Taiwan's 'Luna' show shines light on ancient traditions of Bunun tribe

Bulareyaung and his dancers spent time in Luluna village, immersing themselves in the mountain life and rituals of the Bunun tribe in Taiwan. Photo: Lafun Photography

A few years ago, Bulareyaung Pagarlava, an aboriginal dance choreographer and director, embarked on a remarkable artistic journey to visit aboriginal tribes in central Taiwan.

As a resident artist at the esteemed National Taichung Theatre, he encountered numerous unique experiences during these tours. However, one particular encounter left an everlasting impression on his soul.

“When we were at the Luluna village in Nantou, I heard the enchanting sound of a group of people practising singing. I followed the sound and discovered a circle of elderly tribesmen, aged between 50 and 70, engaged in their singing practice. Their harmonies deeply moved me,” says Bulareyaung, also known as Bula.

Little did he anticipate that this experience under the night sky in the village would continue resonating within him long after he had left the tribe and returned to his hometown of Taitung.

A new dance piece titled Luna was created after a series of field surveys to learn more about the Bunun Luluna tribe in Nantou.

It premiered at the National Taichung Theatre in May 2018, giving Bulareyaung a contemporary theatre work that has attracted critical acclaim.

Next month, the Bulareyaung Dance Company is set to give Luna its South-East Asian premiere at KLPac on July 14 and 15, while the show will also be a part of the George Town Festival on July 22 and 23.

Making a connection

“I sensed there was something significant about that encounter, as I strongly believe that everything happens for a reason. Trusting my intuition, I made the decision to bring the dancers back to Luluna village. Consulting with the tribe’s elders and the Luluna Bunun Choir, our aim was to learn their songs and create a new work inspired by this experience,” he recalls.

'Luna' draws on ancient Bunun chanting, which is recognised as a Cultural Heritage in Taiwan, along with the rituals associated with mountain life. Photo: Hideto Maezawa 'Luna' draws on ancient Bunun chanting, which is recognised as a Cultural Heritage in Taiwan, along with the rituals associated with mountain life. Photo: Hideto Maezawa

And so, in this village situated a thousand metres above sea level, home to the largest Bunun indigenous tribe of Taiwan – known as fierce warriors and extraordinary singers – a troupe of dancers from the Bulareyaung Dance Company immersed themselves in everyday activities and embarked on a journey to learn how to sing.

The Luluna Bunun Choir taught Bulareyaung and his dancers their ancient Bunun chants, which is recognised as a Cultural Heritage in Taiwan, along with the rituals associated with their mountain life, including hunting.

They made three trips to the Luluna village, each lasting between seven and 10 days.

Throughout this process, Bulareyaung and his dancers absorbed the tribe’s songs and lived alongside the community, assisting with farmland preparation and hiking together.

“We allowed the mountains and the ocean to become our rehearsal grounds. To learn the songs of different ethnic groups, simply relying on computers and literature was not enough. It was essential to enter the tribes. We immersed ourselves in the high-altitude mountains. We listened with our ears and saw with our eyes, approaching the learning process with utmost humility. Only then could we truly appreciate cultures different from our own.

“After learning traditional songs, we internalised them into our bodies, allowing movements to naturally emerge. Even if it was as simple as walking, if one hasn’t climbed the mountains of Luluna or lived within the tribe, I don’t believe those songs will have life. If the body is not grounded, the performance will not touch people’s hearts,” he says.

A great transformation

Bulareyaung founded the Bulareyaung Dance Company in 2015. Growing up, he aspired to be a dancer and he chased that dream, joining Cloud Gate Dance Theatre after he graduated from the dance department at Taipei University Of The Arts.

He was selected as one of the Ten Outstanding Young Persons of Taiwan in 2012 and was presented with the National Award of Arts by the National Culture and Arts Foundation in 2022.

The Luluna Bunun Choir at Luluna village, home to the largest Bunun indigenous tribe of Taiwan. Photo: Bulareyaung Dance CompanyThe Luluna Bunun Choir at Luluna village, home to the largest Bunun indigenous tribe of Taiwan. Photo: Bulareyaung Dance Company

The dance company has performed in many countries around the world, including Canada, Japan and the United States. It is the first performing troupe to be awarded the coveted Taishin Arts Award Annual Grand Prize for two consecutive years.

Bulareyaung is from the Paiwan tribe of Taiwan, and together with his dancers, they explore their indigenous heritage and culture through regular field trips and often create dance pieces in the great outdoors.

For the show Luna, Bulareyaung explains that the Bunun people have complex choral composition, with songs typically consisting of four-part scales sung simultaneously. These songs serve various purposes, be it for festivals, work or everyday life.

“These songs became the driving force that guided our movements and creations. The development of the troupe’s works is not about replicating traditions but rather aligning traditional elements with contemporary perspectives, preserving the essence of the songs while imbuing them with modern body language. I believe the best tradition lies within the daily lives of the tribes. What we want to share is actually quite simple: we want to convey the initial inspiration we felt from Bunun’s songs to a wider audience,” he says.

For instance, the Bunun tribe’s “exploit-boasting” song is originally how hunters reported the number of prey they caught.

“After returning from their hunts, the hunters shout out their gain of the day in a deep voice. The dancers and I witnessed a live demonstration by a frail elder. When he started his exploit-boasting act, he completely transformed into another person, full of power and aggressiveness,” he relates.

For the dancers, who had never experienced hunting, the lyrics were modified based on their own personal stories.

“We translated the revised lyrics to a 90-year-old Bunun elder, who was deeply moved. He expressed that ‘exploit-boasting’ is significant to the Bunun tribe and should not be altered because it represents the life story of each individual, but as he listened to the lyrics (story) of each dancer, he got to know them personally and discovered something new and important – traditional folk songs could embrace new possibilities while preserving the spirit of ‘exploit-boasting’.

His heartfelt reaction and approval touched us profoundly,” says Bulareyaung.

The journey

Bulareyaung is determined to have his dance company travel and perform in all the tribal villages in Taiwan, as these communities rarely have the opportunity to see such performances in the theatre.

“I established the dance company with the hope of bringing our productions to every indigenous tribe in Taiwan. The residents of these different mountainous or coastal areas may have never had the chance to attend a theatre performance in their lifetime. My parents, who are tribal community members, have never seen me dance,” he says.

He believes watching a performance may have a profound impact on people’s lives.

For instance, children may gain the courage to express their desire to become dancers, performers or singers. The elders, after a long day of hard work, can find relaxation and happiness after watching the performance.

“If my productions can reach every tribe, everyone can feel the significance of a dance company engaging in such endeavours. For indigenous people, sharing is the most important thing,” concludes Bulareyaung.

Luna will play at Pentas 1, KLPac, Sentul Park in Kuala Lumpur on July 14 and 15 (8pm) and July 16 (3pm, with post-talk show). More info here. At the George Town Festival in Penang, Luna will be presented alongside pulu’em (a Taiwanese traditional music show) at Dewan Budaya, Universiti Sains Malaysia on July 22 and 23. More info here.

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