Dancing Across Borders

In what is truly a first, the international exchange project between Taiwan and Scotland begins its residency for older dancers at Edinburgh’s Dance Base to work on the second phase of The Infinite Life Journey. It then tours with workshops for all ages from Edinburgh to Aberdeen and Dumbarton.

On the first day of the residency, I spoke to Ming-Hsuan Liu (choreographer), Morag Deyes (choreographer) and Jih-Wen Yeh (producer).

This project is an international exchange, can you tell me about the Taiwan phase of the project?

Jih-Wen: The Infinite Life Journey is an offshoot of B.DANCE’s Floating Flowers production that received international acclaim (including Broadway Baby’s Bobby Award!). The first phase of the project was Morag travelling to Taiwan to work with a group of older dancers supported by B.DANCE to create a short performance and workshop session that then toured Taiwan.

So, Morag, how did you go about translating Floating Flowers into a scaled down production? Presumably the dance piece was much shorter?

Morag: Definitely, yeah. The Taiwanese piece was 15 minutes long. The Floating Flowers show is an hour.

It didn't feel like it was for me to recreate Floating Flowers. I've seen the show many times and it is so beautiful, and there's no way that I would try to recreate the choreography, but I used some of the show's themes about loss and about hope and about delicacy.

There's something that elders do that is incredibly beautiful, that I enjoy working with so much, and that's being able to hold the moment in a very delicate way and allow their presence to be felt. In Floating Flowers there are also still moments. So I used some of those gestures.

Maybe I hadn't read the brief for my visit to Taiwan that well! But I have to say the choreography I had in my mind for Taiwan became something else, once I realised the older group had a specific visual aesthetic - those white net dresses, white tops and white shoes. The look of Floating Flowers – white being the colour of mourning, and also being the colour of the floating lotus flowers – became very important.

The use of shoes means the movement has to be different to that of bare feet. So I ended up with a particular choreography, focussing on moving the upper body, that is more poetic, and I think rather beautiful.

The last thing that I did at Edinburgh’s Dance Base, after being there for 26 years, was a piece by a choreographer called Steinvor Palsson, who is now the director of PRIME, the over 60s dance company, and she’d made a dance for a much loved member called Jill Knox who’d died. And this piece was the last thing that I learned and it was still in my body when I got to Taipei.

And when I thought about the themes, I realised some of the choreography that Steinvor had made as a memorial for Jill, would go into this piece with the elders in Taiwan.

There was a sort of thread running through, because the choreographer of Floating Flowers, Po-Cheng Tsai, had made it in memory of his father and now I was making something with Jill in my mind. It became very poetic to me to be able to do that.

What were the sessions in Taiwan?

Jih-Wen: We toured throughout Taiwan, performing 24 one-hour sessions in total. The session workshops are designed to get people of all ages to participate in dancing, and to experience what the elders wanted to express.

Morag: It was super-important to bring in the individual experiences of the older dancers. Each member of the group made a short solo about the first dance that they could remember ever doing in their lives. One elder recreated the first dance she had done which was something like a CanCan, which was completely brilliant because of the skirts and she could wave them around and jump around and another one was a very beautiful piece - very slow, almost like Japanese Butoh dancing.

This second phase of the project is to develop a dance piece with the dancers of PRIME, and then tour. The sessions include participation – trying out the choreography – how is that organised?

Morag: It will be a different participation compared to the Taiwan sessions. Physically, the dancers are different and we are used to a different kind of movement vocabulary in Europe. And we’ll have to see how a group of Scottish teenagers react compared to an Asian group of teenagers!

How it worked out in Taiwan is we would start normally start with the show that had been developed, then a short introduction to the background of B.DANCE’s Floating Flowers and then the audience would be encouraged to stand up and there would be some movement games - especially if it was a younger group – that would be around the themes used in the work. And finally a Q&A.

Jih-Wen: It doesn’t matter if you have danced before, it doesn't matter what your age is. And it doesn't matter if you have gone through this experience or not. Just come in and join us.

Morag: I've got a real bee in my bonnet about ageing being treated as if it's an illness. And so I was really interested in showing and talking about ageing as a strength. So the end of the piece that I made for the woman in Taiwan was showing female icons of strength.

Championing the idea of ageing isn't so hard to do in Asian countries because elders are seen as fine human beings to be respected. Whereas in Europe it's not quite seen in the same way.

Jih-Wen: And just listening to Morag talking about the celebration of age and who you are as an individual, I think that element really encouraged the Taiwan group. They were really pumped up by that.

Morag: Yes, the work was quite uncompromising when I think about it. But then I was like that when founding PRIME, the over 60s group in Edinburgh. We just push them - well… beyond their limits!

I was wondering about your thoughts on developing the choreography. Or maybe this is too early to say, as we are meeting on the first day of the residency!

Jih-Wen: The approach at B.DANCE is that they develop strands of work. So a piece is not only performed, but the company wants to look at the work’s sustainability in different forms and also to develop different interests of members of the company. Floating Flowers has been performed 74 times to date. The Infinite Life Journey is one of those strands.

Ming was a performer in the original production and she is interested in working with elder dancers, so she is the choreographer who has come to Edinburgh for this part of the project.

Jih-Wen (translating for Ming): Ming knows how the work came about, she knew that Po-Cheng Tsai was saying goodbye to his father, but she has not faced that experience yet. From her perspective, she feels that the PRIME dancers have so much life experience to incorporate in the choreography.

I have been lucky enough to see some of the first day’s rehearsal. With the simplest of props the dancers were able to express so many different ideas and conjure up images. It was really beautiful.

Jih-Wen (translating for Ming): Ming’s approach is to experiment with the idea of a ritual, or rite, based on the five stages of grieving (anger, acceptance, denial etc). It’s a loose template: individuals may want to concentrate on one choreographic motif, others may want to explore grief as a process.

What are the plans for the tour?

Jih-Wen: Working with the Dance Base team we have currently, 15 sessions arranged to deliver across Scotland, with Edinburgh, the Aberdeen group City Moves and Dumbarton’s Clifftop Project.

Morag: This type of exchange of elders between Taiwan, Scotland has never happened before. It literally is the first time. It’s international outreach!

Jih-Wen: It started from Floating Flowers in the Fringe season at Dance Base.

Morag: I must add something. About the through-thread running through this project. Because of a knee injury - nothing to do with age! I’ve had to step down from the Scottish phase and Steinvor Palsson, the director of PRIME has had to take my place at the last minute. So, my choreography for the Taiwan sessions was influenced by her work and now she is stepping in to contribute to the Scottish part. It’s truly a collaboration!

I was also thinking, while Jih-Wen was talking earlier about how the story is an extension of the huge success of Floating Flowers, I suddenly wondered if all the producers that came to the Edinburgh Fringe had the kind of vision that Jih-Wen has. Can you imagine how exciting it would be if people would continue the story after the Fringe and start going to each other's countries and start working together and being more of a community outside the Fringe?

So I really have to say thank you to Jih-Wen for having the vision to bring all that together. Wouldn’t it be great if everyone did that?

Link to dance Base Listing: https://www.dancebase.co.uk/pr...

Articles by Mark Harding

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