Jostling for position amongst the huge range of companies working up at the Fringe are a set of newcomers – newcomers to the Festival, to the city, to Europe itself, in some cases leaving their home country for only the first or second time in their lives. The Taiwan Season, a collaboration between Taiwan’s Ministry of Culture and UK-based Performance Infinity, brings five Taiwanese companies working across dance, physical theatre and music to three Fringe venues for the duration of the festival.
Amongst them are companies hailing from and most frequently working with aboriginal Taiwan – like Tjimur Dance Theatre, founded and run by a pair of siblings from the Paiwan tribe. Ljuzem Madiljin, Artistic Director, and her brother Baru Madiljin, lead choreographer, left their village seeking a better education – but the influence of their performance artist father was strong enough to bring them back, in order to take cultural opportunities to young indigenous people. “Very few people even know that there are indigenous people in Taiwan and if they do they don’t know much about them,” Tjimur’s PR Manager, Daniel Moore, tells me. “Even inside Taiwan there’s a lot of ignorance.”
Tjimur seek to combine the traditional dances of their cultural history with something more modern; with another member of the company translating, Artistic Director Ljuzem explains to me that, “People in Taiwan think we only do really traditional dance, really traditional songs, so setting up this theatre company, we use contemporary dance to introduce the Paiwan culture. It shows that we cannot only do the traditional – we can do more.” Baru, the choreographer, “creates new Paiwan moves based on the old four-step move that we always do for weddings and parties”, and this combination of new and old gives the young people Tjimur works with a sense of ownership over their own culture.
“The young village people don’t get much chance to experience art forms,” Moore explans. “So it’s just a case of showing them what is out there and what’s possible, really.” And what is possible? Well, rather a lot – after all, going halfway around the world to perform at the Edinburgh Festival is no minor thing for Tjimur’s young company of dancers, for some of whom “it’s their first time leaving Taiwan – and if we come here, we can see all the other performances as well, and how it’s done in Europe. A very helpful thing.”
Ljuzem left a job in the city to return to her village and found the company, before asking her brother to come home and join her as lead choreographer; though there are occasionally tussles between them (“the most important thing for the company is to follow the Paiwan cuture – and there are times, because Baru is the artist, the choreographer, he wants to go around the world – and she has to pull him back”), they are united by their passion to show indigenous youngsters what they can achieve. Ljuzem explains that the two lead dancers in their Edinburgh Fringe Show, Kurakuraw Dance Glass Bead, “were chosen partly because of their identity in terms of their cultures”; they have a similar background to Ljuzem and Baru.
Another of the Taiwan Season’s companies, Langasan Theatre, whose performance art show Misa-Licen can be seen at Summerhall, combining music, dance and traditional ritual, also has members hailing from some of the 12 indigenous groups recognised by Taiwan’s government. Moore notes when we speak that in the UK “of course it’s very multicultural compared to Taiwan”, and there’s certainly a sense from these companies that theatre should be a gateway to broader cross-cultural understanding. Langasan’s own PR Specialist, Jade Huang, tells me that “the special thing about Langasan Theatre is we come from different ethnic groups – so we have Chinese, Taiwanese, Aborigine members… So in Misa-Licen we talk about how different ethnic groups think about ritual ceremony.”
Founded in 2012 by Adaw Palaf, himself a member of one of Taiwan’s most prestigious aborigine dance companies, which seeks “to conserve and perform the traditional dance on the stage… But his biggest ambition was always to do performance art.” Langasan is interested in examining “how our human body relates to nature and the environment”, and with Huang translating, Palaf explains that they use performance art as a means through which “to protect and conserve the aborigine culture”. “What you have seen,” Huang adds, “is our people trying to use their culture to show their respect to God and to the land.”
Joanna Dong, founder of Performance Infinity, the UK-based company that has facilitated the Taiwan Season, with funding from the Taiwanese Ministry of Culture, explains to me that there was no deliberate effort made to privilege the work of indigenous Taiwanese companies. The shows in the season were selected on merit, by the Ministry of Culture, “academics from Central School of Speech and Drama, and we also asked some help from critics in London.” The requirement was just that the companies “be small, less than eight people in the company, and flexible in terms of technical requirements – to fit a smaller space. Originally we hoped to have more theatre pieces but a lot of them were too language-based, too much to translate, so finally we make our selection into more physical theatre and dance. Three dance shows, one physical theatre and one music piece.” Next year, she hopes, if they repeat the experiment, there will be more scope for hiring a translator and bringing more language-heavy pieces to the Fringe.
Dong, who is Chinese, has a background in marketing but has always been passionate about theatre, and founded Performance Infinity after a year of studying at Central School of Speech and Drama, “to bring Chinese and Taiwanese theatre companies to Europe and at the same time to bring British pieces to China. We’re trying to find a market for both!” The Season marks Dong’s “first time working with Taiwanese companies, since last November, before that my knowledge was very limited”, but she feels the process has been similar to her previous work bringing Chinese theatre companies over – in the sense that the obstacles are the same. Taiwanese companies, like Chinese companies, “speak a different language and have a very different way of seeing the Festival.” Dong is also impressed by the effort the Taiwanese government has made with this season, in terms of “promoting their culture. They’re showing the difference between Chinese culture and Taiwan culture – because people get confused.” Indeed, as Moore explains, “Technically Taiwan is not recognised by the UK as an independent nation – we have no Taiwan embassy here… Of course it’s a difficult situation but we’re not here to stress these issues, and there’s nothing between Taiwan people and Chinese people, it’s purely a political issue. It’s in the background but it’s not something we touch upon in the show and we’re not here to talk about that.”
Before the companies came over, Dong was keen that they should “lower their expectations, because we let them know more than 3,000 companies perform at this festival…and especially as this is the first time they’ve come to Edinburgh, they don’t really have any credit or international reviews. So we told them to try their best!” But they seem unconcerned about that. Moore says, philosophically, that a large part of the attraction for Tjimur in coming over was “connecting culturally, not just within the show but for us to be here and see how we can fit in here”, adding, “it’s that universal idea – we’re pretty much all the same, obviously there’s language barriers but there’s always something to connect.”
Meanwhile, Langasan is keen to share the stories rooted in its cultural history, and the experiences of its aborigine members, with a new international audience: “We try to reveal all the sorrows of the performer; they perform because they had the experience… We want our hearts and our body to face themselves and face the world. Life experience is the most important thing – that inspires your show or inspires you to perform.” Indeed, though the company loves the thought of sharing all this with Fringe audiences, the simple act of performing the show is a delight to Langasan, wherever and whenever it is able. “The show is actually a ceremony,” Huang explains. “To show our respect to God – and all our inspiration is from tribes from our culture.”
Talking to these companies on a windy Edinburgh Fringe morning really reinforces for me the potential for the arts to create cross-cultural understanding – but also to bring joy and meaning into the lives of people across the world, whether watching or performing. At the end of our conversation, I am touched when Ljuzem Madiljin leans across the table and presents me with a gift – a glass bead bracelet traditionally worn by the Paiwan. After putting it on for me, Ljuzem pulls my wrist towards her and blows once, lightly, on the glass bead; then says with a smile, “This means to warm your heart,” which it certainly does. It’s the first time she’s spoken directly to me, rather than through a translator, since we met – but it doesn’t feel like that. Language barrier or no language barrier, it feels like we understand each other quite well enough.
The Taiwan Seasons runs at the Edinburgh Fringe through August. Details can found on the EdFringe website.