Dynamic Taiwan's thoroughly modern

TAIWAN BOASTS a long tradition of classical dance but that does not mean its dance culture is frozen in the past. In fact, over the past 50 years Taiwan has produced some of Asia's leading innovators in contemporary dance.

'Taiwan is a very special case in the dance community,' said Zhang Xiao-xiong, a Taiwan-based dancer, teacher and choreographer. 'There's very good training available and the dance community is quite big for the country's population.'

Zhang will be leading dance workshops at the Hong Kong Dance Festival, and his students will perform his work, A Few Chapters of Flowing Life, on June 17 as part of the 20th Anniversary International Festival of Dance Academies.

Taiwan's dynamic dance scene is driven by powerhouses such as the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, considered to be Asia's leading contemporary dance company; U-Theatre; Taigu Tales Dance Theatre; Taipei Dance Circle and Dance Forum Taipei, one of the country's most avant-garde dance companies.

Zhang said the grounding in dance basics available in Taiwan's high schools and private schools was the foundation of the country's vibrant contemporary dance scene. He said many students who auditioned for the College of Dance at the Taipei National University of the Arts, where Zhang is an associate professor, came already equipped with good basic technique.

According to Zhang, the Taiwanese dance scene has been undergoing changes in recent years. The Graham technique, which had long held sway in contemporary dance, was giving way to new, more experimental styles.

Meanwhile, a new generation of dance choreographers was emerging from the sea of talent, Zhang said.

'They are mature and have a very strong vision. They are more free to express what they want and to use their bodies. They are not as preoccupied with distinguishing between western culture and eastern culture and how they fit in.'

Lively and supportive as the Taiwan dance community is, it still faces the funding issues that plague dance communities around the world. The government did provide funding for dance companies, but it usually fell short of what was required to maintain full-time employment for dancers, Zhang said.

The result is growing numbers of well-trained dancers but not enough paid positions to accommodate them. 'Some dancers choose to stay in Taiwan, but others go to Europe or the United States to look for work or to become dance teachers.'

Zhang was born in Cambodia but spent much of his childhood in China. He has visited the mainland frequently over the past decade and has observed dance innovation 'brewing' there too.

'More and more dancers in China are focusing on contemporary style rather than being stuck in tradition,' he said.

Groups such as the Guangdong Modern Dance Company and the Beijing Modern Dance Company are paving the way for contemporary dance by integrating China's traditional culture with influences from abroad.

'The future lies in keeping traditional art forms like martial arts, Chinese opera and Chinese dance, but also including other contemporary styles. We are giving dancers more tools to innovate so they can build up a new contemporary style.'

He said the Hong Kong Dance Festival was critical to this development, bringing together a variety of dance communities to share knowledge and experience.

'Hong Kong is an international city with lots of opportunity and freedom. It is like a bridge, bringing everyone together to express themselves and share their experiences. It's great. It gives the Taiwan dance community a space to breathe,' Zhang said.

'Art has no physical or political borders. This is a good chance for Taiwanese artists to stand on the international stage and express what they feel and show what they have to offer.'