‘sakero’ residency: June 27, 2019
By Donald Hutera
Kuo Shin Chuang’s sharing isn’t happening for another day, but the aboriginal Taiwanese choreographer is admittedly worried about it. Unnecessarily, from my perspective, but the act of making public of what needn’t even be billed as a work-in-progress (and which I’d probably label creative research) simply isn’t something to which he’s accustomed. It doesn’t matter if what he and the dancers are doing in the studio is, according to Dance Base head honcho Morag Deyes, meant to be playing. When it comes to his work as an artist, Kuo Shin takes playtime pretty seriously.
But, as it turns out, there’s a pre-sharing sharing on this day anyway, attended by Dance Base’s head of Catalyst (artist development, that is) Bush Harthorn and his academic pal Stever Purcell. Producer Jih-Wen Yeh handles the introduction, explaining what ‘sakero’ means to the Amis people and how a few links have been found with Scottish traditional culture. Among these, from ‘the olden days,’ is a waulking song vocalised, in Gaelic, by women as they rhythmically beat newly woven tweed against a hard surface in order to soften it.
Kuo Shin plays this song to accompany a section of his dance in which the trio of Emily, Jo and Rebecca walk in a measured fashion, side by side, while beating out a steady rhythm using shared sticks and making simple variations of their slow, sidling steps. There is a concentrated, somewhat poker-faced gravitas to these actions that is both curiosity-inducing and off-putting, and so to divert myself I focus on their feet and the weight of each step they take. Eventually the sticks are placed on the floor as a triangle in and out of which they hop. There is then a section where the dynamic shifts they make suggest that these three now have individual intentions: Emily locking eyes with Jo, as if magnetically drawn to her, and Rebecca fixated on the four sticks that Emily carries (and which latter drops, in pairs, by the wayside as she follows Jo’s path).
There is another shift in which their temporarily broken, faulty unity reasserts itself and, wielding together a larger stick, they reveal a collective strength. Yet even here Kuo Shin introduces not a lull but, rather, a dispersal of energy which next leads to the women balancing the pole on their necks and shoulders. This slowed-down, contemplative segment is, when viewed in tandem with livelier and more vigorous sections, is a fine demonstration of the choreographer’s ability to play (and I’m using the word with both admiration and irony) with tempo and mood.
Afterward there’s a lot of discussion, Kuo Shin’s work having instigated curiosity and comment not only from the two guests but all of us in the room. Apparently the ‘sakero’ ceremony typically lasts seven days – during which the men of the community dance non-stop for six days, with the seventh designated for the women to dance until they are eventually joined by the men in what sounds like a kind of indirect paean to a matriarchal society. Informed of this, Bush imagines a 12-hour, durational version of the work that could co-exist alongside a typically shorter. theatrical one. I get it. There have been times, when watching the dancers go over the material thus far created, that I’ve wanted them to keep going. It’s a sign that Ive been pulled into their orbit and want to press on with whatever metaphorical journey their bodies have undertaken.
For his part Steve speaks about his interest in the sticks both as objects in their own right, and as things which have a place and function within the group. Could this relationship between people and objects, he wonders, somehow be defined or even amplified? It’s plain from the ways they’re used that the sticks have a certain symbolic value, and maybe even an authority of their own. Jih-Wen speaks in passing about them as ‘an exorcising staff,’ giving them in my mind at least a whole other spin.
And then there is the relationships formed by the women between themselves. Bush queries their behaviour, which for him suggests a dramatic substance that at present for him seems somewhat nebulous. I know what he means. But I also trust these dancers to invest themselves strongly and honestly enough in all that they do that I sense their characters, and believe their actions, and am therefore intrigued rather than frustrated.
Kuo Shin asks us each to say one word that could be applied to what we have seen. What we come up with is detail (Jih-Wen), connections (Steve), rhythm (Bush), grounded (Angus) and ritual (me). That’s a pretty good list of impressions, I’d say.
After Bush and Steve leave there’s time for some work that is playful indeed. The dancers swing their arms and sway their hips, Emily and Rebecca holding the large stick aloft as Jo prances in place. The musical track Kuo Shin uses to accompany this is sparkling and cyclical folk-pop, and very entrancingly catchy. Both Kuo Shin and Ching Huie, his trusted, ever-present and administrative second-in-command, sing along to it. But it’s also time for a dramaturgical interjection from Angus Balbernie. ‘He wants me to get weird again,’ Angus says of Kuo Shin. The essence of his task is expanded by Jih-Wen thusly: ‘He wants you to see this and then afterwards to break it down. Or to advise him.’
And so, working his magic, Angus turns the dancers into what he jokingly refers to as ‘Taiwan’s top girl band.’ What they do is fun and sexy, even if not all of it works right away. Angus gets them to ditch the stick and progress on a diagonal across the floor initially in anyway they choose (messy and, in truth, physically too self-conscious and discordant) and then in unison, starting low and gradually rising (much better). At one point Jih-Wen leans over to me and observes, sotto voce, that improvisation is a necessary skill for dancers in the UK but not in Taiwan.
At last I’m getting a sense of the celebratory aspect that, as I understand it, underpins ‘sakero.’ And there’s more to follow. The day concludes with a recap of something I missed earlier, having arrived later than intended due to staying up into the wee hours writing the first blog about this residency, and it’s a hoot. The dancers execute their harvesting moves – low, rhythmic, repetitive – but this time to a Taiwanese take on Country and Western music. It’s rough yet light, a hoot and a holler (I think I literally hear a ‘Yee-haw!’ on the track) and with its ceilidh-like vibe it is, as Angus says, by far the most Scottish in spirit of all the movement devised since Kuo Shin and company arrived at Dance Base. What’s more, it’s virtually guaranteed to raise a smile in whoever hears and watches it. Never underestimate the value of the feel-good factor. Because of this, I hope this joyous little dance will feature in the (ideally not too nerve-wracking) sharing with which Kuo Shin’s residency culminates.