Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Taipei Dance Circle celebrates and toasts 25 unforgettable years of pain and glory

By Nancy T. Lu

If Liou Shaw-lu and Yang Wan-jung take time out to flip through the pages of the Taipei Dance Circle’s album of memories today, they are bound to come upon a quarter of a century full of reminders best summed up in just a few words: “If there is no pain, there is no glory.”

Back in 1984, these two ambitious dancers decided to strike out and start a modern dance company of their own in Taiwan. All they had and still have to this day has been a passion for dance.

The road they have chosen to tread has been paved with discouraging difficulties. Survival has not been easy. Yet they have managed to plod on undaunted by challenges. Finding the money to keep the struggling dance company from folding up has been hanging all along like Damocles’ sword over Liou and his completely supportive wife Yang.

New dance productions, each one a labor of love, have been staged after painstaking preparation year after year. Liou at one point even resigned from his teaching jobs to give his full commitment to dance creation. Choreographies have required not just the lengthy development of dance moves but also the careful search for suitable music, stage design, and costumes.

To come up with a distinctive and perhaps signature style became Liou’s obsession as artistic director of the Taipei Dance Circle. While working in a dance studio one day, the perspiring Liou slipped on the floor. He quickly noticed the beauty of his unobstructed move. He later decided to apply baby oil on his body to further ease physical movement on the dance floor. Even the floor was subsequently slicked with oil to pave the way for an exciting and brilliant dance happening.

And so the dancers of the Taipei Dance Circle applied baby oil on their entire bodies and then took to a special stage floor likewise covered with baby oil. Unconventional dance moves evolved to visually excite audiences at home and abroad. “Olympics” even invited a quick comeback performance in Aachen. The Ludwig Foundation in Germany singled out the touring production for honoring with the 1997 Performing Arts Innovation Award.

Liou’s early works for his dancers drew inspiration from traditional Chinese themes and subjects close to home. “Farewell, My Concubine” and “The Hermits in the Bamboo Forest” could be cited as examples.

A remarkable sensitivity to events and the times gave birth to unforgettable choreographies. “The Hermits in the Bamboo Forest” proved a dance statement about the headline-grabbing protest in Tian An Men Square in Beijing. The dancers ended up wrapped in costumes painted with blood-red characters. “Faults” in the aftermath of the earthquake on September 21, 1999.saw the dancers performing like they were going through the frightening impact of the earth opening up and moving

Liou began focusing on Chinese “qigong” based largely on breathing at one point. He trained dancers to do breathing exercises. The concept of :”breath, body and heart” was behind “Olympics,” “Oil Painting,” “Ode to a Paramecium,” “Black Tide,” “Faults,” “Flow,” “Body Water” and “Pilgrims’ Dream.”

In 2001, Liou explored the natural emission of sounds while listening to body rhythms and engaging in physical moves. His “Sight and Sound” exercises tapped the raw energy in the body.

Liou, who was born in Chutung, Hsinchu County, made special efforts to highlight his Hakka ancestry in his dances. “Pingban or Moderato,” “Meandering Over the Mountain,” and “Hakka Yodeling and Dancing” were heavy in Hakka cultural content. He made sure that the Hakka communities around Taiwan were able to view his modern dance interpretations of Hakka culture.

The Taipei Dance Circle led by Liou has given more than 400 performances in the last 25 years. The company has enthralled critics from The Village Voice, Aachener Nachrichten, and Singapore Straits Times, among others.

Liou tried to share his love for dance at 261 workshops and lectures. He happily interacted often with professionals from other art fields not just in Taiwan but also abroad.

After enduring 25 years of hardships, the sixtyish Liou has made up his mind that the show must still go on. To stay alive, he feels a compulsion to keep dancing. This is despite the physical toll of the years on him. A thyroid condition did not drive him to stop. And most recently, he was seen rehearsing “Silent Dance” without grimace (quite a formidable feat) despite the painful gout attack on his dancing foot. .

“Silent Dance” will have a premiere performance at the National Theater’s Experimental Theater on October 1. More performances are lined up at the Taipei venue until October 4. The production will then move to the Hsinchu Cultural Affairs Bureau’s Hall for Performing Arts on October 9, to the Tainan County Cultural Center’s Concert Hall on October 15 and finally to the Chiayi County Performing Arts Center on November 28.

“Silent Dance” has been described as choreography about dancers doing simple moves and reaching out to the realm of perfection. Taichi and qigong all come into play. When the live music composed by Lee Tzy-sheng and to be provided by a cellist, a pianist and an electronic music provider starts playing, Liou will once more live his “no pain, no glory” experience. Dance enthusiasts, however, will be there to cheer him and his dancers on, making success taste mighty sweet.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Jimmy Liao’s “Starry, Starry Night” fanning flight of fancy with tinge of melancholy

By Nancy T. Lu

Taiwan’s best-known author-illustrator Jimmy Liao is not only sharing art glimpses from his new picture book, “The Starry, Starry Night,” but also finding himself in creative company at an ongoing exhibition at the Huashan Culture Park on the corner of Zhongsiao East Road and .Badeh Road in Taipei.

Liao continues to charm and touch his readers through his witty and philosophical approach in drawing his dream world in his latest book, which was written particularly for the adolescents. His drawings in “The Starry, Starry Night” have inspired 14 artists to spin off ideas from the book or to simply interpret story highlights in ways giving away their sensitive perceptions of life.

Like the twinkling lights in the night, the artists shine in different individual ways at the exhibition to run until September 27. Everyone has a story to tell. Each tale warms the heart. But it is often tinged with melancholy.

Astrophysicist Sun Wei-hsin is behind “Stars of Four Seasons,” an installation, which mirrors the heavenly bodies in formations, ever fascinating to star-gazing astrologers for hundreds of years. LED-illuminated zodiac sign displays give an exciting glow to a space with walls decorated with Jimmy Liao’s artworks.

Wax figure expert Lin Chien-cheng recreates the last page in “The Starry, Starry Night.” The installation titled “Later, the Woman” shows a not-so-young female admiring a Van Gogh painting. Lin puts a special emphasis on creating an incredibly life-like gaze. But in this depiction of a nostalgic character, those glistening eyes see not the famous painting but the aging person herself. Gone is her youth but memories of her past linger.

Wang Tien-hung and Yeh Man-ling draw visitors up close to have a good look at the items placed in “A Cabinet of Memories.” A miniature toy train makes its way around, creating moving shadows and bringing back childhood memories.

Miniaturist Takuji Yamada for his part picks on “A Forgettable Afternoon” for his theme contribution to the show. Four bullies pick on a loner boy character in “The Starry, Starry Night.” This episode inspires Yamada, who pays special attention to the details of the faces and bodies of the four aggressive boys and then of the look and stance of the victim. Suddenly the fighting children on a printed page acquire three dimensions in a classroom setting.

Jimmy Liao’s fondness for the ocean creatures gets passed on to Wang Tien-hung as seen in “The Whale.” The lighted sea-animal on view appears to be swimming in an ocean of the imagination.

Huang I-ju’s “A Labyrinth Blocked From Home” shows a discouraged lad and a disappointed lass weighed down by keys. They seem lost in a space cluttered with keys. The dominant gray color used here has a blurring effect. Young people who have gone astray must face confusion and confront the difficulty in finding the key that opens the door to answers.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Sylvia Shu-te Lee’s violin students fall into fond reminiscences as her 80th birthday approaches

By Nancy T. Lu

When violinists Lin Cho-liang, Hu Nai-yuan, Hsin Ming-feng, Chen Tai-chi and Michael Wei-chung Shih along with bassist Cho Han-han gathered on Thursday, September 10, to begin the countdown to the big celebration of the 80th birthday of their beloved music mentor, Sylvia Shu-te Lee, first in her hometown of Pingtung on September 12 and then at the National Concert Hall in Taipei on September 13, vivid memories of their childhoods came back in a flash. Laughter accompanied their walk down Memory Lane.

New York-based violinist Hu Nai-yuan, often asked to talk about his childhood days as Lee’s pupil, had one favorite account, which frequently sent everyone laughing out loud. He recounted with mischief: “In those days, parents gathered under the stairs while their children went through violin lessons with their strict music teacher on the second floor. The parents waited anxiously for the teacher to lose her patience and start throwing down the score sheets, then the bows of the violins, and finally the boys themselves for them to catch.”

Lee, listening closely, interrupted, saying: “You are ruining my reputation!”

Hu’s career really kicked off after he won first prize at the Queen Elisabeth International Violin Competition in Brussels, Belgium, many years ago.

Regarding Sylvia Shu-te Lee’s strictness, some of her disappointing students were not spared the rod.

Lin Cho-liang revealed proudly that, according to his mom, he was never on the receiving end of such physical punishment due to poor performance. But Lin described on hindsight the only occasion when Lee was driven to beat him. His disobedience was the reason.

The gifted children taught by Lee had the honor to play at the Cultural Center of the Philippines in 1969, the year the concert venue was inaugurated. Lee took the group of children to Manila.

“On this trip,” remembered Lin Cho-liang, “I was told not to go swimming. But refusing to heed advice, I went ahead and jumped into the swimming pool. Because I strayed unknowingly into the deep part of the pool, I nearly drowned. Somebody had to get into the water to rescue me. Guess what, I nearly lost my life but I still got beaten up by my teacher.”

Apparently Lee at that time was extremely frightened by such close shave. The boys under her care were like her own children.

Hsin Ming-feng, first violinist of the New York Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, had a funny anecdote to add to the Philippine tour experience. He recalled: “For some reason, I was always asked to sing a patriotic song for encore at the end of a program.”

Lee’s earlier batch of students remembered very well her outings with them. She took them to the beach. The rambunctious kids got into trouble, ending up in the local police precinct. But they bowed their violins, entertaining and winning over the police officers on duty.

Michael Wei-chung Shih, Lee’s former student at Kuang Jen School and now concertmaster of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra in Texas, said he never experienced such fun outings with his teacher. However, Shih has remained ever grateful to his mentor for encouraging him to find his own way to grow and develop as a violinist. Lee would put a hat on his head, affectionately telling him when he was still a child to relax whenever she found him to be too serious in learning to play the violin.

Now grown up with successful professional careers to make their teacher feel truly proud of them, many more musicians will return to play together like the “Little Angels” of a distant past at two concerts. Participants in the two performances will even include their children, also taught by Lee.

Did she think the orchestra was better than what it used to be? She was asked after a morning of rehearsal. “Maybe the adult violinists played much too fast for the children to catch up with them,” she quipped.

“Without our mentor, we would all not be where we are today,” remarked Chen Tai-chi, a second violinist of the Minnesota Orchestra.

The concert program drawn up by Lin Cho-liang since a year ago will include Seitz’s (arr. Hope, Lee) “Student Concerto No. 2 in G Major, Op. 13”; Accolay’s (arr. Hope, Lee) “Violin Concerto No. 1 in A Minor”; Piazzolla’s (arr. Milone) “Oblivion” and “Libertango”; Vivaldi’s “Concerto in b minor for Four Violins, Op. 3, No. 10 RV580”; Sarasate’s “Navarra for Two Violins and Orchestra, Op. 33”; Sarasate’s (arr. Milone) “Carmen Fantasy, Op. 25”; Maurer’s “Sinfonia Concertante in A Major, Op. 55, for Four Violins and Orchestra”; Fiocco’s (arr. Hope, Lee) “Allegro”; and Boehm’s (arr. Hope, Lee) “Perpetual Motion.”

The reminiscing about life with Sylvia Shu-te Lee will go on and on.

Top photo with Sylvia Shu-te Lee on the stage at the National Concert Hall was posted after the Taipei performance on Sunday, September 13. The other picture shows (from left) Hu Nai-yuan, Chen Tai-chi, Hsin Ming-feng, Michael Wei-chung Shih, Lin Cho-liang, and Cho Han-han rehearsing in Taipei for the program in honor of their teacher.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Lin Lee-chen’s new choreography to dance out relationship of man, spirit and deity

By Nancy T. Lu

Dance talents working each day under choreographer Lin Lee-chen at the Taiwan Human Rights Memorial compound in Taipei are fleshing out the dance poetry that is to tell the tale of “Song of Pensive Beholding (Chants de la destinee).” The strength and power of the quiet and calm are inviting reflection.

The new piece of choreography is about life, step by step depicting man’s internal struggles between two forces, not necessarily representing good and evil, explained Lin, artistic director of the Legend Lin Dance Theater (Wougow in Chinese). The whole dance drama with percussion instruments pounding the rhythms of life is tied up with nature, according to her.

Lin’s probing vision with ancient cultures coming into play brings suggestions of two eagles, creatures with talons from legends and folklores, protecting their respective domains from two mountain peaks. Between the two mountains flows a river. Will the current take its natural course to nurture the land? Or will it wreak havoc because of man’s destructive ways against Mother Earth, turning into a river of tears?

“My first production for Legend Lin Dance Theater `Legend: Mirrors of Life’ had to do with the relationship between man and spirit,” said Lin. “My next piece, `Anthem to the Fading Flowers (Hymne aux fleurs qui passent)’ turned to the relationship between man and deity. ‘Song of Pensive Beholding (Chants de la destinee)’ brings man, spirit and deity together.”

Lin, who became 60 only on August 20, will turn to ceremonial elements like stone, wind, water, fire and even straw during the staging of her new work. There will be a suggestion of the Taoist rite as seen in the use of incoherent chant.

The Legend Lin Dance Theatre has been one of Taiwan’s leading contemporary dance companies to have found acclaim on the world stage. Since its founding in 1995, the group has developed large-scale and often slow-paced dance dramas inspired by traditional religious rituals and ceremonial rites in Taiwan, evoking the ever-changing seasons and celebrating the rhythms of nature and life.

In 1998, the Legend Lin Dance Theater brought “Legend: Mirrors of Life” to the Festival d’Avignon in France, making a big impact. “Anthem to the Fading Flowers (Hymne aux fleurs qui passent)” premiered in France in 1998 and then toured other countries in Europe with great success.

“Song of Pensive Beholding (Chants de la destinee)” will be staged from December 18 to 20 at the National Theater in Taipei. The Legend Lin Dance Theater has already received an invitation to bring the dance to the Biennale de la Danse in Lyon, France, next year. From there, the production will tour Europe.

Cloud Gate Dance Theater’s “Cursive II” pulls audience into void and calm of Zen philosophy

By Nancy T. Lu

The unpainted area or blank space in Chinese art such as calligraphy symbolizes the something which is not nothing. In fact, it suggests the fascinating and deep void in Zen philosophy.

To get choreographer Lin Hwai-min to talk about calligraphy-inspired “Cursive II” is to invite him to dwell on the aesthetics of Chinese brushwork and, quickly from there, proceed to focus on Zen philosophy.

Zest and vitality are what characterize Taiwan and the people. But these are the very traits which drive Lin to turn to the quiet and the calm in his choreography.

If forms and lines in Chinese calligraphy are appreciated for themselves, the dancers of the Cloud Gate Dance Theater in “Cursive II” invite similar response from spectators. Their smallest moves on the dance stage are the richest in nuances and details, according to Lin.

Lin’s recollections of his youth include how his parents filled up the ancestral family home with porcelain souvenirs from their student days in Japan. The crackle of the glaze on the ornamental chinaware from Kyoto with a history of Tang Dynasty cultural influence has since then gone on to inspire recreation into the exquisitely simple and beautiful backdrop for “Cursive II.”

John Cage’s minimalist music, which is used in “Cursive II,” gives away the composer’s study and love of the Zen philosophy. Modern dance choreographer Lin and contemporary musician Cage end up crisscrossing cultures to create the powerfully moving “Cursive II.”

"Cursive II” is the second part of “Cursive: A Trilogy.” It follows “Cursive” and precedes “Wild Cursive.” It happens to be Lin’s favorite.

“Cursive II” will be staged at the National Theater in Taipei from September 9 to 13. “Wild Cursive” will be presented from September 16 to 20. “Cursive” was performed from September 2 to 6. Lin will hold a dialogue with the public after the staging of “Cursive II” on September 10 and “Wild Cursive” on September 17.

Photo shown above was taken by this writer during a sneak preview of "Cursive II."

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Cai Guo-qiang seeking to bathe museum visitors in fun-filled and meaningful art experience

By Nancy T. Lu

Cai Guo-qiang, a Chinese contemporary artist often associated by the Taiwan public with explosive gunpowder art, is seeking to bathe visitors at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum in a playful art experience.

The celebrated Cai will take over the entire first and second floor of the museum on Zhongshan North Road with his retrospective grand-scale art exhibition titled “Cai Guo-qiang Hanging Out in the Museum” from November 21 this year to February 21 next year.

Cai Guo-qiang’s “Cultural Melting Bath” will literally invite visitors to dress down and soak in a water tub in pairs or groups. The set-up of this interactive installation art has not been decided in detail. A private dressing room of sorts may be necessary for individuals who will want to change into bikinis and swimming trunks first before going in for a dip. The herbal bath will combine ingredients to sum up the wonders of Chinese medicine like the enhancement of the beauty of the skin and the release of all body impurities.

Entertainment celebrities like model and actress Lin Chih-ling and television show host Tsai Kang-yong are helping drum up interest in the art happening. They may even go in for a creative splash with a dash of originality for an international artist of great stature like Cai Guo-qiang.

“Hanging Out in the Museum” will feature a total of 35 attention-grabbing works to include representative, on-site creation as well as documentation of his past pieces. The Guggenheim Museum in New York curated “Cai Guo-qiang: I Want to Believe” not too long ago and most of the works in the retrospective solo show will be seen in Taipei after traveling to the National Arts Museum of China in Beijing and the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum in Spain. In Bilbao, the exhibit successfully attracted droves of not just tourists but also local residents.

The public in Taipei will see “Head On,” highlighting 99 life-sized replicas of wolves bumping against the glass wall. The “sadness and pain” behind is what the art is about, according to Cai. “Inopportune: Stage One,” another work in the collection, will show eight cars and sequenced multi-channel light tubes. “Inopportune: Stage Two” will turn attention to nine life-sized tiger replicas, arrows, and mountain stage prop. The entire exhibit is being made possible with the support of the Eslite Corporation.

Three new works will be created for the much-awaited Taipei exhibition. Cai revealed yesterday: “I will bring in a dancer for collaboration in creating one new piece. I will get the performer to dance out moods and emotions at different hours of the day. Then from the body language of my partner in creativity, I will draw and come up with my art expression on paper, which will measure 32 meters long and 3 meters high.”

Such a project to get him to go back to drawing will be big departure from his work for the Beijing Olympic Games. He, remembered for his fireworks display, was focused then on Chinese aesthetics on a grand scale.

Cai does not like to showcase just his past creative efforts. In fact, he loves to put “art in progress” in the spotlight. The hidden risk though is to have the museum ultimately channel all resources towards new art creation, according to Cai. Such pitfall became the actual experience of the museum in New York.

The presently New York-based Cai admitted to the loneliness of an artist’s calling. And so he dreams. He as an artist goes one step further: he seeks to share his dreams.

Cai said: “I would normally live a humdrum existence, going simply from home to workplace each day. But my mind would not stop working and coming up with fun ideas.”

“Modern art is not easy to create,” said Cai. “And so I try to approach a difficult task lightly and happily. I need to step out and then go back later to see if my resulting art is meaningful.”

The 52-year-old Cai, who was born in Quanzhou, Fujian Province, has impressed writer and exhibition adviser Yang Chao as “a playful boy at heart.” This conclusion came after six months of close association.

Cai will create “Day and Night” in Hall No. 6 at the Huashan Creative Culture Park on October 17 and 18. This will be about “traces of life and feelings amid the flow of time.” Audience participation will be encouraged. The work of art will involve the mass media.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Bravo! to David Michalek for “Slow Dancing”

By Nancy T. Lu

Dancing never looked so amazingly slow but absolutely mesmerizing. The unfolding details as each 10-minute footage on a dancer ran at hyper-slow speed in the square in front of the Chung Shan Hall in Taipei were incredible.

The famous subjects from the international dance world ranged in age from 14 to 90. Just imagine their larger-than-life slow-moving physical shapes and forms. There was even a pregnant dancer. Another performer who went about her demanding and exhausting routine looked physically like she could make a perfect Botero model.

Most of the shining artists, including New York City Ballet’s principal dancer and Michalek’s wife Wendy Whelan, bared the breathtaking beauty of their silhouettes, doing what they were best at for five seconds for the 1,000-frame-per-second, high-definition, high-speed camera of David Michalek during the shooting in New York.

And so arms flailed gracefully and limbs flew as high as imaginable, keeping classical lines intact and near-perfect. A hip-hop dance expert just went on spinning on his head like a swivel chair. A Dervish-dancer was also right there, whirling in an ecstatic trance.

Portrait artist Michalek first presented his “Slow Dancing” on triptych screens 50 feet high and 40 feet wide at the Lincoln Center in New York in the summer of 2007. This meant three of the 43 featured dance artists were in the spotlight at any given time. Michalek’s project went on tour afterwards, finally arriving in Taipei for open-air screening from August 21 to September 3. Michalek's subjects had increased to 50 dancers by the time the rare show got to Taipei. Taiwan's Sheu Fang-yu and Wu Kuo-hsing were among the admirable talents featured.

The fantastic visual treat offered as part of the ongoing 2009 Taipei Arts Festival left spectators in Taipei gaping in awe if not gasping, “Wow!!!”