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.

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.

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.”

Membership at a Taipei Gym

"You have an American passport, so maybe we can do you a favor.

These are words that American travellers grew accustomed to twenty or thirty years ago.  The sentiment today ranges from self-righteous anger (French Canada) to borderline hostility (Holland, France) to blissful ignorance (Japan).  I heard this sentence today when I applied for membership at a hip little boutique gym in Taipei‘s Ximen district.

In Japan we get used to the idea that every customer is treated the same, whether we like it or not.  Often, this results in surrealistic moments of inflexibility when people behind a desk refuse the slightest favor or concession in rigid accordance with their company’s rules.  What is more infuriating is that anyone who has worked in the Japanese corporate environment understands how poorly thought-out that bible of regulations really is.

Taipei seems different.

At the health club, they were trying to get an idea of who I was, and more importantly, what I was used to paying for training space.  They asked me what I paid for my gym in Japan.  The truth is that I paid 13,000 yen (111 USD, 3,650 NTD) a month.  I was smart enough to say a smaller price, 10,000 yen (85 USD, 2,805 NTD), but not smart enough to use it to a real advantage.  In retrospect, I should have said 6,000 yen.

This is what they proposed to me:

  • One-time membership fee of 7,699 NTD.
  • One-time processing fee of 1,999 NTD.
  • Monthly fee of 2,199 NTD.

Of course, I said this was ridiculous.  My two-month’s training would come at a total price of 14,100 NTD (428 USD, 50,000 yen).  That’s when I heard those magic (and oh-so-alien sounding) words above, and we entered into a lengthy negotiation.  In the end, we settled on a two-month lump sum of 7,100 NTD (216 USD, 25,000 yen) which is uncannily close to what I paid at my Japanese gym  considering that if I return to Taiwan I can continue at the monthly rate of 2,199 NTD (67 USD, 7,800 yen).

When they found out I spoke Japanese, they wanted to conduct the orientation in Japanese to practice.  Interesting.

The Wasting

Well, I’ll be damned.  I seem to be caught in a little weight-loss spiral despite my best efforts.  I had already surpassed my goal of 58 kilos, and was satisfied to stay at 57, but now I am down to the lower 56’s…  I am binging myself now to try and stop this trend, but it has been a week.

On the plus side, my act is easier than ever to perform.

I wonder if it is the weather that is doing this.  I am sweating 24 hours a day and finding it hard to keep myself hydreted.  It is staying in the 90’s with occational thunderstorms (like the one this afternoon) bookended with heavy, unforgiving sunshine and humidity.  Chronic heatrash feels like an infectious tropical disease.  Looks like it, too.  Yuk.

Injury Update

I surprized myself a little today.  Instead of the normal "baby-steps" first day back after an injury, I decided to train as though yesterday didn’t happen.  I had the "right" kind of injury to attempt such an plan (I am a handbalancer and the injury is in my leg) but the injury still throbs, reminding you that you no invincible acrobat, but a human being.  When training a circus number you have to block out these thoughts.

But it worked, and I managed two perfect run-throughs.  If anything, the guilty movement was even more solid than yesterday (it would basically have to be, wouldn’t it?) due to my forced-natural mindset.  It was an exercise in physical zen – as all good circus should be, I guess.

So despite my inablity to swim 500m or take an ofuro without nagging fears of infection, to wear pants without bloodying them, to walk naturally, or to ride a bike, I can still perform my number.

Cool trivia:  I left the gym in shock last night, so it was quite a surprise to get dressed today and find more flayed strips of skin sticking to the inside of last night’s training pants.

Cool trivia #2 or "Living With a Lithuanian": My roommate came home to find me nursing my weeping, bloody wound.  She was very sympathetic and wanted to take good care of me by searching for antibiotic cream or "alchohol, at least."  Alchohol, always alchohol.  After it was clear that she could find no such thing in our apartment she told me stories of her Lithuanian friend who had to get her leg cut off (I think – I stopped listening at a certain point to keep from panicking) after a paper cut or a dog bite.  I think it was a mosquito bite, actually.  "Oh your leg will swell up and turn blue by tomorrow and then it will turn yellow, but it will hurt too much to walk and then it will start to turn black…  Or maybe not, perhaps you will be stronger than her."  Of course I shouldn’t have taken this talk too seriously – she sure didn’t – but nonetheless, I was scared to look at my leg this morning.

Injury

Well, hell, I guess it has to happen.  An injury.  My first since returning back to serious training last month.  There is a little nostalgia wrapped up in tonight’s literal misstep, however.  It was the same injury (opposite leg), obtained by messing up the same move, that I suffered In the Fall (ha ha) of 2003.

It is a Corbett on the equilibre canes.  That is, leaping from handstand to an upright position; your hands and feet change places atop tiny wooden blocks that are attached to the end of 2-foot long iron rods.

Out of a hundred tries this month, I had no mistakes.  Tonight, I was distracted; thinking about helping to replace an act in the show this October, thinking about slowing down the rhythm of this run through, basically talking far too much in my head.  This is an error that occurs when you get tired and complacent; when your number is almost automatic.  This is a dangerous place to be and, since lately I have been performing my act without any errors about one-third of the time, tonight I fell right into that trap.

My left leg missed the block, and I cut into the flesh of my shin deeply.  These are the kind of cuts that look like you have sliced to the bone, but later you realize that it is just a crispy, white, curled-up strip of skin that has been peeled off by the friction between your leg and the wooden block.  It is gross and bloody and painful.  I finished the enchainement and left the gym.

I remeber my seven-step reaction to injury from my circus school days.  Here it is exactly as it sounds in my head (except for #6 – I’ll explain when you get there):

  1. Fuck that hurts.
  2. Actually it’s not that bad.  I can keep going.
  3. Fuck, no, it really hurts/it’s bleeding a lot.
  4. Shit, I won’t be able to train.
  5. Cool, I won’t be able to train.
  6. I’m being a real baby.  (Actual mental wording, "Don’t be weak," deemed melodramatic.  I used to watch "Karate Kid" over and over when I was young.)
  7. (The next day) Back to training. 

Of course, the day after is a little stupid looking: a lot of training the culpable figure over and over again to make sure you still have it.  All the adrenaline and fear from the first attempt after the injury – getting back on the horse that threw you.  Usually I wouldn’t train my whole number, but train individual figures instead.  I probably won’t do a full day back until after my day off on Thursday.

I can’t walk very well right now.

As long as my pride and self-confidence hurt more than the afflicted body part, I had no excuse to skip a day of training.  That’s why having a big, fragile ego is sometimes an asset in training circus techniques.  The irony is that it’s also the biggest handicap to artistic creation.  I try to be able to switch back and forth from ‘training mindset’ to ‘creation mindset.’

If only I forge a ‘relationship mindset’ I might even have a chance at forming healthy human relationships with my family and friends.

I think I am going to have blood on my pants.  Damn.