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When in Doubt, Laugh

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					When in Doubt, Laugh

FELECIA HICK WITH MONTE ENGLER




Should I be doing this? My mind was racing. What have I got myself into? There I was, nearly five
months pregnant on the back of little Jimmy’s scooter. This probably does not sound dangerous, but
Kaohsiung is densely populated, and trying to hold on to a 45kg boy, with a 50 cm waist, while darting
in and out of traffic on his scooter, was a task that took great balance and precision to avoid all the
other racers.
Travelling is an Australian pastime I actively engage in. Experiencing first-hand how different societies
treat one another/communicate/move is a great method of learning. To try to live in another person’s
home is to see a person’s customs and values in active use. It is beginning to define why it is we look
right then left (and right again) or why they give gifts with two hands. Some of which may be common
sense (traffic appears from the right first, then the left) others have developed over years of trade,
communication and are out of respect.
Often differences are subtle, yet enough to make you realise that you are not at home.
Being part of the Asia Young Choreographers Project (AYCP) 2008 was an experience I thoroughly
enjoyed. This initiative was co-hosted by Ausdance National, the National Culture and Arts Foundation,
the Bureau Culture Affairs Kaohsiung City Government, and the Chin-Lin Foundation for Culture and
Arts in Taiwan. I was proud to have been selected to represent Australia.

The Project
I was one of eight choreographers to take part in the AYCP in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. Each of us was
selected based on our potential to be a significant contributor to dance in the future. Outcomes for the
project had been established before we arrived; however the exchange I had had with Taiwan was
quite vague, which made me a little anxious. Creating a ten-minute work in three weeks with non-
English speaking dancers was always going to be
challenging. Many questions circulated in my mind.
Can I create a piece I am happy within a short time?
Will the dancers understand me? Will we be able to
get along? Can we deliver a high-quality work?
This was nerve-racking yet exciting. As the plane
took off I immediately thought, ‘What have I got
myself into?’ Yet deep down I was charged to
experience what lay ahead.
Dancers from all over Taiwan were initially selected
from an audition process and each choreographer
could chose up to six dancers for their work. I was
given the opportunity to work with seven dancers. I
rehearsed with them daily from 9am to 12pm,
Monday to Friday, at the Tsoying High School. The
work was then performed in a dance theatre for the
local community twice over two days.


Food stall in a Kaohsiung night market, Taiwan.
Photograph: Felecia Hick

BROLGA June 2009                                                                                      35
When in Doubt, Laugh


The project provided housing, local transport, dancers, studios, publicity, production and office
assistance and a total of NT$30,000 (about US$800) as an honorarium. Additionally, Arts SA supported
my airfare and living costs.
The Tsoying High School’s Dance Department has the reputation of being the leading department for
dance in Taiwan and the stepping stone to the Taipei National University of Arts and the National
Taiwan College of Arts. It is part of the World Dance Alliance and its international partners include New
World School of the Arts, Miami; Shenandoah University, Virginia, and Queensland University of
Technology. The department frequently performs in international dance festivals including events in
Malaysia, Hong Kong, Indonesia and the United States of America. The students are highly skilled
technicians and their daily schedule is long and rigorous; some days start at 7:25am and continue until
11:30pm. They learn classical ballet (Cecchetti and RAD), contemporary dance (mainly Graham
technique) and Chinese opera as well as maths, art, English, Chinese, military education, natural
science and social studies. The department focuses on international links and as the director, Ms. Su-
ling Chou, believes it is vital for the students to be exposed to a diverse range of choreographic
methodologies, she invites international choreographers to teach at the school every year. International
summer workshops are held annually as well as the AYCP, which is open by audition to all present and
past dance students across Taiwan.

Kaohsiung, Taiwan
My time was spent in Kaohsiung, a grey, industrial city on the island’s south-western coast. It is the
most densely populated and second largest city in Taiwan, with a population of around 1.5 million. As
with most places you enjoy, it’s the people that make it special. What may have been lacking in
aesthetic architecture was more than made up for by the people. That is not to say Kaohsiung is
devoid of architectural significance, green spaces, sea views or blue skies; however, these are not
common reasons for people to travel to Kaohsiung. The attraction to the city for the majority of visitors
is commerce.
I have always associated Taiwan with computer products, international cargo ships – you see them in
ports all over the world – and Chinese culture, not the arts and especially not dance. Well I was in for
a surprise! The community is very supportive of dance and the arts in general.
Obviously I was walking into a situation where
language would be a barrier. However, the
Taiwanese are accommodating and will not let this
become an issue. If they do not understand you
and communication breaks down – the laughing
starts. This simple reaction caused me to smile,
and they saved face. A common theme throughout
my time in Kaohsiung emerged from situations
where I could not clearly detail something owing to
the language barrier but which resulted in laughter.
Whatever I could not get at the time, or whatever
seemed to be a big deal – someone else always
came along. The laughter became comical and
broke any tension.
The school seemed out of place in Kaohsiung. It sat
at the bottom of lush hills surrounded by leafy trees.
A typical view of the city is of raw concrete
buildings covered in a thin layer of black soot and
roads flooded with scooters. Technology surrounds
life, footpaths seem clean, no graffiti exists and it
would be a local embarrassment if there were

Chun-hi Chao in ‘Same’. Photograph: Zen-hau Liu
Courtesy: Felecia Hick

36                                                                                   BROLGA June 2009
rubbish on the streets. Many times I had to swallow my chewing gum so that I wouldn’t get caught
with it while riding the train; I tried to avoid the ‘big’ fine.
I would ride the bus home. Weaving throughout the city allowed me to see the way people lived and
their interactions. The locals were cooking food on the streets, some restaurants had the food
steaming on stoves on the footpaths and people sat in air-conditioned rooms. It seemed efficient –
kitchen outside, seats inside. Reversed, yet sensible – why heat the room you want to cool? I loved
looking out the window – the race-scooters stopping at the lights, racers texting on mobiles as fast as
possible, then green light GO! Whole families could fit on a scooter: father driving, mum on the back,
boy in between, baby in a steel carry-on seat between the father’s feet and dog in the wire basket at
the front.
There are street dogs as in other Asian cities, but it was different. They were looked after, not diseased
or distressed. Locals fed the dogs. They were not left to fend for themselves. This was a
compassionate position that the Taiwanese took to almost all aspects of their lives.
Similar to other Asian cities, Kaohsiung comes to life at night. Night markets are the place to be. From
the necessity of the iced tea to sweet cakes filled with chocolate to fish soup and smelly tofu. The
markets are full: watches, clothes (especially babies’ clothing), pets, trinkets, appliances, families – it
was social.
The narrow-minded view of the small island and its people that I had matured quickly. The Taiwanese
are friendly and very accommodating to foreigners. I never expected that men would help me with my
luggage from the overhead baggage compartment without my even asking. I was immediately taken
aback by this gesture and could not help but reflect on my journey in the plane from Australia to Hong
Kong where I struggled with all my belongings (it’s hard to lift anything above your head while
pregnant). This exchange was the first of many I received from local people.

How I Work
My work is often task-based. I approach a new piece by asking questions. By doing this I find the
movement stays true to the intention of the work; it is diverse, and the dancers have feelings of
contribution and ownership. I am enthused by what the others bring to the table. People interpret
situations and circumstances according to their own life experiences. I want to know about my
dancers. What makes them tick? How do they cope with life’s challenges? I want them to have a
creative input into the work. My way of interpreting something may be very different from someone
                                                  else’s and that is what excites me, inspiring me to
                                                  create.
                                                    Movement should be true to the question, answers
                                                    are gestures. Gestures are then developed into
                                                    actions by further dialogue. Once I have the
                                                    movement I then place the dancers in the space
                                                    according to how their bodies shape the space. I
                                                    look at how the body designs/frames the space. I
                                                    mould the work.
                                                    The movement is unique. It is the their movement,
                                                    actions that they are comfortable with.
                                                    I often have a trusting relationship with my
                                                    collaborators prior to commencing, as the questions
                                                    I ask can sometimes be quite personal. I asked
                                                    myself: how would dancers from another culture
                                                    handle this, would they see it as inappropriate,
                                                    would they feel uncomfortable? Maybe that is a
                                                    good thing, sometimes asking dancers questions
                                                    gives them an opportunity to reflect on their own
                                                    lives. I never ask them to explain their answers

                                                    Chun-hi Chao in ‘Same’. Photograph: Zen-hau Liu
                                                    Courtesy: Felecia Hick

BROLGA June 2009                                                                                        37
When in Doubt, Laugh


vocally. I think if I were to do this I would be invading their privacy. This is unfair to them and the work
as some dancers may then not be completely honest with their answers.

The Dance
Creating a choreographic work in Taiwan was challenging; however, it was a fulfilling artistic
experience.
The piece we created was titled SAME. It plays on the idea that people of different cultures often have
a similar appearance to outsiders. This extends to the fact that we are subtly different, but we are the
same in our basic desires of happiness, togetherness, compassion – deep down in so many ways we
hold the same values – we just express them differently.
SAME was based on a short work called Beda (meaning ‘different’ in Indonesian) which I created in
2004 on the Ausdance South Australian Youth Dance Ensemble, Freshbred. I decided that Beda would
be the starting point for SAME as it originated from the desire to explore cultural diversity. It was small
in scale and I wanted to develop it further. I decided to keep parts of the contemporary string
accompaniment composed by South Australian Hilary Kleinig, from the Zephyr Quartet, together with
the haunting sounds of Meredith Monk.
The main challenge for me during the creative process was the language. I did not know until I arrived
in Kaohsiung the locals’ English limitations. I often rely on dialogue between myself and the dancers.
As my process is task-based I require the dancers to understand what I am asking of them. Keeping
this in mind I really took the time to study the dancers in the audition, which occurred on the second
day of my arrival; approximately 80 dancers came from various regions of Taiwan. By the end of the
day, we, the choreographers, had to decide whom we wanted. This in itself was difficult as we had
not met the dancers previously so I did not know them; as well, most of the language of the audition
was Taiwanese. Each choreographer was given only 15 minutes to work with the dancers and even
though the dancers wore numbers I found it difficult to distinguish one dancer from the other.
As I watched the choreographers each deliver their task I kept wondering how I was going to get past
the fact the dancers could not speak English. Halfway through the day I noticed a female dancer who
stood out from the group. She did not wear the standard uniform of black leggings and a t-shirt. Her
hair was long and unkept; her clothes multicoloured. She was different. She moved with a sense of
maturity; she was comfortable in her own skin. Her movements were well thought out, delicate and
sensitive to the given tasks. I knew she had been influenced by Western culture.
When my turn came to take the audition I taught a phrase and then gave the dancers a creative task.
By the end of the audition I chose to work exclusively with seven female dancers as I am interested
in women’s studies and issues of gender differentiation. The women ranged from 16 to 24 years and
were present and past students of Tsoying High School and other dance institutions from the central
and southern regions of Taiwan. I-Hua Yeh, the dancer with the ‘unkept hair’ was one of the seven
dancers. Thankfully she could speak fluent English. I-Hua Yeh had moved abroad two years ago to
further her dance studies, and she became my link to the other dancers. I relied on her throughout the
three weeks. What would I have done without her?
I rehearsed with the dancers daily for three hours. A typical rehearsal began with a 45-minute yoga
warm-up allowing them to tune into one another. This was an important part of my process as it
helped maintain the dancers’ focus and I wanted to create a supportive environment for each person.
After the warm-up I began workshopping the piece. The creative process began with a question which
the dancers had 20-30 minutes to answer individually. During this time I sat back to observe them
shaping and moulding their bodies in the space. I asked each dancer to show her phrase (her reply).
At this point I began experimenting with the movement, playing with it by pulling individual phrases
apart and focusing on dynamical shifts. I wanted parts of phrases emphasised more than others. As
a choreographer I am interested in seeing the dancers moving with sensitivity: to be aware of the
movement itself, to give each gesture a purpose and to be in the present moment of each movement.
I explained to them that the body is three-dimensional; every part of the body needs to feel the
movement, whether big or small. I am not interested in putting movements together for the sake of
creating a phrase.
38                                                                                     BROLGA June 2009
The seven dancers of ‘Same’. Photograph: Zen-hau Liu. Courtesy: Felecia Hick


During this process I also questioned myself. What am I trying to say? Why am I asking the dancers
to do this? What do I want the audience to see? For me it is important to step out from the work
itself and see it from an audience’s perspective.
There were three parts to SAME and I had a fairly clear idea of the mood of each section. Initially I
began with the end of the work, a complicated section of solos, partner work, trios and group work. I
linked many small phrases together, chopped and changed others, reversed and embellished gestures,
cut, swapped, flipped and teased the movement.
We all worked efficiently from day one. I was also on a time restraint as the director, Su-ling Chou,
wanted to view a third of the work by the fourth day! This was so she could get an idea of the order
of the programme. I found this a little scary and strange – I have never worked like this before. A third
of the work by the fourth day! We did it though and the dancers with their sound technique and
insightful creativity worked with commitment, focus, humour, warmth and openness.
One major difference I found is that the Taiwanese are eager to please, striving for perfection until
everyone is happy. Unlike in the West where performers thrive on being individuals or are encouraged
to be different, the Taiwanese are trained to learn a movement and repeat it in exactly the same way
that it is presented to them. This meant that most dancers moved in the same way. The end result is
a very crisp and clean choreographic masterpiece with not even a hair out of place. For some
choreographers this attribute works well, but for others it can be detrimental. I decided to take
advantage of this quality by stretching it to the extreme. I either required the dancers to be identical
down to the tilt of the head and glance of the eyes or I wanted them to fully embrace their individuality
and be completely different from one another. Obviously the latter was quite unfamiliar. ‘Felecia, two
minutes then we show you.’ They would huddle in a group, discuss the phrase and then rehearse it
over and over until everyone was completely the same.
It seemed to me that it was a rare opportunity for them to express their own personalities through
dance. To overcome their apprehension I worked with them on a one-on-one basis (well, as closely as
I could) and encouraged them to let go and be themselves while moving. I did this by either conversing
through my interpreter, I-Hua Yeh, or using breath and universal sounds (e.g. ahhhh, whoosh, oops,
whoa) to trigger movement qualities. I spent much of my time on this aspect of the process because
at the end of the day I did not want to be the only person leaving with new skills. I wanted the dancers
to realise how important their own idiosyncrasies were to my work. I wanted this to be a great
opportunity for everyone.
As the days passed it became easier to converse with the dancers. They began to understand what I
wanted from them. We began to relax with one another and in turn they gave more. Friendships
developed between the dancers and also with me. They even practised their English on me and I
tried to speak Taiwanese, which they found rather amusing. We became more than a team, we
became friends.

BROLGA June 2009                                                                                      39
When in Doubt, Laugh


I completed the work within sixteen days. The few days I had remaining were for refining, polishing
the piece, spacing it in the theatre and working one on one with the lighting designer from Taipei. It
was also during this time that I organised costumes. Each choreographer had a costume budget and
it was up to them to design or organise their own garments. So I took my team shopping! This was a
fabulous opportunity for me to get to know the dancers. We had lots of laughs while watching each
other try on different dresses.
All in all, the development of SAME was exceedingly smooth. I completely trusted my dancers and in
turn they trusted me. The result was a sensitive collaboration and cultural exchange between eight
women. This project was a brilliant experience for a young choreographer. I learnt how to deal with the
challenges and stresses of producing a work in unknown circumstances in a limited time and with
unfamiliar performers. While in and out of the studio I kept myself open to any possibilities that came
up and I also trusted my instinct when it came to moulding the work to fruition. I was truly valued as
an artist by the staff and dancers. I was truly accepted!
The whole experience was very positive. Even though Kaohsiung is not my home I felt at home while
I was there. The students, directors, hotel staff, pedestrians, shopkeepers – everyone was hospitable.
I was surprised to find that even strangers in the street were lovely. It’s a good life. Because I was
so welcomed and supported I felt comfortable. This allowed me to work at my maximum. In terms
of dance, this was the best overseas experience that I have had. I am looking forward to going back
there this year and many more times in the future.




40                                                                                 BROLGA June 2009

				
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