The shows revealing the many different facets of Taiwan

Now in its fourth year at the Fringe, the Taiwan Season constantly reminds us that pigeonholing a culture is reductive and pointless. Each production is unique, and certainly the five shows brought to Edinburgh this year could not be more different.

The energetic dancers in 038 mesmerise their audience with intricate, controlled movements.
The energetic dancers in 038 mesmerise their audience with intricate, controlled movements.

Dance, Physical Theatre & Circus

Taiwan Season: 038

Dance Base (Venue 22)

****

Taiwan Season: Together Alone

Dance Base (Venue 22)

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***

Taiwan Season: Heart of Darkness

Summerhall (Venue 26)

***

Theatre

Taiwan Season: Ever Never

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Summerhall (Venue 26)

***

Children’s Shows

Taiwan Season: 
The Backyard Story

Summerhall (Venue 26)

***

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One thing all of them have in common, however, is a sense of home and family; of missing the people left behind, of making and breaking connections, and of reminiscing about times gone by.

In the case of 038, a beautiful and spell-binding piece by Kuo-Shin Chuang Pangcah Dance Theatre, there are echoes from the very distant past. Choreographer Kuo-Shin has been training the nine dancers in his company since they were young children, schooling them in the traditions of the indigenous Amis people of Taiwan. Now grown, most of the dancers have moved away to bigger cities, but still return home once a month to rehearse.

Named after the area dialling code for Hualien, where the company is based, 038 finds the women moving swarm-like across the stage. In perfect unison, their feet shuffle speedily in socks; the fast movement causing their loose grey dresses to billow around them. .

Not a flicker of emotion shows on their faces, so it’s impossible to connect with the dancers personally, but as a group they move with such controlled energy, in such intricate patterns, it’s also impossible to take your eyes off them.

An emotional connection seems strangely absent in Together Alone, too – but is more of a problem here. Created by dancers Chen-Wei Lee and Zoltán Vakulya, the duet is gathering some momentum due to the absence of costume (there’s nothing like a bit of nudity to get the Fringe grapevine humming), but those looking for an erotic frisson will be left wanting.

As Chen-Wei correctly states, the piece is “absolutely not sexual”, despite them rolling around on the floor together or pushing their tongues into each other’s mouths. Together Alone is more about a cerebral connection than a sensual one, which makes it interesting rather than affecting.

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During its creation, the dancers set themselves the task of never letting go of each other from start to finish, which is a fascinating idea, but feels a little clunky at times as they move across the space linked by grasping arms.

Far better when they limit their movement to standing still, hands gently caressing, or coiled together on the floor like twins in the womb. It’s during these moments that the bare flesh truly pays off, with each stretch and reach showing off the human body in all its wonder.

There is more emotion in the powerful Heart of Darkness, even if it takes a while for us to find our way in. The opening moments of this blend of movement and live music by Sun Son Theatre feature a low, plaintive wail from a male performer, followed by paddles slammed noisily on the floor. You have no idea what’s going on, or why – but hope if you just go with it and enjoy the spectacle, all will come good. Which is exactly what happens.

Inspired by the life of choreographer and performer Pei-Fen Low’s grandmother, Heart of Darkness is an abstract exploration of women who lose their lives, not through death but through having a path forced upon them. Pei-Fen’s grandmother was brought miles from home to marry her grandfather (a scene gloriously 
recreated during the show’s climax), and was deemed “crazy” by Pei-Fen’s father.

On stage, Pei-Fen depicts her grandmother, curling her unfeasibly long hair around her head and carrying a drum on her back – a symbol of the burden of responsibility, while the other musicians echo her longing to escape this imposed destiny.

Director of Co-coism theatre company, Chien-Han Hung has also drawn on familial themes for the theatre piece Ever Never. Mourning the death of her father, she found that travelling – and in particular the empty space created by flying – produced fragments of memories in her mind. And so we find our cast in an aircraft cabin, interacting with each other, then disappearing into their own heads as they recall events from the past.

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It’s a well executed piece, nicely scripted (and well translated in the surtitles, which is a bonus) and not without moments of wit and pathos. But Ever Never is so disjointed, the storytelling is often lost and we don’t know where we are or who we’re currently spending time with. Which is a shame, as the idea and sentiment is strong, but the rambling structure eventually feels self-indulgent.

It’s hard to appraise The Backyard Story in its current state, as Puppet Beings Theatre has been so compromised by its performance space; a situation they apologise for at the start of the show. Back home in Taiwan, the company is known for its “black light” theatre, which means the puppeteers who manipulate whatever we see on stage are largely hidden – not so here.

That said, this simple tale of washing hanging on a line to dry still manages to engage. Two neighbours take sly digs at each other as they peg up their laundry; one has a nicer nightgown, the other a prettier skirt etc. But once they go inside, the items of washing take on a life of their own, helping each other to battle the wind and making friendships across the garden (a jacket and dress even get together to create a baby jumper).

All of which is skilfully executed, even if the wow factor has been somewhat diminished by circumstance, and sends out a clear but gentle message about friendship and collaboration.

All shows until 27 August. 038, today 3:15pm. Together Alone, today 9:45pm. Heart of Darkness, today 3:15pm. Ever Never, today 4:25pm. The Backyard 
Story, today 11:45am.