The New Aesthetics of Dance & Technology in Taiwan

This year’s Japan Society’s Dance Showcase (January 11 & 12) features a diverse and compelling line-up including Taipei-based choreographer Chieh-hua Hsieh and his company Anarchy Dance Theatre. Offering some context for the work, Culture and Performance scholar I-Wen Chang submitted this essay on the new aesthetics of dance and technology in Taiwan.

Hsieh-Chieh-hua of Anarchy Dance Theatre in “Seventh-Sense” (Photo by Shou Cheng-Lin, courtesy of the artist)

Dance and Technology: a New Aesthetical Trend in Taiwan
by I-Wen Chang

In 2009, Su Wen-Chi (蘇文琪)’s piece Loop Me became an overnight sensation in the field of Taiwanese dance. At the small experimental “Guling Street Avant-garde Theatre(牯嶺街小劇場),” Su’s solo performance juxtaposed her movement on stage against its projection on three white screens forming the back wall. “Loop” is a command in computer programming used to create a repetitive pattern. In this piece, Sue Wen-Chi asks, “how can the body exist in this reproductive process and the loop system? How does the body define presence in a digital environment?”

Su Wen-Chi numbers among a rising group of young Taiwanese choreographers who gained international prominence for works that experiment with dance and technology. Others include French artist Christian Rizzo who collaborated with Taiwanese artist Chiang Iuan-Hau(江元浩), as well as Zhan Jia-hua. Zhan(詹嘉華)’s work SOMA Mapping II, from the “Lin Pey Chwen+Digital Art Lab.”, just won top prize in the Enghien-les-Bains International Digital Arts Festival near Paris in 2012. All these indicate the blossoming collaboration between art and technology by practitioners in Taiwan.

Dance, as a cross cultural art form, enters the global scene to bring elements of cultural difference and exchange. In Taiwan, for the past 20 years, it has produced many excellent dancers who perform with world renowned dance companies, such as Sheu Fang-yi(許芳宜) with the Martha Graham Dance Company. Taiwanese dance companies are the frequent guests of international dance festivals, including Avignon Festival in France, Lyon International Dance Biennale, and so forth. The Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan(雲門舞集) and Legend Lin Dance Theatre(無垢舞蹈劇場) are invited to international dance festival circuits as representative of the name of Taiwan, and are globally recognized as some of the most influential dance companies in the world. However, in the past ten years, dance in Taiwan is shifting away from a form associated with traditional Chinese cultural and a notion of its symbolic authenticity, towards a more fluid and hybrid experimental form that attempts to address Taiwan’s complex and ambiguous cultural identity.

If we contextualize the phenomenon within recent changes in Taiwan’s government policies, we see that the hi-tech industries’ encouragement of culture and the arts through investment has been especially significant, and helps us understand the surprising vibrancy of these dance experiments in Taiwan. Today, Taiwan’s main sources of revenue comes from global-level technology industries; computer brands such as Acer and Asus, cell phone maker HTC, and Quanta which manufactures and/or assembles Apple related products. Interestingly, both the founders of Acer and Quanta are well-known patrons of the arts. In the past ten years, Taiwanese government began encouraging entrepreneurs to diversify into what is known as the “cultural and creative industries”(文化創意產業). Grants and several government-related institutions, such as the Taipei Art Village, Taipei Arts Council’s Digital Arts Center, and the Taiwan Digital Art and Information Center, were established to encourage artists to create works that involve technology. Among the younger artists who collaborate between dance and technology, Su Wen-Chi of YiLab, Huang Yi(黃翊), and Hsieh Chieh-hua(謝杰樺) of Anarchy Dance Theatre, are some of the upcoming stars.

Su Wen-Chi, an Active Artist between Taiwan and Belgium.  

Su Wen-Chi of YiLab, LOOP ME (2009), photo by Chen Yo-Wei. Courtesy of the artist

Su Wen-Chi of YiLab, LOOP ME (2009), photo by Chen Yo-Wei. Courtesy of the artist

In the beginning of the piece Loop Me, the projection of Su Wen-Chi’s movement seems to imitate her choreography, later her images are replicated into three different white screens. While Su is moving from right to left, and left to right, the projection images are synchronous to her movement. It looks like there are three Su Wen-Chi on the stage— one is real, the rest are virtual. The only way to tell the difference is that the “real” Su Wen-Chi breathes while moving. In the middle of the performance, Su leaves the stage, while the three moving images of Su are still dancing on the white screen. In the moment when audiences are pondering who is the real one dancing, Su’s distinctive breathing sounds occur. Those sounds gradually become sharp and strong to the ears, like what you would hear in the Sci-fi movie. In this piece, the choreographer questions ways that repetition, reality, disorder, disappearance, and communication work together.

Loop Me has toured in Paris at ARCADI, Leuven, and Potsdamer Tanztage, and Geneva Switzerland. Su’s solo performance and her projected images on the screen interweave the whole work. This inquiry into the essential relationship between dance and image brings about the question mentioned in German-Jewish literary critic Walter Benjamin’s famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” In this essay he proposes the means of production determine the nature of the cultural production, or, the substructure determines the superstructure in the theater performance context. In Benjamin’s argument, there is no authenticity— as what he called “aura”— in the age of mechanical reproducibility. In this sense, while the modern means of production have destroyed the authority of art, would new media remove the “aura” or the authenticity of the body?

Trained professionally in dance classes for exceptional students since junior high school, and working in a professional dance company since 1998, Su Wen-Chi turned to new media art because “I want to learn a different logic to create art.” Su just finished her master degree in New Media Art from the Taipei National University of the Arts in 2012. She said “I love to be a dancer, and I like to create art work by myself. I have some inquiry about how the world works so that I choreograph.” Su has been working on integrating new technology with performing arts, and seeking to present new performing formats. Since 2002, she has been one of the core members of the Belgium’s Arco Renz / Kobalt Works contemporary dance company. In 2005, she founded YiLab. in Taiwan; an experimental group of new media performance. In 2011, she was selected as the Person of the year by Performing Arts review Magazine—the most important performance art magazine in Taiwan. Her works have already toured Europe and gained international visibility.

Su continues her exploration to understand the various states of human existence in new media society with her work W. A. V. E(2011). Transformed from city scape to the cyberspace, the light and electronic sound from the black box reached out to form a temporal space where viewing the dance performance is no longer a representation of visual image but a kinesthetic experience of traveling the body space. The movement itself within Su’s body reveals a body possibility as it exists in post-industrial society. From the atmosphere that emerges in this piece, the city scape Su is exploring is not one of futuristic optimism. She asks: “can we consider deeper about how it affect our human being by embracing of technology today?”

Huang Yi, the “L’enfant Terrible”

Huang Yi, a 28 years old artist, has already shown his talents in the Taiwanese dance scene. As a dance major student, he did not limit himself to the dance department, but took many new-media and fine art classes in the Taipei National University of the Arts, where he learned not only about dance but also other creative and critical thinking processes. Described as “l’enfant terrible” by Lin Hwai-min(林懷民)—the artist director of the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre— this young dancer/choreographer has already gain global recognitions in choreography.

Huang Yi is keen to experiment with dance and technology. He explores the possibility in choreography in dialogue with photography, video-art, music, and dance, to create surreal temporal and spatial experience for the audience. In Spin 2010(2010), the experiments incorporated a hand-held camera on a machine crane to circle the dancers inside for shooting. He plays with the space filled with sound and light while allowing dancers to dance between light and shadow through the flashes created by the machine crane. The revolting crane on the stage is an observer as well as a passive outsider of the performance. He creates dance that flows smoothly through space, almost blending the body in the surrounding air. Bodies, shadows, and sounds deliver an abstract line of dramatic language, and this allows dancers to open up possibilities in the perception of physical movements and interactions with the surroundings. Huang says “I like to observe the technicians, those people are normally hidden behind the stage, and no one would notice their hard work. But I want to make their talents visible. There is this technician who is the best to deal with the crane, so I make the most of it in this piece.”

In his other work Symphony Project (2010), the main concept is to play cellos via mechanical devices operated by dancers’ movements. The dancers initiate movements through light beams, while at the same time the bows react to these movements to create music from the cellos on stage. He creates dance that flows smoothly through space, almost blending the body in the surrounding air. This work was included for the younger ensemble of the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre—Cloud Gate 2’s “Spring Riot” in 2011. His latest experiment work, entitled Huang Yi & KUKA, just received the top prize from the 2012 Third Annual Taipei Digital Arts Awards. This is a collaboration he initiated with an industrial robotic company KUKA from Germany. In this piece Huang tries to dance with the robot, and questions the distinction between the human being and mechanism, which is reminiscent of the pioneering and influential idea of “cyborg”—the term used to describe a being with both biological and artificial human-machine systems.

Despite Huang’s affinity for mechanics and technology, he recognizes that dancing body remains the center focus. In the discussion after the Third Annual Taipei Digital Arts contest, Huang responds firmly, “I don’t think dancers are like robots that only follower the choreographer’s direction.” Here, Huang shows his appreciation for dance movement when one of the judges tries to propose the idea that dancer is like mechanic, without agency. This exploration of whether technology is only a tool, or can mean something else in the performance, is a crucial question for these artists to ponder about their experiments.

Hsieh Chieh-hua, Dancing Architecture  

Hsieh Chieh-hua is different from other younger choreographers in Taiwan, in that he did not attend dance classes for exceptional students before entering graduate school. In Taiwanese contemporary dance industry, cases like Hsieh are very rare. Before getting his MFA degree in dance choreography from the Taipei National University of the Arts, Hsieh took his undergraduate degree in architecture. This might be the reason why there are always correlations between the moving body, structure, and space in his works.

Hsieh has created a series of Anarchy pieces as his early works. In those pieces he vividly captures the violence of different relationships, such as those between men and women, and individuals and groups. His main concern is to focus on structures of authority in human society. The complex articulation of human relationships in the space is the highlight of these series works. In 2010, Hsieh Chieh-hua founded Anarchy Dance Theatre, where he started to create experimental works in arts and technology. Hsieh said “my friends asked me why I did not experiment with dance and technology, especially since I have a background in science education (referring to his education in architecture), and I realized: ‘yeah! why not?’ ”

The latest piece Seventh Sense (2011) is Hsieh’s first trial that directly correlated dance and technology. Hsieh continues his inquire about the human body in relation to the movement of interactive media. In this piece, his main focus is about subjectivity issues in a real-time interactive space. During the performance, the audience is surrounded by various interactive installations. Hsieh then transforms the theatrical space into a cyber space where audiences can manipulate what a living human being would be, how they feel, and how they sense the world in a digitalized world.

Chen Chang-Chih, Choreographing Artistic Dance Photography

Su Wen-Chi of YiLab, WAVE, photo by CHEN Chang-Chih. Courtesy of the artist

Su Wen-Chi of YiLab, WAVE, photo by CHEN Chang-Chih. Courtesy of the artist

Chen Chang-Chih(陳長志) is an artist who creates dance-related installations. Unlike an ordinary dance photographer who only records the presence of the performance, Chen is more artistically active in the creative process in collaborating with choreographers. Chen is an artist who pays attention to the art field, alienation (how media is a prosthetic for our amputated sense of self), and physical action (happening performance). Although trained in visual art, he learned drums and started collaborations with dancers and performers during his undergraduate era. Chen says, “ever since I was in college, I liked to take classes outside of my department. I find it fascinating to collaborate with artists from different discipline. It always brings more diverse results when you experiment with people outside of your field!”

Chen claims that he is influenced by ideas in book Aesthetics of Disappearance (1989) by the French cultural theorist Paul Virilio. Virilio claims that speed is a certain distance (space) covered per a certain period of time (duration) with the speed of traveling light as its ultimate limit. Chen said “my perception of speed, my realization of how to record the present moment, are inspired by Virilio’s philosophy. ”Chen recognizes the speed when he takes shot to capture dance timing. He captures the movement into a solid moment, where his camera becomes his bodily extension for him to perceive the world.

Chen employs two different kinds of photos with dance companies: one for the record or advertising images for the company, the other for his experiments in dance shooting. Chen is interested in musicality and as a performer himself, he knows when and how to capture movement when he takes photography. He is more interested in the movement process and state of moving rather than just the precise point of a fixed movement. From his dance-related photography, there is clear a “flow” inside and outside of the body.

As a photographer, Chen collaborates with many choreographers in Taiwan, including the previously introduced Huang Yi, and other famous dance company in Taiwan, such as the all male dance company HORSE Dance Theatre(驫舞劇場), Chou Shu-yi(周書毅) and dancers, among others. Working collaboratively as dancers and choreographers, they represent a new phase in the development of Taiwan’s contemporary dance. Chou Shu-yi, whose work achieved worldwide reorganization when his piece 1875: Ravel and Bolero won the inaugural online Global Dance Contest organized by Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London. In his 2011 Next Choreography project, he asks “what is choreography?” and “why do we do choreography?” The development of Dance in Taiwan and its ambiguity as a nation has caused dance makers to question the identity of Taiwanese dance today.

An Ongoing Inquiry about Identity and Culture

Rooted in Taiwanese hi-tech industry and the free expression aesthetic, Taiwanese choreographers represent an ongoing inquiry into identity and arts. They provide a critique of global technological modernity and the politics of the body involved. This new generation of Taiwanese choreographers has brought renewed and vibrant energy to their experiments for new media and art, at the same time, the circulation of their work around the world also helps make Taiwan internationally visible and politically valid. They are mixing imported ideas with the home-grown understanding to develop a new dance genus for contemporary Taiwan. Their creativity in dance and technology might serve as a way to pursue a new definition of Taiwanese-ness in dialogue with a global environment. Perhaps what Su Wen-Chi mentioned in the interview could best illustrate this: “I am from Taiwan, and I want to show to the world what an Asian’s perspective about the new experiment on dance and technology is.”


References

  • Chen, Ya-ping. 2012. “Introduction: Identity, Hybridity, Diversity: A brief View of Dance in Taiwan,” in Yunyu Wang ed,. Identity and Diversity Celebrating Dance in Taiwan. India: Routledge.
  • Lin, Yatin. 2012. “Technology and the Human Body in Performance: Taiwanese Choreographer HUANG Yi’s Interdisciplinary Experimental Collaborations,” Unpublished paper presented at the PSi (Performance Studies International) #18  Conference, June 27-July 1, 2012. University of Leeds, UK.

Further Information


About the Author:

Chang, I-Wen (張懿文), from Taiwan, is a Culture and Performance Ph.D. student in the University of California, Los Angeles. She holds a MA degree in Art Theory and Criticism from the Taipei National University of the Arts. She has been writing about dance and performance for the Performing Arts Review Magazine in Taiwan since 2007. She is the coauthor of the book Pina Bausch: Dancing for the World (Taipei, 2006). She is currently a correspondent for the Artist Magazine in Taiwan.  http://iwenchang.weebly.com

“Dance and Technology: a New Aesthetical Trend in Taiwan” is copyright © I-Wen Chang and is republished here with permission of the author.