Straight Poop

I came to Taipei to assistant direct and perform my number in a new circus production called FLASH.  Just for fun, I would also be writing a three-person comic street show with a friend of mine from circus school and a famous, established Taiwanese Chinese opera performer.  We wrote the show for an audience of about 200, but usually we played for 3, 5, or 10 times as many people.  It threw us off a bit, but it was a hell of a rush.

I arrived here to find that there was a lot more work to be done, and I was more than happy to take on as much of it as possible.  After all, I had already invested my life savings and a year of work in this project.  There were organizational and communication problems and a lot of different factors to juggle, but in the end we came through and the project was a success beyond my most optimistic aspirations.  My god, was there stress and pressure, but when you force yourself through 19 hour days you find that adrenaline can boost your productivity and passions.

Shit is chaotic right now.  My head is spinning and I am in a deep depression and a lot of people are talking all at once.  It’s hard to keep everything straight.  My policy is not to talk even vaguely about future projects until I have a paycheck or a plane ticket in my hand.  I never talk about past projects until I see how they all turn out.  But this one is officially in the can.

A lot of questions are up in the air right now and I just need to wait to see how they all settle.

Torres Sangre de Toro.  An old standby.  A favorite. 

I miss so many people right now. 

This is a life.

Artistic Insulation: Premature Nostalgia

To follow up on that last post – Jacky plays the chorus vocals’ of “Smooth Criminal” in haunting perfect-pitch on his shakuhachi: “Annie are you ok, are you ok, are you ok, Annie?”  It makes bugs crawl in my veins.

Christian and Catherine came to our rehearsal last Wednesday.  It was a stressful time.  We are under a strict deadline for the National Theater who is sending representatives to see our show in rehearsal this Wednesday – a show that did not exist as of last Tuesday.

They are two artists that I am coming to love dearly.  I try to spend at least a little time with them every night no matter how tired I am.  Christian saves some risotto or steamed pork rolls for me, and Catherine makes a little extra pasta.  Wine and beer magically appear next to my hand whenever we sit together under the eves of their apartment studios.

They brought their eyes with them: for Catherine it was a 35mm camera and for Christian it was a mini 3-CCD HD video camera.

I thought nothing of it, but they sat quite patiently through three hours of rehearsal.  They watched it almost exclusively though their viewfinders, but I thought nothing of it.  I admire visual artists and visual art because I don’t understand the process – I know if I like the final piece or not, but I have no idea why.  Seeing a show for me is a totally different experience.

I imagine that once a woman has given birth, she never looks at a newborn the same way.

When I met up with them at home, we talked about rehearsal and multimedia performances and acrobatics and martial arts and dance and choreography and art and family and the avant-garde and movements – dada, beat, cubist, punk, cirque nouveau…

I had two beers and went to bed and thought nothing of it.

Three days later, on Saturday, I had another beer and wine and ginseng liqueur with Catherine and Christian and a few other artists from the building.  In between topics, Christian nonchalantly mentions to me that he has edited the footage of my rehearsal into a short film and would I like to see it.

“Yes,” I say, “no, but yes.”

We go into his studio and he starts the film.

“This has been my project non-stop for the last three days,” he tells me.

What follows is overwhelming.  Legs.  Movement.  Subsonic lounge soundtrack.  Time is dilated, contracted.  I see peoples eyes, their mouths, the sweat running down their back, turning their hair into curled spiked of blackness.  There is a weary dedication to the cause of putting our work in order.  I am there too – stressed, mind whirling, ideas flying.  I try to communicate in Chinese – they strain to understand me.  We hit the floor; we run in unison; we catch each other.  We wait.  We are concentrated.  We support each other.

It is perhaps 10 minutes that captures the atmosphere of rehearsal.  What stays with me forever, though, is how it captured the spirit of comrades seven.  Premature nostalgia: the taste of future loss.

Thank you truly, Mr. Rizzo.

My New Friends: Sweet, Black Pig, and Jacky

Last night had all the makings of a great night out in Asia – a good mix of foreigners and locals, a cheery, dingy bar, and the vague promise of crashing a penthouse party later at the Hyatt.  I daresay that if we had been in Tokyo we would have managed enough audacity to pull it off but somehow, in Taipei, we didn’t quite manage enough momentum to make it past the small platoon of hospitality staff.  Everything fizzled.  We satisfied ourselves with lukewarm 7-11 beers in the lobby and then called it a night.

Quick question: if terrorists had flown planes into the World Trade Center on 11 July, what would we call america’s favorite 24-hour convenience-store franchise today?

There was some confusion today about music rehearsal.  I had heard that the Taiwanese musicians performing in our show were rehearsing tonight so I figured that I would stop by to introduce myself and hear some of their music.  They greeted me with a lot of enthusiasm and then sat down, wide-eyed and attentive.  They asked me what instrument I played in a mix of Chinese, English, and Japanese.

“Guitar,” I replied in Chinese.

“What do you want us to do?”

“Well, just hold your rehearsal like normal; I want to hear the music you normally play.”

They exchanged some confused glances and discuss matters in difficult Chinese that I did’t understand.  What followed is a cursory exhibition of Taiwanese taiko drumming and three-piece arrangements for shakuhachi, guzheng, and yangquin and more expectant wide-eyed, attentive sitting.  I filled the blossoming awkward silence with applause, but it’s difficult to muster a lengthy ovation when you are the only audience member in the room.

Finally they ask me, “So why did you ask us for this rehearsal?”

Evidently, they thought that I was going to be running their rehearsal.  I was shocked to find out that they had cancelled their normal troupe rehearsal for the night just so that they could work on the music of the new production.  A miscommunication had occurred, and after a flurry of useless phone calls and discomfort, I went to my room to fetch my ipod and started playing them the music from the show.

Boom.

It is a phenomenon that I am starting to recognize as an attribute of Taiwanese artists.  It is a sort of silent genius that builds up some steam and eventually swallows you whole.

I was talking with Christian about it last night – I proposed that since the performing arts are held in such low regard here, Taiwanese performers never build up that patina of showiness and affectation that plagues Western artists (myself included).  I was reminded of the night that I helped audition a seventeen-year-old hip-hop dancer for a role in our show.  I asked her to dance hip-hop in slow motion like she was playing angry in order to hide how sad she was.  “Impossible,” she replied.  “Try,” I said.  She shrugged.  I pressed play.  She danced.  It was beautiful and honest and it made want to die.  She stopped abruptly: “Like that?” she asks.  I shrug dismissively and twist my mouth into a half-frown.  “You need to work at changing up dynamics and working at multiple levels,” I say.  Inside, though, she made me cry.  Now she is the leading personnage.

I have worked years to try and get back to a sort of honesty on stage that these Taiwanese geniuses have never lost.  The tragedy is that most of them have accepted that there is no future for them in their art – that they have to leave it behind with other trappings of their abandoned youth.

Today, classical Chinese instruments played with complete mastery and abandon that gave me goosebumps.  We rehearsed each song for about 15 minutes.  They would listen to it for about 30 seconds and then jump in altogether, alternating between reproducing the original note-for-note and off-the-cuff riffing.  Any commentary I gave them after a first run-though (we need to follow the dynamic range of the piece a little more so that we don’t blow everything we have before the climax; hit the accents more; let’s be a little sparser in the chorus; can you try to switch into a higher resister when the distorted guitars enter?) were flawlessly integrated into the second.  “OK,” they tell me: “Next song, please.”

We’re not asking for easy things.  Improvisation is not the rule in Chinese classical musical training.  To complicate matters, we are asking them to cover Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, and Michael Jackson; to simulate a tribal beat with monochromatic taiko drums; to write a hard-rock guzheng solo; to reproduce an industrial sonic landscape with traditional acoustic instruments.

They are reluctant – worried that their Chinese instruments will ruin the rock feel.  Perhaps they are a shy, too.  Ultimately they abandon their concerns and improvise freely.  The result is covers that, in my opinion, are vastly superior to the originals.

We are done with rehearsal, but before they go they want to play me some more of their music.  I am treated to two short taiko duos that put a Taiwanese spin on the steps towards the Japanese theatrical taiko style.  I would call it sexy and aggressive and animal.  It is even more effective that it is played by a man and a woman in a sort of alternating synchronicity.  When the duo finished, she extinguished the internal fire that was blazing inside her, puts on her glasses, and transforms back into an unassuming and timid philosophy student.

I can never look at her the same way again.

The duo is a perfect transition to the final scene that we worked on last week – I propose it to the director tomorrow.

Rehearsal finished.  I now know that when Taiwanese artists are excited about a project they will mill around nonchalantly after the first rehearsal to chat.  Today, they invited me to go training with them at the gym where we are, coincidentally, all members.  I learn that Jacky, who is the leader of the taiko group, requires all his musicians to stay in shape with daily strength training.  After two and a half years of dealing with the complacent attitudes of Japanese twenty-somethings I find this sort of passion and initiative refreshing.

Black Pig (the philosophy student) confides in me that she is happy to work this way.  “This freedom.  It is a great way to work.  I’m very happy to play music this way.  I hope to be able to perform in all ways, not just as a musician.”

And people ask me why I believe that Taipei is the future of artistic innovation in Asia.

“This is your chance,” I tell her.  “Pig’s music is one thing, but in this show we want to see everything everything that makes Pig Pig.”

One more bite of beef fried rice and we head off to the gym together.

Night Out With Danny

Last Saturday, Daniel Yeung invited me out to see a Taiwanese circus.  It was a nice night out, but it marked my first real conversation with a Chinese mainlander about Taiwan and Japan.  Given, Danny is very cosmopolitan, having finished his dancing training in Amsterdam and subsequently touring all over the world as a dancer, choreographer, and actor, but it was nice to hear a different point of view from that "jaded expatriate gaijin in Japan" perspective.

So here’s the rub: according to Danny, he views the Japanese people as a people who dream more than the Chinese, who are more interested in manufacturing a quick buck.  I felt like this was the opposite from my point of view, coming most recently from Europe and Canada, but I stopped to think about it from the Chinese perspective.  That let to a lot more questions that I had been stepping over in my first week and a half in Taiwan: Why does Taipei’s youth demographic look to Japan’s fashion and trends instead of drawing on their own cultural past?  Relatedly, why is it that despite their best efforts, Taiwanese youth are unable (thankfully) to shed their Taiwanese identity?  Why is it that Taipei has such an aura of grass-roots arts?  Why can Taiwanese women dance sexy while Japanese women are only able to dance like a woman who is dancing sexy?

It is strange, this relationship between Taiwan and Japan.  I am thinking about it a lot.  Ask someone in Taiwan what they think about Japanese culture, and you will get a pretty interesting answer.  Ask someone in Japan what they think about Taiwanese culture, and you will get a pretty vapid answer.

Lest anyone accuse me of being anti-Japanese here, I want to examine the same question from a different angle?  Why is it that people all over the world have an opinion about American culture, but your average man-on-the-street in America can offer little more than an Epcot-Center, It’s-a-Small-World caricatured culture summary of country X?

My main question: which fosters greater ignorance, the culture which is blind and deaf to its world neighbors or those cultures which form opinions based on a maelstrom of media tidbits and propaganda?

Anyways, it got me thinking.

Danny and I talked a lot about art and performance and the transition and evolution from performer to creator and he kept talking about how he started dancing at such an advanced age and that now he is really feeling older.  There were other strange facts that I picked up on; he seemed to be at a really high-level stage in his career for someone about my age, perhapd a little younger.  Fine, I figured; he was a child prodigy who has come into his own, but then, at the Taiwanese Yakiniku place in Ximen, he told me that he was actually 39.

I’ll be damned.  39.  I have never been so off on an age estimate.  It was shocking, but at the same time, it tells me that we can really make it in this industry.  I don’t know many scientists or engineers (although there are a few) who are as energetic and enthusiastic about their work as Danny is.

Here’s a last point:  of the six artists I have met at the artist’s village, only one is a woman.  She is also the only one who is in a stable relationship.  Us male artists, we all seem to be a little pessimistic about the prospects of that ‘irresponsible’ artistic life merging harmoniously with a healthy relationship.  I draw no conclusions and I offer only the facts.

Circus Review: Say-Cue Studio

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.

Kung Fu vs. Circus in a Fight to the Death

Even considering that I am a circus artist I think I am in pretty good shape for a nearly 29.  If you ever want to be humbled, try working with 19-23 year old recent graduates of a Chinese kung fu conservatory.

Fuck.

The quickness and the power and, perhaps most strikingly, that state of perpetual readiness.  I am always amazed at the fact that they never use their warm-up time.  Circus artists always need about 15 minutes just to start rehearsing, but these martial artists are able to perform their full routines on cue anytime, anywhere.  As long as the ceiling is high enough, that is – I’ve never seen vertical jumps of this magnitude.

We see marital artists in movies, but when you witness the quickness firsthand, it is mind numbing.  Really, you feel like you are on drugs.  People just aren’t normally able to move that fast.

Cross-disciplinary work is always humbling.  Work exclusively with artists in your field and you can grow complacent and soft.  But as a circus artist, I am also stunned when I see work like this:

Acrobats have to risk death to get an audience to experience the simplest of emotions.  In these clips, a dancers’ subtlest motions stir up some pretty complex feelings.

Circus artists are like sledgehammers, these contemporary ballet dancers are like lockpicks.  Both can open a door in a spectacular way, but the grass is always greener.

The martial artists are struggling in our creative process, but they are working through it and making a hell of a lot more progress in just one week of rehearsals than I made in my first few months at the National Circus School of Canada.  Perhaps it is a symptom of their willingness and their desire to take their physical prowess into a new environment; one in which they can express themselves with their instruments.  Like a brilliant classical pianist falling in love with jazz.

Fuck, sometimes I think I have a great job.  But even at 28, I do feel old when I work directly with the “next generation.”

Montreal and Taipei: Sister Cities in the Arts

Montreal is a city that reeks of art.  Signs of a throbbing, swollen artistic community are manifest: performace spaces, artists’ lofts, happenings, experimental dance parties, school presentations, impromptu cabarets, and a healthy buffet of summer festivals.

Taipei is a kindred spirit living on the other side of the world, but in that Billy Eliott sort of way – the arts scene in Taipei has enourmous potential and enthusiasm, but it is wasting away in an usupportive environment and totally ignorant of what it is missing.

I meet so many college graduates who have gone against tradition and their parents wishes in order to study classical arts – the interesting thing is that they tell me that supporting modern Taiwanese art is their strategy towards introducing classical Chinese culture to the world.  The theory is that a culture that produces interesting work today has an interesting historical context.

There are some major exceptions.  I don’t see Canadian New Circus as being rooted in traditional Canadian culture, but then again, my collegue would tell me that a country as young as Canada or the USA can’t really claim to have a ‘traditional culture.’  Perhaps it is their hodgepodgymishmash of cultures that serves as a functional substitute.

Anyways, the young Taiwanese view of the arts as a way of entering into the conciousness of the rest of the world is a refreshing one.  Compared to Japan’s curmudgeonygrumpiness with respect to the arts, I feel like I am breathing fresh air in Taipei’s polluted, soupy summer.

It will change.  I feel like we are on a cusp of something great.  I hope it will all work out in the end.