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Big works in small spaces

A look at Taiwanese choreographer Lin Wen-chung

by David Mead

Published June 2010 -- Taipei, Taiwan

When it comes to contemporary dance, Taipei buzzes with life. Outside Taiwan in particular, to most people Taiwanese dance means one choreographer and one company - Lin Hwai-min and his renowned Cloud Gate Dance Theatre. But they are far from alone. Taipei today is home to an increasing number of contemporary dance choreographers and emerging companies. Some, such as Chou Shu-yi, winner of the 2009 Global Dance Contest organised by Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London, and Huang Yi, who has already had huge critical success with Cloud Gate 2 and independent works, have developed almost exclusively at home. But local dancers are also starting to return to Taiwan following performing success abroad, and are attempting to give something back to Taiwanese dance and establish their own choreographic voice.

One such is Lin Wen-chung, who left Taiwan after graduating from Taipei National University of the Arts, one of Asia’s leading vocational dance schools, to continue his studies in the USA. Having received an MFA in Choreography from the University of Utah, he performed to critical acclaim with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company in New York for several years. Although he had choreographed for other companies, and presented work at international festivals, he decided it was time to return home. The plan was to be simply a freelance choreographer, but the more he thought about it, the more he wanted to be involved in all aspects of production, especially design, have more say and follow his own artistic path. And so, in 2008, WCDance was born.

Lin has fast built a reputation for challenging works. He is more than capable of filling a stage and working with Western classical music, as demonstrated in his “Evil Boy”, an intensely musical piece made for Dance Forum Taipei danced to Tchaikovsky’s rich yet musically difficult Violin Concerto. But in his two works to date for his own fledgling company he has largely confined his dancers to a very small space indeed.

As if Taipei’s Crown Theatre was not small enough already, for his rather appropriately titled “Small”, a 65-minute work made for his company’s debut in December 2008, Lin placed almost all the action in a 3-metre square space defined by sheets of Plexiglas to the front and sides, and a white back wall. Small entrances at the rear allowed dancers to come and go. The scene was completed by a white floor and angled mirror overhead which, along with the box, had the effect of reflecting and refracting the light in a myriad of ways.

With the front row of the audience almost within touching distance of Lin’s mini-theatre, and the attention focused into such a small space, every move, however small, seemed to be magnified a hundred times. The work is not overtly Eastern or Taiwanese, yet in many ways it does reflect the crowded nature of modern city life, especially that in today’s Taipei, and the way everyone has to fight for personal space. But it is impossible to escape animal connections. For some it might be fish, for others ants, but I could not help being reminded of peering into a terrarium in a reptile house, especially in the evocative opening section that is full of close-to-the-ground, lizard-like movement.

Lin and the other four dancers, Lin Xiao-yuan, Wu Xin-ya, Chiu Yu-wen and Lee Guo-chi were superb as they presented a variety of situations. Each got a chance to shine as, in no particular order, they slept, loved, played games, fought and explored what little space they had, including the walls. Many of the fast sections featured lots of slamming against the glass or wall in a vain attempt to escape. In one excellent fast duet the two dancers seemed to be hunter and hunted, the former eventually cornering and playing with his prey. As impressive as the fast sections are in the confined space though, the best moments almost all came in the quieter, more contemplative solos and duets that were full of feeling. One moment that particularly lingers in the memory is the sight of one of the girls sitting quietly, considering her own reflection in the glass. Less is so often more, and that was occasionally the case here. Dancers constantly entered and exited the space as if in some fruitless search for a moment’s peace. That certainly kept the audience guessing what was going to happen next. It also disturbed some beautiful moments, but that, I guess, is just how life is, for lizards or people.

Lin’s second piece for his fledgling company, “Small Songs”, similarly keeps the dancers within a restricted area, this time a 4-metre square platform raised 20cm above the surrounding floor. This time there was no doubt as to the subject matter, as to a mix of 13 songs or musical excerpts, many by the singularly evocative voice of American-Mexican singer Lhasa de Sela with lyrics in French, Spanish and English, but also including a nanguan piece, Handel, Mozart, and Western opera, Lin presents a series of dance vignettes about love.

Again, the opening section grabbed the attention immediately. Like the music, Lin’s dance vocabulary crosses borders and traditions, as Western contemporary dance is infused with Eastern elements. The extra metre of space and the lack of any sort of vertical boundary allow Lin to make much more effective patterns in the group sections, something he is clearly very good at. His dancers were outstanding, always showing excellent clarity of line and intent. It is often a heady and effective combination, but as is always the case with such works, some sections deliver better than others. Lin paints many beautiful pictures and there are more than a few moments that stick in the memory, but equally there were times when the dance seemed strangely devoid of emotion, or at least variation in emotion. The eclectic mix of musical styles, while certainly providing variation, also jarred a little occasionally.

Unsurprisingly, the best section is an intensely personal one. A duet subtitled “A song of Wen-chung and Ru-ping”, Lin created it as a tribute to his wife Wang Ru-ping, a former dancer with the Limon Company. Performed by Chiu Yu-wen and Chang Chih-chieh to “Song to the Moon” from Dvorák’s opera “Rusalka", it was intensely moving and brim full of emotion. The connection between the two dancers was there for all to see. And yet the choreography is some of the simplest in the whole piece.

Despite the occasional misgiving, Lin proves big works can exist in small spaces. I, for one, wait with interest to see what variations on small he comes up with next. If “Small” and “Small Songs” are anything to go by it will be worth waiting for.

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