This week Taipei Dance Circle (光環舞集) presents a new evening program with three new pieces, a little over a year after founder Liou Shaw-lu (劉紹爐) passed away. I got to know Shaw-lu over a decade ago when I was teaching at the Taipei National University of the Arts in Kuandu, not far from Taipei Dance Circle’s base in Bali, on the opposite side of the Tamshui river. These classes were organised by Prof. Chung Mingder, then dean of the Department of Theatre, and attracted also people from outside the university (artists outside the school like Shaw-lu, or nuns from the Huayen monastery). To anyone who knew Shaw-lu it is needless to say I immediately I liked him: he was such a likable, positive soul, constantly curious, constantly creative, or ‘creating’ to say it more actively. When I see him with my mind’s eye, I see him moving: moving his hands, his head, his torso, expressing whatever he wanted to say or responding to whatever he saw with his full body. And of course, he did not just move: he always moved beautifully, elegantly, from somewhere deep inside himself, and at the same time summoning forces much bigger than himself. He absorbed the environment and reflected it back with his body, with his mind and also with his voice. He was very passionate about learning to use the voice in new ways. He felt and saw from the perspective of dance, what I felt and saw from the perspective of music: the possibility of integrating sound and body.
He followed my classes, but of course I learned as much from him. His presence as a dancer helped me feel comfortable to do all kinds of unusual physical exercises in order to experiment with the sound of the voice. I remember we rehearsed and performed a piece when the semester of the ‘official’ theatre class (I think it was called Overtone singing and Meditation) was about to finish. All students presented their own work, and I did a piece with Shaw-lu. It was a delight to improvise with him, even though I felt quite clumsy doing the physical work next to someone so flexible, so much in a constant, physical flow. Shao-lu and I also presented something together at Huayen Monastery, who at that time were interested in the integration of overtones in body-mind practices.
It was a great honour for me to receive the invitation from Taipei Dance Circle’s co-founder Maura Yang earlier this year, to collaborate with the dancers now that co-founder and choreographer Shaw-lu passed away. A challenge, too, since we all started work on integrating movement and sound: the piece we created, involves all four dancers and myself on stage, doing both sound and movement. After throwing ourselves into each other territories (they singing/sounding, me dancing/moving), we found it necessary to take a step back and stay more within our own disciplines. It is a long and difficult, but rewarding process to move out of your comfort-zone: I think we all shifted into this new territory, and we are searching still for the right mode. Tonight is the première, but the last adjustments are still being made.
In Last year’s dance projects I did with Horse (驫舞劇場: Play Dead / 裝死) and then with Yeh Ming Hwa (葉名樺 : Nordic / 寂靜敲門), I was first purely a musician, onstage but separated from the dancers, then a musician/actor sharing the space with the dancers Will that turn out to be the better option? I hope both are possible, though there is no doubt that these three pieces are a world apart.
In order to commemorate Shaw-lu, we are singing a Hakka song. As Yao Kai-Lei (姚凱蕾) one of the dancers of TDC, explained today for Hakka TV, Shaw-lu loved old Hakka mountain songs, which used to be sung not as concert pieces, but in daily life by the tea planters in the old days. Hakka people just sang them while working, sometimes over long distances in the mountains, improvising phrases (and no doubt, also texts). I am not sure Shaw-lu actually heard that when he was young …. But taimu (Prof Chung) encouraged us to sing old songs in this project, and since many of the songs that we tried would not work for the group as a whole, it was natural to chose Lao Shan Ge (old mountain song).
About the other vocal parts, I wrote this for the program booklet:
In Western art music and dance, sound and movements are rigorously controlled by what they present and what is taught, from one generation to the next. Not only that; it is also controlled by what is not presented, by that which is controlled by expelling it. Musicians are basically taught to play their instrument from a still position, and not to make unwanted movements. The accepted movements that we see from a pianist or violinist are highly stylised and may be likened to a kind of choreography. Many musicians and dancers alike were taught not only to control their movements but also to suppress the sounds that might accompany those movements. The presence of unwanted sounds almost amounts to a taboo, both for dancers and for musicians. There may be valid practical and also esthetic reasons for it, but are we not robbing dancers or musicians of some of their most powerful means of expression when we subjugate the performing body to these unwritten rules? What do we find, for example, when we allow the performing body to freely make noise, make sound, make music, and when we allow the musicking body to move or to dance?
These questions are not new, and have been explored from various angles in the past decades, not in the least in many of the late works of Liu Shao Lu, who was deeply committed to integrating sound with movement. Yet unwritten performance rules run deep in the veins of artists, be they musicians or dancers. It is hard for the dancer to work the muscles of the vocal cords and mouth just like she is used to work the muscles of torso, arms and legs. And it is hard for the musician to really see himself moving, and to move freely beyond the need of musical gestures. Trained in one art form, we are partly blinded by the aesthetic language we are most familiar with. How can we re-integrate these two seemingly different languages of dance and music with each other? Can we find some more or less natural meeting points? Is it even possible, perhaps, to really ‘forget’ our own disciplines and create something from a common bodily language, becoming sound and movement at the same time?
Program: “Lending Ear To Dance, Eye To Sound” 聽舞觀聲
姚凱蕾 Yao Kai-Lei
蕭靈鳳 SIEW LIN-FONG
王憲彬 WANG HSIEN-PIN
陳英豪 Chen Ying-Hao
Five performances tonight until Sunday (Sept 10-13) in Experimental Theatre 實驗劇場 / National Theatre 國家戲劇院
After that: tour to HsinChu (October 16), New Taipei City (November 8), Taoyuan City (November 14) Pingtung City (November 21), Hsinchu county (November 28).
Read a Taipei Times about the new program article here.