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Made in Taiwan

By Charlotte Vincent

British Council Magazine , 7 September 2002

I am writing this from my room in Chuwei, Taipei County, as the fury of typhoon Sinlaku, the breadfruit goddess of Micronesia, heads straight for us. For the first time in three weeks I am cool enough to turn the air conditioning off. Torrential rain gushes onto the balcony and people dodge the downpour in what look like big yellow bin liners. I am enjoying a breeze through the apartment for the first time in three weeks. It has been a very still 93 degrees most days. The breeze is due to become a 145 mph wind this evening, so I am sitting tight whilst our fruity lady passes through. Tonight there was also an earthquake here: 5.5 on the Richter scale, but I was cooking noodles at the time, which probably helped me to avoid thoughts of Armageddon, and prevented me from calling all my friends and family to say how much they’ll miss me when I’m gone. We are 7 hours ahead of the UK here, and whilst it is delightful to hear from friends back home, I wish they had a stronger sense of the time difference and would stop calling between 2 and 4am Taiwan time.

I have the British Council to thank for bringing me to the shaking, quaking other side of the world. To be more specific, I have a salsa bar in Birmingham where I met Taipei’s Arts Manager Neil Webb to thank, but that’s another story. I am here to make a new production with Taipei’s Crossover Dance Company, to add to their repertoire for 2002. Crossover is an extraordinary company of mature dancers who wish to continue their performing careers as they enter their 40’s and 50’s. Three of the five company members involved in this project are full time lecturers at the National University of Arts and Crossover maintains close links with Taiwan’s internationally renowned Cloud Gate Dance Company, who tour the world with work that fuses contemporary dance and martial arts. Man Fei Lo, an ex-principal dancer with Cloud Gate is Crossover’s Artistic Director, and also directs Cloud Gate 2, the educational arm of the main company. The second company tours new work, encourages dancers to explore choreography and engages in a workshop and teaching programme across Taiwan. I have been privileged enough to take Tai Chi classes every morning with Cloud Gate in their wonderful hillside studio, and slow, restful and fulfilling though these classes are, I have perspired here like I have never perspired before. The last thing this kind of heat and humidity makes you want to do is dance. But dance we must, and an interest in artistic exchange is what has brought me here.

I arrived in Taipei jetlagged from a 16hour flight and a very demanding schedule in England, armed only with a bunch of new CD’s from Austria, an interest in international collaboration and an open mind. I didn’t really know much about the context, the company or the artistic possibilities here, who I would find, or what approach I would take. So we spent the first week playing, learning some phrases from my own work, exploring tasks and improvising together. Within the first two days two mature dancers left the process due to recurring injuries, and one new dancer joined the project. Once the group of five was established, I began to discover the physical, emotional and performance strengths of each individual, and marvelled at the diversity of skill within the group which ranged from martial arts and ballet through to contemporary dance. The group now consists of Man Fei Lo, Shu Gi Cheng, Xiao Xiong Zhang (three well known and respected older generation dancers), Wei Ming Wang (a current Cloud Gate soloist) and Ming Fei Hsieh, who has recently left Cloud Gate to forge her own career as an independent teacher. I am ashamed to admit it took an entire week to remember my collaborators names, as Chinese is not a language that sits easily on my Western tongue! Three of the dancers speak excellent English, but there are levels of translation that still occur in the studio. The more work I make away from home, the more interested I become in how translation affects the work and shifts the meaning of instructions and ideas. A different language can even change the way musical counts are heard and digested by the body.

Translation becomes a primary pre-occupation, not only of language, but of thoughts into ideas, of ideas into action, and of action into dance. Different life experiences affect the stories you want to tell within the work. Whilst the notion that dance is a shared and universal language holds true, (otherwise we couldn’t collaborate in this way), if a dancer’s father has been a secret member of the political resistance party in Cambodia, or if another dancer has endured tough military service as a young man, then the internal remnants of these physical and emotional experiences become vital to the external performance by that person. The presence of these stories, written deep inside the body, may not be visible, but if shared within the rehearsal process reinforce the idea that dance is not merely about the body but the dynamic data the body’s physicality brings to the stage. And this is where Crossover Dance Company is so interesting. This group of talented, experienced and multi-skilled performers share a multitude of rich, colourful and devastating stories. It is the willingness to share these, which makes the performers a joy to work with. It is the human element – not the technique, or the notion of West meeting East -which allows us to connect. It is the openness of artists wanting to find humour in difficulty and beauty in decay which connects us. Crossing over the geographical, cultural and time-based boundaries to be here has reminded me of why I make work. It has to do with the importance of honesty, sincerity and embracing the highs and lows of living. These dancers share a powerful life force which defines the spirit of the company and goes a long way to defining the spirit of dance itself.

After The Party premiered at the Novel Hall, Taipei, Taiwan on 7th November 2002