Taiwan's Tjimur Dance Theatre moves to Indigenous rhythms in Varhung

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      To understand the mesmerizing work of Taiwan’s Tjimur Dance Theatre, you first need to understand the Paiwan people. The Indigenous culture from the mountains at the southern end of the island nation traditionally has no written language. Instead, its people have expressed their feelings through song and dance.

      Siblings Ljuzem Madiljin and Baru Madiljin left their Paiwan village to study contemporary dance in the big cities of Taiwan, but when they graduated in 2006, their hearts were pulled back to their cultural homeland. They took a leap of faith and set up Tjimur in small Pingtung county. And something magical has been happening ever since.

      Taiwan’s first dance company devoted to Paiwan songs and culture, Tjimur now tours the globe from its tiny outpost—including a visit to the Vancouver International Dance Festival this week.

      “I came back to my hometown and found a lot of people who wanted to dance here, and all those Indigenous kids can have a chance to express themselves now,” says Ljuzem, who also runs a school out of the company. Speaking over Skype video with a translator, she is sitting with her sibling in a vast, beamed studio lined with artful bookshelves, the sun from a 30-degree day streaming in. It’s a small but atmospheric glimpse of the serene village headquarters of their acclaimed company. “There are pressures on Taiwanese performers, and we had no sponsors at first. But it is very important for us to stay in this place. This place really inspires choreography.

      “We are one of only a few dance companies in Taiwan. Cloud Gate [Dance Theatre] is the biggest,” she adds, referring to the famed troupe that came to Vancouver’s Cultural Olympiad in 2010. “We’re much smaller. We have a group of around 10.”

      Tjimur Dance Theatre.
      Maria Falconer

      Varhung—Heart to Heart, the work that will come here, was built like many of the company’s other creations, starting with the songs of a tribe that loves, and lives, to sing.

      “From the traditional songs, we create these rhythms of the body,” explains Baru, “but that is also just there from living here, in this place and culture.”

      For Varhung, the dancers also delved into another practice important to the daily life of the people of Paiwan: the harvesting of shell ginger, which is woven to create everything from food wraps to articles for funerary use. The Madiljins’ performers trekked into the mountains to cut, clean, and dry the crop with local Paiwan farmers.

      Choreographer Baru says the motions and rituals of that harvest deeply influenced the movement in the piece, and the wispy fronds make an artful appearance in Varhung. But the dances derived from the harvest, especially the act of peeling the plants, layer by layer, started to take on metaphorical meaning, too. “It’s like you cut your heart open and really dig into it to get at your secrets,” he explains.

      The dancers sing of very human concerns, like thwarted love and hope, asking “anemaq” (“what?”) and “makudja” (“what happened?”), Baru says. “The songs and the dance are about all the emotions that you can’t say—and this sentiment or approach relates directly to Paiwan life,” he explains. “The dance is very open. In the end we hope it is a heart-to-heart with the audience. And we really want to open our heart.”

      The Vancouver International Dance Festival presents Tjimur Dance Theatre’s Varhung—Heart to Heart at the Vancouver Playhouse next Friday and Saturday (March 29 and 30).