On September 2, 2006 in the historic Japanese-era Red Building located in the heart of the trendy Ximen district of Taipei, I saw the last performance of the first-ever Taiwanese contemporary circus performance. Say-Cue Studio more than compensated for lackluster circus technique with a funny, sexual, trendy and hip show that was uniquely Taiwanese and that spoke volumes to its enthusiastic audience.
Entering the second-floor theater before the performance you enter into a circus atmosphere, Taiwan-style. The space is octagonal, and was set up for a proscenium performance with a raised island a few meters in front of the stage that allowed the performers to perform in-the-round for selected numbers. There were two video screens on each side of the stage and a center screen providing a backdrop for the stage. The use of video ranged from anticlimactical (a long animation of a Rubik’s cube solving itself) to touching (an integration of the character of an elderly Taiwanese woman into news broadcasts from the brief Israeli/Lebanese war from last month) to spectacular in its own right (A kung-fu opera performed by handpuppets exemplifying a distilation of choreographic principles and kung-fu aesthetic to their purest form – breathtaking).
One screen showed a 3X3 grid of enunciuating mouths speaking in Mandarin. Each video was tinted a slightly different color and the videographic choreography was sufficient if not particularly inspired. On the other screen, Chinese and English text set the tone for the show, asking audience members to be enthusiastic and to close their eyes and think serene thoughts about Buddha’s ressurection if they started to feel offended or disturbed at the "speciallty parts (sic)" of the performance.
Those speciallty parts almost spelled disaster when the show opened with a kitschy drag queen, an infantile drag king, a bewigged senior woman, and a day-glo worm-woman painted with a human skeleton. Cirque du Soleil, it was not.
But 10 minutes into the show, I realized that this was the show’s strongest point. It was ridiculous, it was iconoclastic, and it was original and fun – two qualities that have been missing from a lot of recent circus shows, Cirque du Soleil included!
Technically speaking, there was a dynamic contortion number, a nostalgic cavalcade of various juggles and manipulations set to time-lapse video of Taipei, a deconstruction of kung-fu demonstrations, and several comic skits involving plenty of cross-dressing. The strongest of these skits was one involving the entrance of govenment censors who seach the audience and finally demand the ID cards of the performers; forcing them to break character and expose a lot of flesh. In the end, the officers are stripped, revealing sheer body-stockings and S&M paraphenalia which leads into a well-done krumping/hip-hop trio piece led by our drag-queen ringmaster himself.
After the performance was a touching video montage dedicated to the parents and grandparents of the director (who were in attendance this night) who had supported, if not fully understood, this young, talented man’s decision to pursue his dreams. Despite his odd schedule, rehearsing at all hours of the night, and the questionable taste (even more so by traditional Taiwanese standards) of some of the show’s content, his family invited all of their friends and relations from Taiwan and Southern China who flew in via Hong-Kong to see his performance.
It all sounds chaotic and over the top. In truth, it was not the most professional show I have ever seen, but the strongest moments were more than enough to make me fall in love with this bizzare, and uniquely Taiwanese addition to the Modern Circus Canon. If only the circus and kung-fu technique could match the whimsy and guts of the mise-en-scene and artistic direction.
Judging by the response of his enthusiastic public and the artistic director’s idea to take the show to Europe (yes, please!), this young company has opened the door to a long future. Let’s hope so.