Old Taiwanese songs dance back to life


On my last day in Taiwan, I sat in on a rehearsal at the Zuoying Senior High School theatre for the Tso’s Dance Association of Kaohsiung City’s latest production, ‘Chien-Lien, Lien-Chien’. This new work is a series of short pieces choreographed by staff and alumni Li-Chuan Lin, Chien-Chih Chang, Ya-Ting Chang and Artistic Director for the evening-length work, Ting-Yu Chen. It has a cast of 15 dancers and two actors. It features 8 graduate dancers from this nationally recognised dance school of excellence.  All have gone on to further their dance studies at a tertiary level and have acquired incredible skills as dancers.

Several of the extraordinarily talented cast members have developed careers across the country as teachers and performers and founded their own companies. Some have worked internationally for companies such as the American Repertory Ballet, Atlanta Ballet, Charleroi Dance, Purchase Dance Corp, Toru Shimazaki at Kobe College, Plan K Luzerner Theatre, Nimbus Dance Works and Compagnie Kafig. There is a guest appearance by Kuo-Chuan Wang, Kenny Chung-Hung Tsai and two American dancers from the Shenandoah University.

Most notably of the list of choreographers is the larger-than-life artistic director of the work Ting-Yu Chen, whose sense of fun and infectious zest for life catches me laughing out loud every time we meet. She is the Artistic Director of the American-based Flying Lions Dance Company and graduated from Zuoying in 1987. Ting-Yu has gone on to become an Associate Professor teaching modern dance at the Shenandoah University where she has been working and choreographing for many years. Her work has been presented around the globe including the Asian Choreographer’s Showcase in Taiwan, Hong Kong Dance Festival and Estada Internacional de Dansa and InterTOURdansa in Spain.

‘Chien-Lien, Lien-Chien’ is a carefully crafted work, rich in movement vocabulary like that of the post-modern choreographers of the United States.  This work combines physical virtuosity of the male dancers’ training stemming from martial arts, traditional Taiwanese dances, contemporary and ballet techniques with that of the graceful, agility and strength of the equally magnificent female dancers.

The musical arrangement for this full-length work is by Thomas Albert. Beautifully lit by Jack, the scenes move from warm moonlit starry nights (including the cartoon-esque shape of a waning moon), bright and cheerful summer days and deep orange romantic sunsets. In a scene that conjures up images of summer holidays by the seaside, the 10 male dancers playfully strip down to their matching camel jeans, showing off every muscle of their torso as they twist leap and fall to the vocals of Ting-Yu’s father the successful recording artist and celebrity broadcaster, Liong-Shan-Hiah. The 12 Taiwanese songs that feature throughout the work are normally perceived as ‘lower class’ compared to songs sung in the Mandarin language, but they have gained sophistication and significance and add a distinct flavour to this new collaboration.

The male performer’s acting skills throughout the piece are however somewhat over exaggerated by a few too many unnecessary ‘corny’ gestures. The women, some of Taiwan’s best dancers, are dressed in 1960’s floral cotton dresses cut above the knee line. They are all technically superb and well rehearsed, however their on-stage ‘cuteness’ could be redirected with the simplicity of ‘less is best’ in the acting department. Perhaps it’s the musical accompaniment and its story telling in Chinese that drives this narrative of overacting which at times flies right over my head.

Relationships between the male and female characters have a depth in them that are powerfully universal as is the case between Benson and his partner Chia-Hui Chuang who typify the breakdown in a loving partnership wrought with difficulties. The physical violence played out between them (at least in this rehearsal) is slightly more choreographed and ‘acted’ than it is realistic and for me takes the ‘shock value’ out of seeing this domestic violence on stage. With an opportunity to give feedback to the performers before opening night my main comment is…”keep it simple”.

The highlight is the relationship between Ya-Ting Chang and Kuo-Chuan Wang which begins seated on opposite sides of the stage with a corrugated floor lighting linking them. This is then cut with a strip of lighting that Jing-Yin Wong and Lucas Kao enter in a dreamlike duet that layers yet another relationship depicting their youthful love for each other. There is honesty in this relationship as they caress, embrace and lock eyes as it comes from a place that has experienced this raw emotion, however it translates to the audience.

The simple and effective set design is reliant on just three wooden black benches to transform the stage from a lovers bench, a guys work shed and a night club bar (where some dancers flirt more convincingly than others) which then transforms into a railway station platform. Duets with Li-Chuan Lin and a young Zuoying dancer followed by Elizabeth Rachford then Elaijah Williams takes the bar scene into a lusty world of youthful possibilities and depicts the male dancer as a kind of modern-day Romeo.

There is a wedding scene where Li-Chuan Yeh plays a reluctant bride in a gorgeous white dress designed by Yu-Ling Lee aka Kiki Orange. There is a struggle between Li-Chuan and the mother of the bride (Ya-Ting Chang) now wearing a traditional sleeveless Chinese dress (the only one in this work) and her bridesmaids. Three men in black suits with silk rosettes on lapels (Po-Cheng Tsai (Benson), Chien-Chih and Lucas) are joined by the remaining male dancers before another fight breaks out between the loveless couple. The entire cast turns their backs on them as we witness yet again the silent brutality of domesticity played out in their last dance, signifying the beginning of the end.

A seamless emotive duet with Li-Chuan Yeh and Chien-Chih is woven into this work. It begins in a vertical shaft of light projected across the stage drawing the line between what one has and what one desires in life.  If there is a story that moves in a linear fashion from start to finish, it is lost in the fact that Ya-Ting and Li-Chuan shift from being the adolescent daughter, the mother and the love interest of at least three different men.

Despite canceling the opening nights performance due to Typhoon Saola on approach, I’m sure the audiences will be as entertained as I was to witness such incredible talent gathered together marking a celebration of some of Southern Taiwan’s finest artists.

Photographer: Ren-Haur Liu  Dancers: Kuo-Chuan Wang and Ya-Ting Chang