I saw a dog with a broken hip limping three-legged around Taipei today.
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))
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.
I can’t help but feel like I am living with geniuses in their field. Christian Rizzo? Catherine Ludwig? Daniel Yeung? Derrick Grant? I would search for them on the internet, but I’d rather just keep things as they are – drinking beers with cool people on the roof on those rare hours off from work. They might be groundbreaking masters in their media of choice but I enjoy arguing with them on equal footing. Who’s to say that I wouldn’t be too humbled by their reputations to argue over some obscure facet of aesthetics?
Good conversation and fun times: the Taipei Artists Village.
On my first morning at work, a Taiwanese lizard tail-whipped my leg. He was skinny with a big head and colored Taipei-pavement beige. I took it as a good sign.
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.
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.
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.”