performing arts in Taiwan

performing arts in Taiwan
After 1980, dance development in Taiwan can roughly divide into three major genres: modern dance, ballet and Chinese folk dance. Among these, only modern dance is considered mainstream because of the lack of strong Chinese folk dance and ballet traditions in Taiwan. Ballet, though popular as a training system, is less so as a performing genre. As for Chinese folk dance, it is most often presented in small-scale commercial studios for children, and only a handful of Chinese folk dance groups concentrate on more sophisticated choreography.
Modern dance
Modern dance in Taiwan has been influenced by American modern dance styles, such as those of Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Alvin Ailey, Paul Taylor and Contact Improvisation. Since the 1970s, Taiwanese dance talent has often gone to Western countries to study at different modern dance schools, particularly those in the USA. Among them, Martha Graham’s technique has proven the most popular and influential in the development of Taiwanese modern dance, especially from the 1970s to the mid 1980s.
Lin Hwai-min, the founder of the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre (Yunmen wuji, 1973), was the most important contributor to the establishment of a Taiwanese modern dance. Lin introduced Graham’s dance technique and dramatic-dance style to Taiwan, but also outlined, along with the famous musician Shr Wei-lyau, a new direction: ‘Chinese compose, Chinese choreograph, Chinese dance, [all] for Chinese audiences’ (Zhongguoren zuoqu, zhongguoren bianwu, zhongguoren tiao gei zhongguoren kan). This directive led Cloud Gate to undertake a fusion of dance techniques and theatrical concepts from East and West. His choreography has roots in Asian myth, folklore, literature and aesthetics. Lin’s movement vocabulary is drawn from Taiji and Jingju (Peking opera), as well as from modern dance and ballet, all of which are routine training for the dancers. In 1978, Lin choreographed a historical piece, Xin Chuan, which described the history and hardships of the early Chinese immigrants to Taiwan. Another major modern dance group is the Neo-Classic Dance Company, founded by Liu Fengshueh. Liu’s dance focuses on exploring the dynamic interaction between action, time and space, as well as fusing Chinese traditional elements with modern dance and Taiwanese aboriginal culture with Western performing arts.
Generally speaking, modern dance from the 1970s to the mid 1980s tended to adapt traditional Chinese literature and ancient philosophical concepts as sources for their choreography. From the second half of the 1980s to the early 1990s, and particularly after Martial Law was lifted in 1987, radical socio-political changes unleashed both freedom and chaos in cultural expression. Meanwhile, a younger generation of dance talent, with different training and new interests, returned to Taiwan from abroad. The dominance of Martha Graham waned, and diversity came to characterize modern dance. The founding of Contact Improvisation by choreographer Ku Ming-Shen in the early 1990s, for example, was a revolutionary event, introducing shapeless body movement and welcoming the participation of non-trained dancers. In fact, with the exception of Cloud Gate, most of the modern dance companies performing today were established in the post Martial Law period. These new groups practise various dance techniques and styles and have generated numerous influential works. In contrast to Cloud Gate and Neo-Classic’s close relationship with Chinese culture, these groups also reveal an alienation from Chinese culture and a strong identification with that of Taiwan.
Since the mid 1990s, we can mark a new trend towards the development of unique movement systems. The interest of modern dance groups has shifted from probing social problems to the expression of individuality and spiritual mental states through more purified dance movements with less dramatic elements. Most of these groups have developed their systems by mixing ballet or modern dance technique with Asian systems of physical movement, such as Taiji, Qigong, yoga and traditional Taiwanese folk performances. They are also inspired by traditional Asian philosophical concepts as found in meditation, Buddhism, Taoism and the Asian myths. The important groups at this time include: Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, Taipei Dance Circle, Tao and Dancers, Taigu Tales Dance Theatre, Dance Forum Taipei, Ku and Dancers, Legend Lin Dance Theatre and Hsiao Ching-wen Dance Theatre.
Ballet has long been used as a form of basic training for most professional dancers in Taiwan, but currently only about five companies regularly present concerts, and most of these were formed from the late 1980s to the mid 1990s. Among them, the Taipei Ballet Company, the Capital Ballet-Taipei, and Taipei Shinei Balei Wutuan are the most active. Most works focus on modern ballet with the addition of a Taiwanese flavour.
Chinese folk dance
Chinese folk dance includes the folk dances introduced from mainland China as well as local Taiwanese folk dances. The Chinese folk dance in Taiwan today has absorbed ballet and modern dance techniques, as well as ideas from modern dance choreography. There are about ten Chinese folk dance companies in Taiwan: among them, the Taipei Folk Dance Theatre and the Lan Yang Dancers are the most active and senior. Taipei Folk is certainly the most productive and the only professional Chinese folk dance group in Taiwan and aims to create a new Chinese folk dance by adapting both Chinese and Taiwanese styles. Lan Yang was formed by Father Gian Carlo Michelini to keep Chinese folk dance alive in Taiwan. The group emphasizes dance training and education rather than performance, and the dancers often go on to professional careers with Chinese folk dance or modern dance companies.
Modern theatre
Modern theatre, called Huaju or ‘spoken drama’ in China, was brought to Taiwan during the Japanese colonial period (1895–1945). When the KMT (Nationalist Party) withdrew to Taiwan from China in 1949, Chinese spoken drama came along with the military. Before 1980, Taiwan’s spoken drama was presented in an outdated quasi-realistic theatrical style, and was more or less political propaganda. Departing from the old spoken drama, the development of a Taiwanese modern theatre began with the Little Theatre movement in the 1980s. Most Little Theatres share certain commonalities: they are non-profit, suffer from poor financial conditions, are basically anti-system, experimental or avant-garde, and are dominated by young amateur performers/writers/ directors.
The Little Theatre movement began in the late 1970s, when a group of young people began performing experimental theatre in small theatres and non-theatre spaces. They had invited a psychology scholar, Wu Jing-jyi, director of the La MaMa Theatre in New York, to lead and train the group. This group named themselves the Lanling Theatre Workshop and presented several experimental theatrical pieces in 1980. Their works met with success, which encouraged others to form their own Little Theatre groups, including Performance Workshop Theatre, Fangyuan juchang, Xiaowu juchang and the Pin-Fong Acting Troupe. The works of this first generation showed the intention of searching for a way of combining contemporary Western theatre with Chinese tradition. However, their successful productions showed a marked tendency towards popularization.
From the mid 1980s to the early 1990s, many of the first-generation groups folded, a few developed into larger-size theatres, and a second generation appeared and developed into a major force. Numerous Little Theatre groups, many short-lived, were formed at this time. A distinct feature of the second generation is a development of avant-garde theatre with stronger political themes embodying the rebelliousness and anti-systemic attitude of the post Martial Law period. These groups refused to receive funding from the government in order to avoid becoming a propaganda tool. Their work challenged social and political taboos and was highly critical of the government. Additionally, in contrast to the first generation, the second generation conscientiously avoided popularization. While staging productions in the theatre, they also performed in non-theatre spaces, such as in the streets, mountains, underground passageways, coffee shops, restaurants and public squares. The important Little Theatre groups in this period were: Huangxu juchang, Rive-Gauche, U-Theatre, 425 Environmental Theatre and Linjiedian juxianglu.
After the early 1990s, modern theatre began to diversify, like modern dance. Although Little Theatre groups still occupied an overwhelming proportion of the modern theatre, they no longer dominated the latter’s development as before. Several groups from the first and second generation evolved into professional and semi-professional large-size theatres and some newly formed large groups also appeared. These companies gradually won the most audiences and dominated the theatre market because of their commercialization. The important larger theatre groups are the Performance Workshop Theatre, Pin-Fong Acting Troupe, Godot Theatre Company and Greenray Theatre. Among these, Godot Theatre Company has developed into a professional musical theatre company. Their repertoire includes: Black Comedy, Kiss Me Nana, The Angel Never Sleeps, Look Up the Golden Sun and Communicating Door. Countless Little Theatre groups were also established in this period, but most were short-lived. Unlike the second generation, almost all groups now receive government or semi-official subsidies. However, they have retained their rebellious, anti-system attitudes, in keeping with an alternative theatre. Yet because of the democratization of Taiwan and the improvement in the political environment, the third-generation Little Theatre lost their political target, if not their interest in politics; thus, their works are less, or even non, political. The new issues now concern the individual, individuals vs groups, homosexuality, feminism and local community issues. There are also a number of groups that stress experimental, artistic innovation over ideologies. The important groups in this generation are Taiwan Walker, Assignment Theatre, Shakespeare’s Wild Sisters Group and U-Theatre.
Foreign influences have also been important during this period. Translated Western plays are often staged by both Little Theatre and large theatre groups, not to mention drama clubs and university theatre departments. Meanwhile, through visits by Asian theatre artists and participation in Asian theatre festivals, the modern theatre from other regions in Asia has begun to influence modern theatre in Taiwan. Influences include the Little Theatre and Butoh from Japan, the People’s Theatre from the Philippines, avant-garde theatre from Hong Kong, and spoken drama from mainland China.
Another important feature in this period has been the development of community theatre. Before the 1990s, most modern theatre was concentrated in Taipei City. In 1990s, groups began to be formed outside of Taipei regions. Calling themselves community theatre, they share many characteristics with the Little Theatre—small size, rebelliousness, experimental productions—but their works often focus on regional issues—local histories, lives and social problems—and use local dialects. The important groups are Tainan Jen Theatre Troupe, Taitung Drama Theatre and Spring Wind Art Theatre.
Finally, a significant development in modern theatre on Taiwan has been the founding of the Creative Society (Chung-cho-she) in Taipei in 1997 by a group consisting of Taipei’s theatre elite: playwrights, directors, theatre scholars, performing arts educators and theatre players, all from a single generation. Most of them had experienced the era of political reforms, were involved in the Little Theatre movement in the mid 1980s, and had studied abroad. Their motive in coming together was to experiment with new theatrical possibilities through collaboration and coordination. Because of the de-emphasis on play-writing during the avant-garde theatre movement in the late 1980s and 1990s, the Creative Society insists on producing good original scripts so as to raise the quality of Taiwan’s modern plays. Furthermore, they insist on not limiting themselves to any theatrical style and refuse to let their work be influenced by the market. The Creative Society made their debut with Metamorphosis in 1997. And because of the fine quality of their productions, the following works have been well received by audiences: KiKi Wanders Around the World (1998), Launch Theatre Institute on Line (1998), Kiss of Death (1999), I Want You, I Want You (2000), No Comment (2001).
Traditional theatre
Traditional theatre in Taiwan can be divided into three types: large-scale theatre, small-scale theatre and puppet theatre. The large-scale theatre includes Jingju (Peking opera), Yueju (Zhejiangopera), Nanguan (southern music; see Minnan nanyin), Beiguan (northern music) and Gezaixi (Taiwanese opera). With the retirement or death of old performers, Nanguan and Beiguan are in decline, while Jingju and Gezaixi remain popular. Before the 1990s, there were five national opera troupes and five conservatory schools, but these was gradually reduced to one troupe by 1995—the National Kuo-Kuang Chinese Opera Company (combining Jingju and Yueju)—and one conservatory by 1999—the National Taiwan Junior College of Performing Arts (now called the National Fu Hsing Chinese Opera School). Generally speaking, Taiwan’s Jingju preserves the old style popular during the 1920s and 1930s in China. On the other hand, since the late 1970s, a few Jingju performers have begun reforming Jingju through the use of modern theatrical elements. The important groups involved in reform are Yayin xiaoji and the Contemporary Legend Theatre, both private companies. However, because of the radical social changes since 1980, a lack of talent, new repertoire or new audiences, and competition from mainland troupes, Taiwan’s Jingju has experienced a serious decline. From the late 1980s, the Taiwanese government began to allow performing arts groups from China to tour Taiwan, bringing some great performers and a more abundant repertoire. They have attracted large audiences and dominated the stage, whereas the market for Taiwan Jingju has shrunk considerably.
Among large-scale theatre, Gezaixi is considered the only genre originating in Taiwan. Gezaixi evolved from a small-scale theatre (gezai), which had only three role types: young male, young female and clown (see Xiqu role types). Originally using folksongs to tell simple stories, gezai gradually evolved into the large-scale Gezaixi by absorbing music, role types and the elements of movement from other regional ensemble and opera genres: Nanguan, Beiguan, Jingju and Sipinxi. The end result was a larger performance with a complete set of stock characters and the staging of more complicated stories. There have been many venues and/or occasions for the performance of Gezaixi: yetai (outdoors), neitai (indoors), radio, movie, TV and the theatre stage. At present there are about fifty ongoing professional Gezaixi troupes. Yetai Gezaixi (outdoor Gezaixi) once combined entertainment and religious functions, but now it mostly serves purely religious purposes. It is normally staged within, in front of or near temples. Although Gezaixi has declined seriously since the 1970s due to movies, TV and other new forms of entertainment, it is this religious function that has allowed Gezaixi to survive in the present day. Neitai Gezaixi (indoor Gezaixi) was staged in indoor theatres from the 1920s to the 1960s for entertainment purposes only. ‘Radio and movie Gezaixi’ developed during the 1950s, and boomed in the 1960s, but quickly died out by the end of the 1960s. ‘TV Gezaixi’ developed in the early 1960s, and thrived from the 1970s to the mid 1980s. However, because of new entertainment options and the development of pop culture, ‘TV Gezaixi’ also disappeared in the 1990s. In the face of these trends, there has been a more positive development visible since the 1980s: the staging of Gezaixi in modern theatre buildings. The aim here has been to produce highly artistic plays, with good scripts, thoughtful topics, profound meanings, humour, refined performances and advanced stage techniques. This type of Gezaixi is called jingzhi Gezaixi (Refined Gezaixi), and its troupes, consisting of both professional and amateur performers, are almost all sponsored by the government: Yang Lihua Gezaixituan, Hsin-Chuan Taiwanese Opera Troupe and Ho Lo Taiwanese Opera Troupe.
Small-scale theatre includes Cheguxi, Hakka tea-harvest drama, bendi Gezai (original Gezai; the basis of Gezaixi), and Fashixi (Daoist ritual-master theatre). These are chiefly performed during religious and seasonal occasions, such as temple festivals, gods’ birthdays, and at planting and harvest time (see temple fairs). In the present day, small-scale theatre is often practised in local communities, or in elementary and junior high schools as a way to continue Taiwanese folk traditions.
There are three major types of puppet theatre in Taiwan: marionette theatre (Kuilaixi), shadow puppet theatre (Piyinxi), and palm puppet theatre (Budaixi). Puppetry is the most sacred of performances, often used in driving evil spirits away and always on religious occasions. There are only two professional marionette theatre troupes left: Xinfuxuan and Fulongxuan, both from I-Lan county. Shadow puppetry is also in decline and only three troupes remain: Donghua, Fuxingge and Huazhouyuan. On the other hand, palm puppetry is still extremely popular. The traditional palm puppet theatre performed on a small, wood-framed raised stage near a temple. Traditional palm puppetry uses Nanguan, Beiguan, Jingju and Gezaixi music to sing stories. The palm puppet troupes—Iwanjan and Hsiao Hsiyuan—are important groups for preserving live, traditional-style palm puppetry. There are also yetai, neitai, radio and TV palm puppet theatres in Taiwan, though neitai and radio are now rare.
From the 1970s, the Huang Jungxun Puppets Broadcasting Production Company, a family troupe formed by puppeteer Huang Jungxun and now lasting four generations, began to produce TV palm puppetry. They called their kind of theatre Jinguangxi (special effects theatre) or Jianxiaxi (martial theatre) in which gods, demons and supernatural and military roles were primary, and in which complex plots, fantastic fighting and splendid special effects were the main focus of the show. They didn’t use traditional music and percussion, but created their own modern popular music instead. The Huang TV Palm Puppet Show was a tremendous success, so much so that his family purchased a TV channel explicitly for presenting it. Other palm puppet troupes immediately imitated Jinguangxi, but found a cooler response. At present, Huang’s family remains very popular, and his TV palm puppetry forms the mainstream of Taiwanese puppet theatre. However, the success of TV palm puppet is exceptional among all traditional theatres in Taiwan; all other genres have experienced a sharp decline in popularity for many years.
See also: music in Taiwan
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Li, Xiaoyang (1995). ‘Chule yonggan, dadan, youmeiyou yuanchang?’ Performing Arts Review (July): 50–8.
Lin, Maoxian (1995). ‘Lijing cangshang bjiansang’. Performing Arts Review (July): 23–9.
Ping, Heng (ed.) (1995). Wudao xinshang [Appreciate Dance]. Taipei: Sanming.
Wu, Quancheng (ed.) (1996). Taiwan xiandai juchang yiantaohui luwenji: 1986–1995 Taiwan xiaojuchang. [A Compilation of Taiwan’s Modern Theatre Symposium: Taiwan’s Little Theatre, 1986–1995]. Taipei: Wenjianhui.
Yang, Mengyu (1998). Baowu: Lin Hwai-min Yunmen chuanqi. [The Legends of Lin Hwai-min and Yunmen] Taipei: Tianxia yuanjian.
Zhong, Mingde (1999). Taiwan xiaojuchang yundongshi. [The Little Theatre Movement of Taiwan (1980–89): In Search of Alternative Aesthetics and Politics]. Taipei: Yangzhi.

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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