'Formosa': Taiwan's turbulent story told in waves of words and dance

  • Arts
  • Sunday, 10 Mar 2019

With universal themes like chaos and confrontation, audiences around the world identified with Formosa's narrative. Photo: Liu Chen-hsiang

Clans fighting. People divided. Differing ideologies. Strained relationships. All this strife flaring up in a beautiful country. Sound familiar?

No, this isn’t a commentary about Malaysia Baru, but it’s a case of similar political and social state of affairs in Taiwan.

It’s no surprise that Malaysians united in diversity would find solace in Cloud Gate Dance Theatre’s Formosa when it opens at Istana Budaya, Kuala Lumpur, on March 16. This is the Taiwanese production’s only Southeast Asian stop before its Russian tour in June.

Formosa, which won the Stef Stefanou Award for Outstanding Company at the 19th National Dance Award in the UK, is choreographer Lin Hwai-min’s final love letter to his beloved homeland – and one that is deeply personal, poetic and meditative.

Lin, a national icon in Taiwan and a patriarch of Asian contemporary dance, is expected to retire in 2020 after this current tour ends.

Formosa is Lin Hwai-min's swansong before he retires in 2020.

Formosa, which means beautiful, is what 16th-century Portuguese sailors exclaimed when they saw the land now known as Taiwan.

In a phone call from Taipei, Lin shares that although Formosa is about “beauty, the construction of beauty, and the ruin of beauty”, it is also a reflection on the conflicts and divide that have shaped Taiwan, something audiences worldwide have latched on to as their own nation’s narrative.

“In the United States, the people said, ‘Oh, that is us after Trump entered the White House’ or the British said ‘That’s what we are because of Brexit’. Chaos, confrontation – these are universal themes. Every place in the world has this,” says the 72-year-old, who founded Cloud Gate in 1973.

Compared to his earlier masterpiece called Legacy (1978), a straightforward narrative of Taiwan’s history, Formosa is more of a reflective work on the Taiwan of today by an elder artist, someone who played a crucial role in the search of a Taiwanese identity in the 1970s.

Formosa is presented in collaboration with Malaysia’s Hands Percussion and Inxo Arts And Culture Foundation, and is part of the Taiwanese government’s efforts to strengthen ties with Malaysia under its New Southbound Policy.

The show premiered at Taipei’s National Theatre in 2017 and has played acclaimed tours in Europe and the US, so audiences in Malaysia can expect the same dazzling choreography as well as music by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, Taiwanese musician Liang Chun-mei and award-winning indigenous singer Sangpuy Katatepan Mavaliyw of Taiwan’s Puyuma people.

Formosa is set to readings of contemporary Taiwanese poetry and literature about the island, read by poet and calligrapher Chiang Hsun. Using music, script, gestures and other elements of the island, Lin also explores how writing has a power to distort memory and erase history.

Lin, a recipient of the 2013 Samuel H. Scripps/American Dance Festival Award for lifetime achievement, and his research team spent a long time collecting material for this production.

Chou Tung-Yen's award-winning projections play an integral role in Formosa, bringing life to Chinese traditional characters as they shrink and expand and crash land across the stage. Photo: Hsu Ping

Lin describes his creative process as an adventure in the jungle. “You don’t know what you will encounter,” he explains.

“You sense and you smell some wonderful fragrance beyond the jungle. So you set into exploring the path, trying to reach the fragrance. The end result is the map of my adventure, trying to find my way out.”

Besides narrating the epic 75-minute performance, these words act as visual landscapes with Chinese traditional characters projected onto the stage, courtesy of award-winning multimedia design artist and director Chou Tung-Yen, and his team.

"This long collaboration started without music or even the dancers which is impossible to imagine in any other dance performances. This is the first time we tried to work on a project with this approach,” says Chou, 37.

But this is not just any projection job – Lin had something astounding in mind.

“He said he wanted to see (an) earthquake and a black sun. He wanted to see broken words and big chunks of words hitting people like a stone,” says Chou, whose works include Interchangeable Cities (2017) and Chronicle Of Light Year (2018).

Award-winning indigenous Taiwanese singer Sangpuy's music is featured in the Formosa soundtrack. Photo: Handout

These words, Chou says, take a life of their own on stage, shrinking and growing and crash landing like bombs.

Indeed, the dance of the typefaces, falling like rain drops or morphing into abstract forms or even collapsing ominously onto each other is something to behold. The projection design in Formosa earned Chou a Knight Of Illumination (KOI) Award in 2018 for Best Projection Design.

The KOI Awards is organised by London-based Fifth Estate to celebrate international lighting, projection and video design works in Britain. To Lin, every place has its own roots and history. Be it Taipei or Kuala Lumpur.

“That’s when these words and characters come in because words and written language are used to communicate, to document, to record. But then records can be erased and history can be rewritten. Which is why at the end of the show, it’s just a white background. It’s empty,” says Lin.

Formosa may be Lin’s swansong before he passes the baton to Cloud Gate 2’s artistic director Cheng Tsung-Lung in 2020 but the idea of retirement hasn’t sunk in for the elder artist.

“I’m so busy, there’s always work ahead. I haven’t had the time to sit down and contemplate the meaning of retirement,” shares Lin, saying he’d just completed directing an opera.

“But I am a little bit scared because this is the only thing I know how to do,” he reveals.

One thing is certain. He wants to see evolution. Despite his many years of growing and sculpting contemporary dance in Taiwan, he insists that the next generation take things to the next level.

“I don’t want to see Cloud Gate becoming a museum company. I want to see younger choreographers doing their own thing and take the next step to bring dance forward in Taiwan,” he concludes.

Catch 'Formosa' at Panggung Sari, Istana Budaya in Kuala Lumpur, Mar 16 & 17. Showtime: 8.30pm (Saturday) and 3pm (Sunday). Tickets: RM98-RM468. More details: airasiaredtix.com.

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