‘sakero’ residency: June 28, 2019
by Donald Hutera
The big day. A 4pm sharing of research, with colleagues, friends and strangers gathering to witness what the Taiwanese aboriginal choreographer, Kuo-Shin Chuang, has been getting up to during ten days of working on ‘sakero’ in Studio 4 at Dance Base.
It’s not yet noon, but the dancers Emily, Rebecca and Jo are all in costume when I arrive: black t-shirts with graphics on the front advertising Kuo-Shin’s ensemble dance ‘038’ (which his company will be performing for three weeks at the Avignon Festival in July) and Capri trousers. Their literal uniformity is a neat reminder of the formality that Kuo-Shin favours. It’s understandable. As Angus Balbernie, dramaturg for this phase of the project puts it, ‘He wants to be proud of what he shows.’
The sharing, as it turns out, will be both formal and yet also quite relaxed. And Kuo-Shin will, I think, have reason to be proud.
But I get ahead of myself. There are still a few hours to go before, to use theatrical parlance, ‘the house is open.’ In my fly-on-the-wall capacity as residency blogger I banter with Angus about his age (800 on the previous day, but now 803 as he professes to add three years to the total daily), and share in everyone’s amusement at Jo’s impersonation of a Taiwanese pop star. Kuo-Shin, meanwhile, keeps busy by documenting the room, using the camera in his phone to take a picture of the clock on the wall, and another of a long stick that will feature in the dance as it lies in wait in a partial sunbeam on the studio’s smooth sprung floor. Angus also grabs 35 minutes or so of ‘weirdness,’ as he calls it, asking the dancers to work out how to embody a Celtic knot (an image of which he’s shown to them via his laptop). I’m not in the studio when this latter activity occurs. Nor, apparently, was Kuo-Shin. Angus’ wee creative exercise could be deemed a bit of a time-filling concession to the notion of playful discovery that this residency has been meant to foster. He speaks of it with an appreciation of its lack of a measurable outcome, even calling it rubbish while recognising its value. This may be a possibly self-indulgent Western viewpoint, but we share an awareness of the need for artists to be given permission to produce rubbish in order to eventually have a chance of making anything good.
In any case, the sharing itself is not at all rubbish. I’d go so far as to call it a triumph, but then I am by now somewhat biased. About 30 people turn up. UK-based producer Jih-Wen Yeh assumes introduction duties, informing those assembled that ‘sakero’ is both ‘the nearest description of dance in Amis culture’ and the name given to a seven-day ceremonial harvest celebration. The actual dancing we then watch has an admirable rigour. I enjoy the footwork and the rhythms it releases. Sitting on the floor to the side of the playing area, I also feel the vibration of the dancers’ steps. Their focus is powerful and their characters distinctive. Big-eyed Jo comes across as the most visibly open to the moment; Rebecca at first seems deceptively blank, until you realise how much is bubbling away beneath her neutral, even nebulous-seeming exterior; and Emily is steely and sure, with a basilisk stare. The relationships Kuo-Shin sets up between them lends the work a subtle psychological dimension.
During the sharing I’m reminded of Jo’s remark about how useful yesterday’s pre-sharing was because, during it, she learnt just how well Emily and Rebecca can rise to the occasion even in front of an audience two. Now, even more than yesterday, it’s plain how fully invested all three dancers are in whatever they do. As the sharing unfolds they reveal new depths of concentration, strength and a questioning stoicism. This is, I suspect, at least in part a result of Kuo-Shin’s methods. He’s had them repeat their moves so often enough that they take it to an almost subcutaneous level, where it’s more a case of doing than thinking. They are, in a word, terrific.
I can also sing the praises of Kuo-Shin. His spatial awareness is pretty acute. During the sharing I notice things I’d not spotted in prior run-throughs of the material: how Rebecca twice connects, while on her back and with her feet, to the big stick she and the others wield, or how the dancers swaying side to side in a triangular placement parallels the smaller triangle into which a quartet of smaller sticks had earlier been set down upon the floor. Small stuff, maybe, but subliminally satisfying in terms of dance composition. Kuo-Shin hasn’t had any extensive choreographic training. Originally a physical education teacher, and now the artistic director of Pangcah Dance Theatre, he is also currently pursuing a Ph.D. centred upon aboriginal choreography in contemporary terms. Clearly the man knows things about his chosen art form.
Towards the end of the sharing the dancers pitch themselves into a fast, dynamic section in which that big stick rises and falls in waves over their heads. Afterwards they’re flushed, sweaty and dishevelled, which leads to a slowed-down finale – with the stick travelling over their necks and shoulders – that feels just right. That symbolic stick is there to be brandished, or served. The ambiguity of it works.
As a coda there is a dance set to a Taiwanese country-and-western song, to which some members of the audience clap along and whoop. The dancers are joyous, beaming and maybe relieved. Over-all the atmosphere in Studio 4 carries a lovely, we-did-it charge. During the brief post-show chat Kuo-Shin says how unlimited the possibilities for ‘sakero’ to progress now seem. ‘There is always a plan in a producer’s head,’ Jih-Wen adds, mentioning her desire to continue working towards furthering its creation in Taiwan in 2020. In a more immediate vein, the spectators are asked for words to describe the experience they’ve just had. Unity, mystery, generosity, labour, surprise, communication, weaving, tension, stopping/starting, earthiness, journey, fierceness and listening are what they offer. Given all that, I think it’s safe to say that Kuo-Shin is on the right track.
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