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.

Jungle Bowl

Taipei feels like a modern city carved out of a jungle.  Vines, weeds, and trees grow out of the sides of brick buildings like a first step towards complete reclamation.  Taiwanese geckos scream at you from third-story windowpanes like miniature banshees.  In my room this evening another goddamned giant spider leaped out of my closet and stared at me until I trapped it in a purple trash can and escorted it outside.  Palm trees and ferns take over tin-roofed shacks and vacant lots while abandoned tobacco plantations adorn the city center like fenced-in tropical rain forests.  We are surrounded by green mountains and humid, sinuous, mist hangs over damp streets.

The weather has cooled drastically the last couple of days; it feels like autumn in the tropics.  Strange to feel like I need a long-sleeved shirt when the temperature dips below 80 degrees Fahrenheit.

Taipei Fashion: 2006

Alright.  I love:

  • Taipei eyewear (Elongated rectangular frames made with thick black plastic frames).
  • Taipei women’s hairdos (Unlike the Japanese style which is like a weird bouffant-mullet (think puffy jellyfish and you are pretty close), the Taiwanese in-do is layered in its thinning which gives a very sleek, shaped form which emphasizes slim backs and subtle curves.  Also, I am glad that the "bleaching hair a dull babyshit-brown" fad has not yet made its way over here yet.  Ling-Chen, my fearless cultural guide and co-worker assures me that the Taiwanese are doing their best to remedy that situation, however.  I pray for failure.)
  • Taipei scooters (Really, I had my first scooter ride last night and it was like seeing a whole new city.  The scooter culture is like this free-flowing roadbound travelling band that hears snippets of each other’s conversations at every red light.  My only discomfort came from feeling like my testicles were encroaching on Wei An’s sovereign ass-space every deceleration or two.  Also, not knowing where to put my hands.  Jesus, I wanted a ride home, not a refresher course in seventh-grade school-dance awkwardness.)
  • Taipei 101 (okay, maybe it is an architectural monstrosity like all my artists friends claim, but I still like that the world’s tallest building is in the middle of nowhere on the outskirts of town.   It looks tall and new and bold.  Maybe in five years I will think it looks dated, but for now, it’s ok.)
  • Taipei English tax (Eat a bowl of noodles at a shop with a chinese menu – 30 NTD (less than $1 US).  That same bowl of noodles at a shop where your typical tourist knows what he’s ordering – 150 NTD (about $5 US))

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.

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.

Home Sweet Home: Creating a Circus Show – Step 1

Day three in Taipei.  Day one was the panic day, trying to get everything set up for the performance I have to do on Tuesday for the sponsors of our festival.  Once that was out of the way everyone was able to relax a little bit.

Yesterday was my first day at the office; it felt good to get my hands dirty in production again.  A quick production meeting, a little jaunt out to see some potential rehearsal spaces, some playing around with high-tech ways of coordinating schedules, a meeting of the creative team, and that was my day!

I picked my handstand canes up from the head office of the Taipei Artist Village this morning and started my first training session in Taiwan.  It does feel nice.  Travelling around the world without a physical home base gets a little disorienting.  Sticking to a constant training routine is like the living room sofa in my life – I go there to feel at home, at ease, comfortable and safe.

The setup I have here is serendipitous brilliance.  I wake up early, around 7AM, and run for half an hour around downtown Taipei.  When I get back, I take a quick shower, stretch, and begin my handstand warmup.  After warmup, I do my technique, followed by three complete runthroughs of my number.  All of this can happen in my cathedral of a private studio/apartment.  After traning, it is a 10 minute run to the gym where I do my strength training and finish up on another flexibility series before jogging back home to write, shower, and get dressed for work.

In the time it took my to do my strength training in the gym today, the sky went from cloudy summer haze to pitch black thunderstorm ala Minnesota in August.  I felt a pleasant nostalgia for my hometown while running to my new apartment on the other side of the world.

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.