything. I tell them I introduced contemporary arts through Frida.

For me it’s the same of the challenges for the flexibility. Why I say that is simple because people don’t really want to do that. I find my opportunity. One day at I was talking to the director at TAV and she wanted to make something happen. An interesting workshop for young people. I said “how young?” She said “5-9 years old.” So I said “ok”.  I didn’t think I was going to be a nanny, I thought I would make a fun class making something good for the children. So I talked to the office about the background of the children, how old they are, what they do, etc.

I had some special kids in the class – (kids with disabilities). One boy was 6 years old that didn’t like to talk. He can’t talk with a stranger because he has Autism. He has a brother. He couldn’t listen to anything. The other two were 4 and 9 years old. I just asked the office if someone wanted to join the workshop not just young guests, maybe the mother or father could join the workshop too. In Taiwan if you just bring the child to a class you will really become a nanny, I will fail.

I will tell them  what they have to do. I choose the suggestion that was quite interesting. You see, you hear, you smell,  you taste and you touch. The mother and father just see and watch what I do. I told them, “you just have to look.” I gave them simple words or what the reason was… you don’t have to be a mother or a father, just help me out being my assistant in the classroom or doing some of the paperwork.

One day I was doing the ‘what you see’. I showed the guests about different contemporary arists, something is happy, bright, sad, green, black and white. In one picture the woman was covering a man…the work was by Kiki Smith. I know the work was about death but I didn’t tell the student. I must asked them what they feel and see. Suddenly the girl said “I feel really sad. I feel the man is not just asleep, he has passed away like my grandmother. I hope he can be happy.” They know everything, they just don’t know how to use the words to tell different people.

One day I was doing ‘touch’ and I didn’t tell them it was improvisation so I asked them to draw my body shape, and I just slowly kept moving, and then at the end  the girl must drew a two dimension picture, she was doing a 3 dimension improv with me.  The boy with autism, he kept jumping and rolling and found things the other kids didn’t do. It was amazing, I didn’t know how to explain it. That wast the most I felt happy coz they explained themselves that they were happy.

For the opportunity you have to show the flexibility of what you can do to find a way to make a point. You can’t say I don’t want to do something, coz the door will be closed.

So I teach class and for real people and it’s fun and I get inspired from my students and I still grow up from the moment. So when I have a new idea I talk to the TAV office to find a way to make a service for them. I do a lot of it… teaching class or workshop.

What are you currently working on?

I’m working with Xiao-Xiong and I am the choreographer and he is the dancer and we had a premiere 2 years ago and we continue to do the work and we have had an invitation to travel to Beijing and Guangdong. They connect to the dance festival either this year or next year.

The work is called ‘VEGETATION’. When we go to Beijing we will have a double bill where I am the choreographer in my work and he is the choreographer for his. It will be an hour-long work non stop. The name of his work hasn’t been decided yet.

In summing up my experience with A-Wei, I don’t have to remind myself of the style, manner, charm and grace that oozes out of every pore of this dancers smooth tanned skin, his unique sense of himself and confidence in being the man he truly is, nor do I need to remind myself of the  beautiful materials and textures that define his sense of individuality, his creativity and passion for life itself. But I am reminded of the times he sat silently sharing his inner hurt as tears welled up in his eyes, exposing his sensitive vulnerability,  his infectious generosity and honest sensitivity. Chien Wei Wu is after just 3 days, an inspiring individual who I connect with on many levels.

Photograph: Professor Xiao-Xiong Zhang