The discussion on the work of Han Tang Yuefu Music and Dance Ensemble invites us to see the performance from two equally interesting perspectives: on one hand, the relationship between ancient traditional forms and their contemporary re-interpretation; and on the other hand, the relationship between Western and Asian dance. In her presentation during the Dance Talks last Monday, June Huang highlighted both these aspects providing the audience with ample historical background and fascinating visual material from a wide range of theater and dance performances that were critical for the shaping of contemporary dance performance in Taiwan.
June Huang’s talk stressed the fact that the formation and creative work of the Han Tang Yuefu Ensemble is not an isolated artistic event but part of a larger cultural movement in 1980s Taiwan. Initiated largely by western-educated artists and intellectuals, this artistic avant-garde was particularly prominent in the areas of theater and film and had a radical impact on the country’s cultural identity as it sought to preserve traditional forms (i.e. Beijing Opera) while introducing new ideas and elements of Western performing arts (the excerpts from performances of Western Classics (i.e. King Lear, Macbeth) using the forms and aesthetic of Chinese Opera were particularly interesting). It is in that context that Ms. Mei O-Chan, founder of the company and a dancer who was educated in Western and subsequently in Liyuan dance, reinvented tradition and created “a modern montage by linking two traditions together.” She used well-known Chinese historical stories which had never been used in old Liyuan Theater as her theme, applied chapters and excerpts of traditional Nanguan music works to create the atmosphere for the theme, and combined traditional Liyuan dances and movements to complete the theme.”
While thematically the new performance modes are Western-influenced, the dance patterns and styles remain strictly Asian and radically distinct from Western dance forms. June Huang emphasized the strict practice and movement of Asian dancers with hand gestures modeled out of living creatures (i.e. a flower, a crab), with few and calculated steps, low center of gravity as opposed to the high jumps of Western dance and an overall movement and performance that imitates puppets.
It was astonishing to observe, in the video presentations, the great spectrum of expressiveness, grace and versatility that the dancers are capable to achieve from within the stylistic rigidity of their performance. From that perspective the piece presents a unique opportunity for theater and dance performers alike to get a close look at techniques and performance practices with still enormous potential for exploration and cross-fertilization with Western performance.
See The Han Tang Yuefu Music and Dance Ensemble at The Joyce Theater Nov 3–8. Purchase tickets here.