‘He’s here to learn.’
This is one of the first things I hear about the Taiwanese aboriginal choreographer Kuo Shin Chuang’s relatively short but intense creative residency at Dance Base. The residency – his first one ever, internationally – began just last week and finishes this Friday, June 28 with a 4pm sharing that is open to the public. Yes, it’s been brief. But it’s a safe bet that this experience will have exerted a lasting impact on Kuo Shin and the handful of people who’ve been involved in it with him.
Kuo Shin is the artistic director of Pangcah Dance Theatre, which has been described as the first contemporary dance troupe from eastern Taiwan. Although its foundation is the traditional music and dance of indigenous people, these cultural roots and values are fused with elements and influences from contemporary dance and theatre.
The company first came to Dance Base as part of the 2017 Taiwan Season during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Kuo Shin’s production ‘038’ was named after the area code for Haulien on Taiwan’s east coast, home of the indigenous Pangcah people. A stirring and impressively crafted, all-female ensemble work, ‘038’ used the formally embodied power of dance to ask the questions, 'Where is home, and what is home?'
Fast-forward to 2019 and the two weeks that Edinburgh – and, specifically, Dance Base’s Studio 4 – becomes Kuo Shin’s home away from home, and a place where his ideas about what dance can be and do will have been challenged and expanded.
The gist of Kuo Shin’s residency has been to try and find a common ground between the cultural traditions of the Pangcah people and Scottish dance and culture. The vehicle to do this is ‘sakero,’ which is also a word to describe how Pangcah tribes move during the harvest festival celebrations that have been part of their culture for thousands of years. Ideally the body language that Kuo Shin recognises as an integral part of his heritage will be infused with a new, contemporary Scottish energy.
I arrive only three days before the residency is due to end, thus missing the choreographer Rob Heaslip’s contribution to this cross-cultural exchange. I am, however, present when Angus Balbernie is in action as a dramaturg working with Kuo Shin as well as Rebecca and Emily (the English names of two of his dancers) and the Scottish dancer Joanne Pirrie (whom I know from her work on the late Janis Claxton’s gloriously good POP-UP Duets).
Angus is a pithy man of experience and more than a tincture of self-deprecation. ‘Don’t forget,’ he interjects at one point, ‘I’m 800 years old.’ Despite his professed age he’s quite impressive in full flow, thinking on his feet as he intuitively guides the three dancers through an extended structured improvisation that entails tasks that in effect become potential building blocks. He roams about Studio 4 like an abstract painter daubing at his canvas – only in this case the canvas is the space itself, its floor and air, and the material he’s using the bodies and minds of Jo, Rebecca and Emily.
I like watching these vibrant young women individually and as a unit. It’s a duality that Kuo Shin can’t help but explore by having the trio use wooden sticks (to either pound out basic rhythms or, in the case of one particularly long wooden pole, to wield as an imposing prop) and patterned steps alike to reveal who they are both within themselves and in relation to each other. As they dance – sometimes linking hands like a three-person of the cygnets’ dance from ‘Swan Lake’ – they look sober but alert, now and again a tad tense and even, very occasionally, almost rapturous. Their more shifting, dynamic moves tend to have a weighted, down to earth energy that can lead to a sweeping force. Who’s got the power? To varying degrees they all do. And what they’re doing with that power is anything but perfunctory. It puts me in mind of why I want the dance performances I see to matter to those who are doing it – because then it follows here’s a greater chance that it’ll matter to me, too.
Kuo Shin doesn’t speak much English, nor do Emily and, to a lesser extent, Rebecca. Similarly, Angus and Jo (and I) don’t speak Mandarin. Therefore a sizable part of the day is spent not only having conversations, but translating them – a service largely provided by the UK-based producer Jih-Wen Yeh. When I ask Kuo Shin to explain, simply, what are the themes of ‘sakero’ it is Jih-Wen who converts his words into English. The answer, by the way, is that these Pangcah harvest celebrations are about ceremony, fitness and, ultimately, an acknowledgment of the maternal earth and the sun.
On this note it seems right to quote Angus. ‘Dance steps don’t make much difference unless they have a foundation,’ he at one point opines, later adding that ‘the depth of Kuo Shin’s research into his own culture seems to be deeply woven into his work.’
Kuo Shin himself seems a man of few words but, lack of English apart, that may also be because during this residency he must operate within a British rather than an Asian system (which, artistically speaking, could handily be reduced to a case of process versus product). The dancers, however, are another story. When I ask each of them to say something about what it’s been like thus far to be inside this work, their answers are warm, revealing and even touching.
Rebecca, who’s revelling in her encounters with working methods different from what she’d deem the norm, says that this is the first time she’s thought of herself as a professional dancer. Emily, meanwhile, recognises that she and her colleagues each have their own interpretations of what’s happening between them but ‘everyone is in the same boat, and there is a sense of each other there.’ For her part Jo has gradually let go of any anxieties she might have about not being Taiwanese, or wanting to fit in while absorbing new steps and rhythms. More and more she’s simply immersed herself in the work at hand, getting caught up in ‘something so ancient’ but from the perspective of a modern woman making connections with her own Scottish background and traditions. She speaks tellingly, too, about a section of this work-in-progress version of ‘sakero’ in which she and Emily pretty much lock eyes as they go about their business: ‘I’m driving her back to her own culture, but also pulling her forward.’ Maybe that is pretty much what any cross-cultural exchange like this one ought to accomplish.
Post-script: a few more notes and quotes
Jo saying that she’s ‘discovering what Angus’ instructions mean in my body,’ shortly followed by Rebecca’s query, ‘Do you have to have had dance training to improvise?’ To which Angus replies, ‘No!’ and mentions just about any four year-old being among the best improvisers around. Which makes me want to add: in improvisations – and sharings – there really ought to be no ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ And then Angus pops up with this statement: ‘The more bad things that happen [in an improvisation], the clearer the composition starts to become.’ The one he leads the dancers on is wild, unfettered but not without form – just, perhaps, a tad less formal than the work Kuo Shin is producing. But there is plenty of compelling and kinetically engaging drama in the results of the latter’s way of working as well.
At bottom this residency is about opening up – a room, a brain, or way of being and creating. Morag Deyes, head of Dance Base, drops by to see us at lunchtime and says something significant about the need for those steeped in a particular culture to somehow break it in order to find new ways of conceiving and making art. That is, I suspect, just what Kuo Shin is at least to some extent doing. As he admits, he’s never been part of a choreographic workshop, or had the opportunity to acquire so many totally new skills and tools so fast.
I’ll leave the last words to Angus, speaking in praise of Kuo Shin: ‘To ask questions of your own culture, and then to be willing to show that to other cultures, is really challenging, brave and difficult.’
Donald Hutera is a free-lance dance and arts writer, speaker, dramaturg, mentor, curator, awards panellist and performer currently in the process of helping to devise Rhiannon Faith’s upcoming dance-theatre production DROWNTOWN. He has also served as press contact for Taiwan Season at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe since 2016