Inflate the Reality

So at the end of March The Rocker has included me in a pitch he made to a festival in Korea and three weeks ago I got last-minute confirmation that I would be going with him.  Like he says, forget about things and sometimes you get some nice surprises!  It will be a great networking opportunity, and also the chance to meet face-to-face to discuss a lot of the Taiwan festival details.

I’m supposed to write an article on “The Creation Process of Canadian Contemporary Circus” and to present “Three years training process in the National Circus School of Canada and how Canadian circus became a more theatrical, unique style.”  The Rocker will be presenting on “why Canadian circus and physical theatre grew to be such important and successful part of Canadian culture.” He will be introducing his past work in music fusion in China, the visual movement, and physical theatre in New Circus in Quebec using a lot of DVDs.  He says that when working in a different language with an interpreter, he prefers to let the images speak for themselves.
Following this advice, I’ll show how I developed my number, showing many versions of my number as it evolved through the school from its first version to the one we see in the DVD, why I went to circus school, and what exactly is the process of training, the new groups coming out of the school that are moving away from Cirque du Soleil style and creating a even newer form.
We’ll also talk together about how I ended up in Japan, the Rocker ended up in Taiwan, and where we are going with all this.  So far, the video I’m preparing is looking really great!

He told me that we need to present the school and Cirque du Soleil in a positive way, offering only constructive criticism as we are in no position to make enemies (he also told me remind him of what he just said, because sometimes he has a big mouth).  The Rocker quote: “Keep the lies, that’s the way we do things…not even white lies…just inflate the reality.”

Looks like it’s going to be fun! Too bad the focus has changed away from “the picking up of girls; theory and practice.”  I had already finished my first draft.

Since The Rocker is able to stop over in Japan on the way to the Korea festival I have set up a meeting with the Canadian embassy in Tokyo to formally introduce The Rocker, his work, and our plans are in Taiwan.  I will explain that I have been in contact with the National Theater of Tokyo and that they expressed interest in receiving a proposal regarding a potential residency and that we would like to have the embassy’s backing, and also to find out what resources we would have available to us as he represents a Canadian organization that is dedicated to bringing Canadian art abroad.

If everything goes well, I’ll be asking her for her support as we contact my people at the National Theater to set up a meeting for us on our free days. I’m also trying to find some local production companies to meet with but so far no luck.  He knows a small circus company that seems very sincere who are trying to set up a circus school in Tokyo and The Tokyo International Festival is also reviewing our materials to see if they can make time for us to meet with them.

He’ll be staying at a ryokan in Ikebukuro that he found online.  I just want to make sure that he knows that he’ll only have communal restrooms and a communal bath.  At least it will be a new experience (assuming they don’t have ryokans in Taiwan…  they very well might!)  Just to be safe, I’ll send him a primer on ‘ryokan etiquette’ so that he’s aware of the differences between hotels and rokans (there is no bed; the maid will come in to set up a futon during dinner time; which slippers to use where, etc.)

Oh his side, he’s been busy connecting with his contact from the Singapore Arts Festival this week and getting info on a Shanghai project run by one of his Macau friends.  Evidently some things he pulls together are very good, and some just drop out of existence.  He even met with some Japanese buyers – evidently there is a lot of support for Canadian/Japanese collaborations right now – and he’s thinking of travelling to Kyoto to meet one of them when he is in Japan later this month.  Japan is a very small country, really.  Nothing more than a half day away by train.  Kyoto is about two hours or so away by bullet train and costs about 200 dollars one way, so if the guy is interested in what we are going to be working on in Taiwan, then it would definitely be in our interests.

Anatomy of an Asian Circus Proposal

A couple of weeks ago I was out of town with The Political Scientist, enjoying the first day of vacation, so I was out of email contact when The Rocker informed me of a possible event in May for a Taiwanese film festival somewhere in Taiwan.  Last week I whipped up a nice proposal for a one-hour show with 7-9 numbers that can be divided up into two halves with a minimal amount of preparation time.  If there can be video or musical interludes, that number can go down.

I sent out emails to 5 acrobats including The Contortionist.  She told me that she would be able to come, so between my handstands, her contortion and her hoop that would be 15 minutes.  The next day, however, the film festival came back with the information that they want no more than 5 performers and that they all need to be Canadian.  This might be a big problem because it coincides with a lot of Canadian summer projects that are hiring up all the local artists.  The Rocker is arguing with them right now with the logic that we should be able to hire non-Canadians as long as we can call them “graduates from the National Circus School of Canada…”

But actually, I’m starting to suspect that the budget will matter more than passports.  If we do aerial stuff, we will need a Montreal rigger to install a single point for The Contortionist.  That would allow us to invite other single-point artists who do tissus, or rope and a floor act as well which doubles their productivity.  We’ll also probably need 4 days of rehearsal with everyone available a maximum of 10:00 to 22:00; music will be live, simple lighting, huge projection screen in the background.

So I’ve contacted a lot of artists and am giving priority to people who can multitask well to fill up as much time as possible.  If they really want an hour long show with just five performers, that is asking a *hell* of a lot.  I’m assume that one performer can hold the stage for a maximum of 5-6 minutes which makes seven the bare minimum, and even that would have a lot of time with no performers on stage.  Just in case I have contacted a lot of ground performers as well in case we get screwed with the aerial point and rigger.

This week, The Rocker told me that as usual for Asia, the budget is getting to be a problem – Taipei city thought that the embassy would pay more and vice versa, so now the number of acrobats we can invite with a rigger is 3 and all of the artists will need to be Canadian but that they will be OK with a 30 minute show.  Still, this a lot of time to fill with only three artists – and even this number is not confirmed.  When the producer called to discuss technical needs and the Canadian requirement, she kept asking me to reduce the artist fees.  I explained that artists of different experience levels will demand different rates and that they need to understand that with experience comes different levels of performance quality as well.  For example, new graduates from the National Circus School of Canada will expect different rates from experiences freelance professionals who expect different rates from established circus ‘stars’ with a long history working with other companies.  That said, if the Taiwanese partners can support the fees for a couple of graduates of the National Circus School of Canada and the Canadian Trade office can come through with their commitment to support 3 professional Canadian artists, I still think we will have a top-level show limited only by our technical resources and rehearsal time.  I took the opportunity to suggest finding corporate sponsors to invite a few more artists which she said might be possibility.

Then, at the last minute, The Rocker told me that I had to include his fees in the budget as well (I thought that he was taking care of his pay separately), and I’m worried that this will kill the project, but as he told me, “do not be too slack with asking a decent price, there is no way I want people in Canada to think we are setting up shows cheap (sweat shop) circus shows in Asia.”

Finally, just as I was preparing the last budget, the city requested that 1) we reduce the budget and that 2) we only invite artists who come from famous companies like Cirque du Soleil.  Impossible.  But The Rocker says that if they really want this thing, they can scrape up the cash, so I should send the budget anyways.  Based on the email we just got back, The Rocker doesn’t think it’s going to fly, but when I look at the budget we made; I feel that everything is reasonable based on their expectations.  Just have to switch to zen mode.  In The Rocker’s words, “Best thing about these kind of things is to submit everything.  Then forget it exists, if something pops up, all the better…”

Could be a lot of work for nothing, though.

Or is it?  As a result of all this work, I am now in contact with over 25 high quality, reliable artists who are interested in working in Asia.  If I could double that number over the course of the next couple of months, it might be possible to assemble a performance group on short notice for projects here.  A lot of Western artists are dying to get to Asia but have no idea how to get here on their own.  It would be interesting to establish ourselves as a company creating modern acrobatic events in Asia.  Another project in Macau may be on the horizon – if it is the kind of thing we can put up in a week, I am sure we can find interested acrobats from within the group of people I am already communicating with.  On the other hand, if we do start bringing more and more artists over to Taiwan how easy it will be to stay the go-between for the next event?  My thinking is that if we can stay involved in setting the standards for quality and the nature of the work that goes on over here, we can ensure our livelihood for a long run.

The Skeleton of a Project

I have this Taiwan project weighing so heavily on my mind that it’s impossible for me to sit still.  In the middle of my recent Hawaiian vacation, I was actually relieved in a way to see that due to a little bit of an emergency, The Rocker needed me to schedule the whole festival for him in a 24 hour period.  This justified my logging in and getting things done.  I started by drafting an initial proposal for artists in the Taiwan festival to provide all or some of the following services in the course of one festival day:

Stage Show: The artists will have the main stage at their disposal for one hour, which includes set-up, performance, and take-down time.  Actual performance time is meant to last about 45 minutes.  The artists will have the outdoor sound system at their disposal as well as the lighting system if the performance is to take place at night.  Technical needs and technical rehearsal schedule remains to be determined.

Animation: Artists will have use of a portable stage if needed.  Otherwise, animation takes place in the general space of the square.  The animations are meant to attract new audience members to the festival space.  A single block of animation is meant to last one hour with about 45 minutes of actual performing time.

Workshop: Workshops are meant to give the general public a chance to interact with the artists face-to-face.  They are meant to be interactive exchanges and demonstrations of the artists work.  A single workshop block is meant to last 45 minutes.

At most, an artist will be asked to provide one Stage Show, one Workshop, and one Animation in the course of a single day of the festival.  Technical needs and equipment for workshops and animations are the responsibility of the artist with the exception of rigging needs, which must be discussed with festival organizers on a case-by-case basis.

 Master class: Some artists will provide a Master Classes to local students and professionals in the performing arts which will be considered a Workshop for scheduling purposes.  Any change in the artist’s fee between a Workshop and a Master Class is to be determined on a case-by-case basis.  For example, if the Master Class is meant to last longer than 45 minutes the artist should be duly compensated.

New Creation:  Artists performing in the New Creation will receive those fees in addition to any fees for other festival activities.

Special Animation:  Another artist and I are MC’s for the nightly Cabaret, and our fees for this performance will also be independent from any other fees.

Nightly Cabaret: 4-8 numbers per night (some possibly from the new creation) may be featured in a cabaret made up of 5-7 minute long numbers adapted to a circus cabaret format with these fees in addition to any other fees received.

The next step was to start fitting all of the artists into a rough draft of a schedule for the outdoor entertainment.   Without knowing the exact show lengths and final duties of each artist as well as final confirmation on their availability I relied on The Rocker’s DVD of the acts he has booked/is thinking of booking to help me with the scheduling.  I’m also using materials from Cirque Theatrical who wrote back saying that they would love to be a part of the festival and are willing to work through us as the sole booking entity.  The show they want to do is definitely family friendly, and won the silver medal at the big annual circus festival in Paris last year.  These materials will also allow me to cut a trailer for my contacts in Japan.

So the final product was two schedule options for the Taiwan team:

Case 1 (Dream Case): Our budget is huge and we are able to have 10 groups there every day of the festival (groups may come or go, but there are at least 10 on site every day). In addition to the main entertainment under the big top, the cabaret, and the new creation, at least 4 of the 10 groups have shows that can be performed on the main stage outside.  6 of the 10 groups have smaller shows that can be performed on small stages or among the public, and all of the groups have something they can present in a workshop format.  In addition, some of the performers from the tent shows or the new creation or the cabaret are able to present some workshops (2-4 extra workshop slots availble per day).

Case 2 (Realistic Case): We have 5 groups every night of the festival with an extra group for the first friday (opening ceremony night).  2-4 of them have main-stage shows, and all 5 are able to do animation/street shows.  All of them can do workshop-style shows.

In both cases, I have assumed that weekdays are going to be dead until the late afternoon for tech rehearsals, troubleshooting, etc.  We will need a lot of time for that, I am sure!  The schedule is designed to give a sense of flow and build towards each night’s main entertainment under the big top which is always preceded by a cabaret “opening act.”  During the main show, the square will not be dead, however, a shorter, smaller-scale performance will happen outside simultaneously.  After the big top show, I have planned to have a “farewell, goodnight performance” on an outdoor stage with accompanying animation going on so that the public feels like the entertainment continues long after they are gone.  The workshops take place throughout the day on the sidelines inviting members of the public to interact with the artists, have their picture taken with them, to try out the techniques, etc. I’ve assumed that most artists will offer a lower level of commitment than what we have already requested.  If they commit fully, great, we have a surplus of entertainment.  If not, we’ll adjust the schedule for the performance hours that they can commit per day (we asked for three, which is more than reasonable from my perspective as an acrobat myself).

Jillikilli Gimtadienis

My landlord didn’t pay internet or something so for the last week I have been without email at the apartment.  Despite their continuous assurances that it will be fixed soon, There has been no luck.  So I’ve have made my way down to Shinjuku to log in at an all-night internet place.

My birthday celebration was nice and small, with a massage in Ikebukuro from my roommates (well, paid for by my roommates, anyway), a pair of silver cufflinks, and dinner at the top of the tallest building in Tokyo, overlooking the mouth of Sumidagawa, Tsukiji market, the emperor’s park, and the financial district.  The Contortionist sent me a nice silk sweater from Italy, made in China.  Delicious dinner, and way too expensive, but as we told each other, it was a chance for the three refugees to play make believe on my birthday; all dressed up like bankers and models.

CIMG5170.JPGWe had a delicious sherry that had a very, very dry taste, almost like a Spanish port, a Chilean red that tasted like a bullfight, and to wash it all down before the coffee, some grand marnier.  I went with the whole seven course meal, whereas my bird-appetite like friends took the five course variety.  The highlight for me was the braised scallops and the sirloin steak with wasabi sauce.

CIMG5179.JPG

All three of us refugees trying to make it in Tokyo for a few months are feeling the pressure of an approaching end.  When they go back to Lithuania depends largely on when their working contracts end here.  For me, it depends on if any of these projects get a start.

My dad gave me his birthday gift today – he’s covering part of my credit card bill and school loans.  Extremely helpful right now as I’m running out of funds!

Messy Room

My room is a mess… I think I have cleaned it every day of my depressive little funk, but to no avail.  Today, I trapped a cheeky mosquito that had been plaguing me all evening under a glass with beads of wine still clinging to its edges.  It was drinking the wine earlier, and its awkward, sanguine limb movements convinced me that it was getting drunk. 

You need to excuse me for a minute, I want to see what the little bug(ger) is up to now…

There was a moment before capturing him when he landed on my sleeve and really looked at me, person to person, or at least being to being, and it reminded me of how terrible I felt when I smashed an unsuspecting mosquito into oblivion in my hotel room in Taiwan.  I mean, given, it was most likely the mosquito that had eaten me alive the night before, but she was probably asleep (and strictly speaking, all bloodsucking mosquitoes are female) up until the end, when the slipper flattened her into a distorted two-dimensional shadow of her former self, like the shadow of a Hiroshima bombing victim on steps of a government building.

But tonight’s little mosquito is happily sitting drunk on the floor of the little cell that I have created for her.  A floor which consists essentially of a sheet of notebook paper, and walls and ceiling that is made up of a plastic tumbler decorated with green dots of uniform size but varying opacity and… fuck that, they are not even of uniform size.

She is looking at me though the transparent plastic, and I can imagine that the forelimb that is moving slightly is a plea for pity.  But I do not think I will release her.  I am even so cruel as to entertain the idea of releasing her directly into the web of a spider that lives by the stairs outside; to free this bloodsucker only to have my blood sucked out of her by another bloodsucker higher up on the insect food chain.

Fuck this mosquito for what she does and the way she sits so pathetically on the floor of her cell.  She’ll earn no pity from me (well, a little) but I am going to move the glass farther away from my bed so that I do not accidentally free her during the night with an accidental kick of my foot.

Catalysts

In college we had a rule: once Hitler and/or Nazi’s are mentioned, a debate is officially ended.

In Europe, Nazis and Hitler are simply not be discussed openly in mixed company.  Jokes about concentration camps or any such light treatment of the holocaust is met with shock and disgust.  Nonetheless, even among my well-educated American friends, ironic references to both were frequently bandied about just like on the television sitcoms we were raised on.

Americans have the luxury of being jaded.  To be cynical.  To criticize their own government is a fair and easy substitute for understanding other places of the world.  We outsource that search for meaning to charitable organizations with clear goals published in glossy pamphlets.

Catalysts

In seventh grade, we learned about catalysts – molecules that facilitate chemical reactions without being consumed by them.  Enzymes are the organic catalysts that make human beings walk and talk and live.  Actually, catalysts, organic or otherwise, don’t strictly make anything happen.  They have no purpose per se.  They just are – they exist – and in so doing, help human beings do the same.

Wax is not a catalyst.  I suspected that it might be, as objects coated with wax, such as candle wicks, burn so much more readily than naked lengths of string.  Furthermore, combustion of candle wicks (and human beings for that matter) is a chemical reaction.  It made sense to me, but my science teacher told me that wax is not a catalyst for anything.  Its apparent helpfulness in the realm of incineration is nothing more than a physical and chemical coincidence, and is not worthy of the moniker “catalyst.”  This answer was enough for me, and I took it to be the truth at the time.

I only think about the catalysts that wax is not just now because I am writing you now by the light of two Japanese tea candles in my three-room Japanese apartment where I live with my two Lithuanian roommates.  I am not allowed to live here; the apartment is rented as a double.  Whenever the doorbell rings and I am home, I have to jump into the closet and slide the door shut behind me in case it’s the landlord checking in.  My name is not on the lease because if someone is going to get kicked out of the house, it should be me.  Like it or not, the situation is such that I have more economic flexibility at the moment than do my friends.

The small inequalities

We have all just finished a six-month contract at the world Exposition in Aichi, Japan, where people could come to see all that the world has to offer.  And what the world has to offer, it seems, is a good deal of inequality, at levels that I had never before imagined.

It is not necessarily the huge injustices that are the most striking.  It is the small ones that make it difficult for me to sleep.  And the small ones are everywhere.  What is even harder for me to accept is how easily those small problems are ignored by anyone unless you actively try to find them or have them clearly and unambiguously pointed out to you.

The small injustices are not the ones that appear in UNICEF brochures, not discussed at international summits, these are micro problems that reflect the mindset that creates these iniquities.  I don’t know the causality, I can’t say which is a catalyst for the other, but I do know that for no reason except for accident of birthplace, some people will walk away from things like World Expos with a hell of a lot more money than they deserve, and that some walk away with a whole lot less.

See, while all of us were paid well by the standards of our home countries, but whereas per diem allowances were a nice bonus for the staff of some pavilions, it made up the majority of the compensation for the staff of others.  For example, the monthly salary for some pavilions was roughly equivalent to three days of per diem.

Nonetheless, we decided to chance it and to live out the remaining two and a half months of our still-unexpired Japanese work visas in Tokyo.  Why not Nagoya, or Kobe, one of the smaller, cheaper Japanese cities?  I think my roommate put it best when she said “if we are going to live in Japan, risking everything we have and more, I think we deserve to risk it all in Tokyo.”

The Tokyo refugee dating scene

We call ourselves “the refugees.”  And like many refugees, their college education, natural charm, and fluency in Lithuanian, Russian, English, and Japanese, make them far more qualified for employment than most American and European expats wandering aimlessly around Tokyo.  It’s not that their gamble isn’t paying off; one has an offer to work at the Lithuanian embassy and her schedule as an English teacher is filling up rapidly.  She has even found a few Japanese students who want to learn Lithuanian.  The other has found work as a server at a high-end restaurant off Aoyama-Dori, the “Champs Elysees” of Tokyo, and just tonight returned from her first (of many, I hope) gig as a runway model.

But there is a darker side to the experience as well.  In skimming the classified ads, both are aware of the opportunities presented by the pervasive and less-than-thinly veiled Japanese fetishism and obsession with the Westerner – want ads for Western hostesses to entertain Japanese men non-sexually in posh-looking nightclubs.

The myth of course, being that most Japanese men feel powerless to attract the attentions of a Western woman without paying for the service.  But a myth propagated by both sides for so long has a way of becoming the truth.

My roommates tell me that many Japanese men still become so dumbstruck by the sight of a Western woman that they will stop on the street and stare, or peep furtively over newspapers on the train.  I’ve seen it too: Western women reducing perfectly intelligent and articulate, grown, Japanese men reduced to gawking speechlessness and the charm of a fourteen-year-old boy.  It’s no wonder that many Western women leave the country with the impression of Japanese men are sex-blinded little boys.

That said, my experience with the Japanese women my age in the dating pool has not been great either, and I see the behavior that contributes to so many Western men’s perception of the average Japanese woman as a silly, giggly, little girl ready to leap into bed at the first racy compliments tripping off of a Western tongue.

I asked my Japanese women friends if and why they really do prefer Western men.  Evidently, Western men are much kinder, will open a door for you, or will say that you look beautiful – things that Japanese men evidently never do.

Now I don’t know if that’s true, as I have neither courted nor been courted by any man, Japanese or Western, but I can say that I have observed ungentlemanly behavior on both sides.

I will simply mention my own pet theory that the majority of Western men in Japan know that this preconception exists, and do their best to fulfill it to their benefit.

The plight of the half-breed

I may be wrong; I may be too cynical.  At any rate, I don’t seem to fully benefit from this preconception of Western men because of my impure racial status.  As half Japanese, I am not quite western enough to be exotic, nor am I quite Japanese enough to be fully accepted as one.  I do, however, seem to appear Japanese enough for white women to assume that upon meeting them for the first time, I will stop and drool over their Western-ness, a fact which became very clear to me while working in the international environment of Expo 2005.

In fact, most Japanese see me as fully white, whereas in North America and Europe, most white people consider me (even after being corrected) to be Chinese, which is evidently ‘close enough’ for them.  To complete the triangle of racial confusion, I recently discovered that in China, or at least a Republic of China, most people assume that I am Japanese.

The politics of travel for the modern circus acrobat

Last week, I returned from an eight-day contract in Taiwan.  What exactly I was expected to do there is still not clear to me, though what I did do there is now done — I worked with the Taiwanese National Junior College of Performing Arts and the Taiwan Arts International Association as an instructor, collaborative creator, and performer.  What I will remember of the experience is so much more complicated than that.

I am a circus performer.  I would like to believe that there is more to what I am, or rather, I wish that being a circus performer was something that I could believe to be important.  Something that I would not have to justify and qualify to myself with additional clauses like: “but I am really a writer,” or “with college degrees in completely unrelated fields,” or “but I hope to study political science next.”

One of the unique aspects of the classical circus tradition that carried through from medieval times is that a travelling performer is seen as a true “other.”  We are definitely no native to the towns and cities where we play, but we are not seen as simply tourists, either because we spend more time in the various locations and interact more directly with the locals.  It is my goal to be able to fit into the local environment completely – to pick up on enough of the local language, history, customs, and politics – to really feel at home no matter where I am in the world.

So far, it has taken me from the internationally isolated expanses of the United States to schizophrenic and judgmental, if equally uniformed, Canada, to the injured multiculturalism and thumping nightclubs of Holland, to the seedy side of the Ramblas in Barcelona and its denizens as contrasted with the pace of life in the smaller coastal towns of Catalunya.  The marble-paved central square of Torino resonating with the droning and birdcalls of a misplaced digeridoo, the lakeshore, affluent college town of Zurich, the provincial countryside in France as contrasted with the very different remoteness of an tiny town clinging to an impossibly steep mountainside high in the French alps.  Munich, Nyon, Tokyo, Nagoya, New Zealand, and now, most recently, Taipei, Taiwan, ROC.

Everybody has an enemy.  Everybody has his own prejudices.  Everyone finds a way to love himself, even if they hate doing it.

I am on the bus, riding in leather-upholstered comfort from the airport to downtown Taipei.  This is the first time since leaving the United States four years ago that I have not been capable in the native language of a country that I am working in.  For me, capable means being able to get a hotel room, order dinner and a drink, meet a new person, and make a woman laugh without ever having to speak a word of English.

I hate to do it, but it is inevitable.  In a new country, I can not help but make comparisons to other places.  It helps me keep everything in order in my mind.  I worry that by drawing comparisons to places I know will keep me from seeing the new place as distinct and unique, but in fact, I think it has the opposite effect.  By comparing one city to another, I bring into focus all of the things which make them different, like overlaying two photos that differ only in the smallest details and holding them up to the light.

Forgive my romanticism, but there is a soul to a city.  It is in its smell, perhaps – no city smells like any other.  I have to be careful always to separate the feel of the wind in a city, Boston, for example, from the memories that I might associate with that city.  The 11pm sunset and 4am dawn of summer in Holland is not the feeling of a woman’s hair gliding through my fingers and a light kiss on her cheek to the wafting perfume of blue roses, though the two are forever intertwined.  One is for everybody, the other is for me.  And her, I hope, always for her.

I used a new trick in Taiwan.  A city fits a person like a new outfit; well, or poorly.  Standing on a corner next to a vacant lot under a highway overpass with the buzz of Vespa-like scooters Dopplering around me as the lights in a distant apartment complex blinked out one at a time, I imagined myself to be in Minneapolis.  Or Boston.  Or Tokyo.  All cities that surely became my home in one of the alternate realities of my life, and one that actually became my home in the current alternate reality – at least for another month.  Separate from the memories that I associate with each city, I was surprised to find that Taipei could feel like home as easily as any other city I could think of.  And so I decided that I would explore it as though I lived there.  Meeting people, making friends, wasting time.

There is a state of openness that I find I can only achieve when I travel.  It makes me handsomer and more interesting, I think.  It makes me risk more.  My best friend tells me cynically that “people always love you when you are leaving.”  I guess it is only fair, because I always love them when I get there.

I found that all of the people I met in Taiwan were amazingly open compared to what I had come to know in Japan.  The political complications and views were just below the surface, and could be exposed with the slightest provocation, expressed with an onslaught of passion that in addition to being a little unnerving, was fully refreshing.

The key issue of course, was that of Taiwan’s independence from mainland China.  Among the people I spoke to about the issue, there was no identifiable consensus, nor was I able to find a clear demographic divide in their views.  No one seemed to subscribe to a majority “party line,” though everyone could list off a buffet of party lines that they were not willing to subscribe to.  According to them, such simplifications do not adequately address the complexities.  This was unlike what I was used to in Canada, for example, where the consensus among my artist peers was that the United States is bad, though people rarely researched any deeper than that.  In the United States, I find that there are those who accept the party lines, and those who calmly step outside of the arena entirely.

For example, there are the American travelers whom I encounter who respond to any criticism of their homeland simply by saying that they “didn’t vote for George Bush,” as if that absolves them from responsibility.  Or even worse, those Americans who sew Canadian flags on their backpacks to hide from scrutiny instead of informing themselves enough to engage with criticism of American foreign policy and intelligently discuss current politics of the foreign country than the average local.

In preparing to visit Taiwan, I read as much as I could about the history and current politics of the island.  I felt like I had a pretty good overview of the issue, but after only eight days there, I understood how each person’s unique family history and world view will forge, over lifetimes and generations, a spectrum of possible opinions on the matter.  The articles and books I read could not do justice to the intricacies of any single individual’s story.  Even the people who didn’t give a shit had detailed, well thought-out arguments to support that viewpoint!

The Taiwanese certainly seemed unified by their disagreements.

Teaching new circus in Taiwan

I was in Taiwan to teach Western-style physical theater and modern clown to the state-supported National Chinese Opera and National Circus Troupe as well as performers from an established Chinese Opera company.  I was also supposed to help create and perform in a “modernized” acrobatic/circus/clown show.  I wouldn’t have felt qualified to volunteered for such a job, even before discovering that it was infinitely more difficult than I first supposed.

In Taiwan, budgets are rarely high enough to invite a Cirque du Soleil-style show and this is the company that defines modern circus for most of the world.  Very few western dance companies, theater companies, and musicians, let alone large circuses, regularly make Taiwan a must-visit top on tours, even tours that take them through Asia.  Those artists that do perform in Taiwan rarely stay to participate in any sort of exchange with local artists.

For arts in general, but particularly for the specialized fields of clowning and physical acting, this means that a Taiwanese artist in Taiwan interested in an area of art that develops off-island, they have little choice but to research on the internet.

I met a Taiwanese Flamenco dancer at a dinner party who explained that five years before, it was impossible to learn Flamenco in Taiwan.  Only five years ago some foreign Flamenco teachers first came to visit, and had been received with much enthusiasm.  As a result, their students voraciously consumed what the teachers had to offer, but at the same time, as the Taiwanese were unhindered by the years of history and tradition that the instructors were, some interesting and novel hybridization took place.

Modern dance has a longer and more home-grown history in Taiwan.  Some internationally known dance companies developed, but as the time came to replace founding members with new local talent, it was evident that the pool of trained dancers was not as deep as in North America or Europe.  Taiwan lacks a long tradition of Western classical dance, and therefore, fewer young dancers.  What Taiwan does have, however, is a long tradition of the traditional Chinese Opera, with its athletic blend of martial arts, acrobatics, and object manipulation.  New dancers were often recruited from those Chinese Opera, performers who, for one reason or another, had retired from the Opera, which brought a vocabulary to the Taiwanese modern dance repertoire that is not seen anywhere else in the world.

But without real person-to-person exchange, research alone cannot put flesh on the skeleton of pure research.  It is even worse when you consider that the internet is more a reflection of popular opinion than actual fact.  For proof, simply enter “clowns” into a google search to see what my Taiwanese students were expecting me to teach them.

This is a valid style of clowning with a long history in the United States.  But such clowning is far from the European tradition and the experience of traditional audiences in Asia or anywhere else in the world.  But without a pre-existing circus clown tradition in Taiwan, there was little resistance to the importation this out-of-context image of a “Western clown.”  But it is superficial importation taken out of context has resulted in a funny sort of game of cultural “telephone.”

So my lesson plan that focused largely on using honesty and vulnerability to express your true self on stage with subtle simplicity and to fight impulses to “perform” was pretty alien to my Taiwanese students’ preconception of clowning.  My first clue should have been when I was given as possible themes of my workshops “the facial expressions of clowns,” and “acrobatic falls of clowns.”  Their notion of clowning has been formed from an outside-in perspective and follows the wushu, Chinese Opera, and circus training pedagogy of repetition and imitation.  Chinese opera roles are learned by physical rote repetition, and circus numbers are taken move-for-move from numbers that were performed 10, 20, or even hundreds of years ago.

But in some ways, these artists, my students, were also fed up with aspects of this tradition.  They saw that what is happening in international modern circus is lacking in what they practice in Taiwan, but they couldn’t identify just exactly what it was.  But one thing seemed to click.  They were obsessed with one principle I mentioned in the first class: “feeling.”  I talked about only doing what we really feel on stage, not doing anything artificially, and this seemed to be a novel idea that resonated with them.  They asked me countless questions about feeling: What do I feel when I am doing my circus number?  How can performers learn how to feel more when they’re on stage?  When I am onstage, are my feelings my feelings or are they acted feelings, etc.?  Unfortunately, these are the same questions that I ask myself, and therefore I had no clear answers for them.

Teaching the class in a country and to students with vastly different performing arts traditions opened my eyes.  Exercises that I considered my “throw away” exercises, ones that are done to death in every acting class I had ever taken or taught, suddenly took on entirely different meaning.  Old explanations of certain exercises were no longer adequate, and I saw students discovering whole new truths and applications that I had never even considered before.

The culmination of the whole experience was an on-stage appearance with four other Western clowns and half of my students in a performance that showed just a little bit of what can come of young artists searching for new meaning in a country’s traditional arts.

By the way, it turns out that what is actually burning in a candle is the wax itself, and that the wick acts more like a catalyst than the rest of the candle.  The way the wick is manufactured and woven influences many aspects of a candle’s performance such as longevity and amount of smoke produced.  All this and much more information for people who care about such things can be found on the internet here.

I pray that we are all people who care about such things.

All In The Name Of International Understanding

The other day, one of my Jewish friends was telling me how she thinks people would be much happier these days if Hitler had won.  She says that a Nazi world is a simple world.  I asked her if she thought the world was simple in Dachau, where her grandmother died.  She told me I make things too complicated.  She said that I would have made a lousy Nazi.

I think she was being a little harsh.

Often, just walking down the street I find myself hating people for no good reason.  I think that I am right most of the time, and that people who disagree with me are wrong.  I believe these things because I feel as though I think more deeply about the world than everyone else.

It took me just under three years to get to the point where I am able to say the things that I need to without fear of repercussions….

It takes less than a half a century to forget the scars of a million innocent deaths.  It takes less than a man being willing and able to make a change in the world that keeps him down.

Down, down, down, so softly speaking to no one in particular.  It is a free world that is holding me from telling you all the things that you wish that I could say, but at the same time, I am locked in a vault of lost ideas, of unspoken beliefs, of forgotten vendettas…

I am on an island in the China sea right now and I am walking freely, feeling no compassion for the bands of emaciated and wild dogs that roam the streets looking for handouts or perhaps just each other’s company.

It is a free world, and that is what we often forget.  That others are not doomed to share our own beliefs.

This freedom can make the world an ideological prison for the small-souled.  What is it that can either feeds a soul or cuts it off to atrophy, to wither and die?  To fall off in a gangrenous heap and dissolve into its surroundings?

If we were all large-souled, if we were all free enough, then would there be space for emptiness?  The emptiness upon which we can project our freedom?  The emptiness that serves as a stage for the human spirit in a world slowly filling up with millions of people?

We need to change the way that we think about numbers of people about population.  We need to think in terms of volume, not numbers, to see the world around us as a whole unpunctuated with that unpleasant otherness that keeps ‘them’ away from ‘us.’ 

The shit begins so early in life – just as we start to put up the walls that tell us what is knowable and what is easy versus what is unknowable and difficult.

Why are we so able and willing to accept things that will make it more difficult for us to achieve more in the future?  We, the little human flowers, are pollenated by these same vices that we are told to avoid.

We need to kill our own assumptions and certainties about how the world works in recognition that everyone’s interpretation of the facts is pre-tailored to their own vision of the world – not the other way around.  And as it is, we are all right.  It is all valid.  Even the insane.   It is an insurmountable task to unify a world with such diametrically opposed views.  But breaking apart our own views, assumptions, and certainties – is that a cure for diametric opposition itself?

For example.

She is an educated American.  College graduate.  She can program a computer and she works in a lab.  She feels as though she has seen the world because she has been to Europe.  While she was there she spent two weeks in Paris, which is where Americans who want to go to Europe go to say that they have been to Europe.  She spent some time at the Louvre with the friends that he was travelling with and they took pictures of each other playing in the sculpture gardens.  They partied with other travelers in their youth hostel located just beneath the cathedral of the sacred heart.  They saw the Eiffel tower and celebrated bastille day.

They danced in clubs that are frequented by North American tourists and Parisians who want to pick up North American tourists.  They speak no French.  When people meet them on the street and ask if they might be American, they say, “No, Canadian.”  Easier than a political discussion around imagined political views.  Were Europeans to challenge their political views, they would simply say that it was not their fault as they had not vote for President Bush.

They see evidence of a political climate that is different from that back home in the homeless and the varied racial makeup of the denizens of this old European capital.  They make jokes at night about the frogs, snails, and funny accents.  They miss the food back home, and see the local cuisine as a necessary price to pay for their exciting experiences.  They meet a group of local guys (charming with cute accents) and they kiss on the dance floor of the club.  Their furtive attempts to explore the sweaty terrain covered by Abercrombie and Fitch halter-tops are giggly swiped away, but after closing time, in a back alley, a full expedition is encouraged by rhythmic swaying of American hips in the humid Parisian summer night.

They all have boyfriends back home who can’t understand why they would waste their short summer break from graduate school to frolic around in a country that has no relevance to or common history with America.  They explain themselves and the trip, saying simply that it is all in the interest of international understanding.  How can the world change, they wonder, if there are no brave souls willing to make that first tentative leap across the Atlantic to extend a hand of friendship to our European brothers who are so misled as to the true nature of the American soul.

These ambassadors of good will, who, through sloppy, drunken blowjobs, have drained their Parisian suitors dry, are now stumbling home with their arms around each others’ shoulders, singing the American anthem at the top of their lungs.  They’ll go back home to America tomorrow, but they have made some fantastic friends here in Paris, and the memories, the memories will last a lifetime.

All in the name of international understanding.

Back at school, their graduate programs are bursting with foreign students.  And now, they will be joined by these newly-minted, open minded, worldly Americans.