Taiwan artists make a splash for Canada

Blissed out acolytes revel in Burnaby's Deer Lake Park meditation

Zhang Yi-chun's tea ceremony oblations; stick with the 東方美人茶, but don't drink the water! Photo: Prism

Long before it started presuming to rule strategically placed flyspeck atolls in the Southeast Asia – let alone all of Hawaii, Okinawa and Micronesia – China laid claim to a prosperous, populous and fiercely independent island just 180 km off its coast: Taiwan.

Occasional military sabre-rattling aside, for most of the past 70 years Beijing’s pretensions to own Formosa have taken the form of systematically and aggressively undercutting Taipei’s international status.

As a result, just to get around globally, Taiwan’s 23 million worldly citizens have learned to become ever more creative in economic and cultural diplomacy, improvising a whole range of hybridized public-private initiatives.

As a modest – but elegant – example, in celebration of Canada’s 150th National Day this week, the local chapter of the Taiwanese Canadian Cultural Association brought to Burnaby’s Deer Lake Park a tea ceremony and dance recital that the group billed (in its monthly publication) as “a novel baptism for body and spirit.”

The occasion had a distinctly religious – but wholly non-sectarian – feel. Filing into a shady glade off the lake, the 40-odd attendees were handed floor length cotton kaftans to don as quasi-monastic robes. Very handy for fending off the abundant mosquitoes, but also melding us into a transitorily uniformed congregation as we settled onto four rows of creek side meditation cushions.

Whatever nameless god[s] we were there to venerate, our devotions were reciprocated with impeccable weather. Gentle breezes doffed the cedars and wafted a scrim of cottonwood fluff, backlit by the golden glow of late afternoon.

As though from the very trees emanated the recorded strains of traditional Chinese instruments – a zither, percussion blocks, flute, lute and erhu fiddle – as performed by Taiwan’s multi-award winning Silk and Bamboo Jazz Quintet. This solemn introit ushered in the officiating “priest,” solo dancer “Billy” Zhang Yi-chun (張逸軍).

In a flaring orange Sufi skirt (designed, like the audience kaftans, by New Agey Taiwan couturier Zheng Huizhong), Zhang paced to, through, around and across the lagoon and the meditation cushions of his audience congregants. He teetered on deadfall logs, executed arabesques and pirouettes on steppingstones, draped himself upside-down on the scattered boulders.

In his poised and deliberate progress, Zhang has come a long way since his hyperkinetic performance as the fire god Yao in Cirque de Soleil’s Dralion roadshow. But, ever since returning home and founding his own Prism dance company, Zhang has specialized in this sort of site-specific, crypto-hieratic performance art, executed in one-off outdoor locales throughout Taiwan. This Canada Day outing was Prism’s first foray abroad.

Yet Zhang’s bare feet seemed native to Burnaby, finding every available crevice of leverage in the rocky swale; hard to imagine that he’d never laid eyes on this little rill until just the day before. After staking out every crenulation of the stream bank, he waded, calf-deep, into the pool, now flicking playful sprays at his congregants and then dipping solemn offerings in a shallow dish.

Ritualistically eloquent, to be sure, but I was much relieved not to be called upon to drink these oblations. Instead, a line of matronly acolytes (locally recruited, elaborately coiffed, barefoot and decked out in flowing vestments) filed among us with hefty teapots.

They topped up our stoneware bowls with fragrant, loose leaf tea (top grade Taiwanese ‘Oriental Beauty,’ 東方美人, from the taste of it). This they garnished with a plate apiece of petits fours à la Formosa: mungbean cakes, lavender glacées, and sticky rice mochi.

The arrival of these dainties seemed to signal a shift to a more intimate musicale. As the recorded soundtrack stilled, Zhang ceremoniously paced the length of the little lagoon with a cello hoisted above his head, trailed by his solo accompanist, Vancouver-based Judy Lou (樓雅華).

He perched her and her instrument on a jutting granite slab and limned this ad hoc stage with tightly danced figures, dancer and musician staying within eye-contact range. Pure improvisation on both their parts, but instinctively in perfect synch with each other – quizzically atonal cello riffs, matched by subtly unfurling shifts of choreographic equipoise.

Gradually the tempo picked up, incorporating snippets of Bach cello suites and even (or did I imagine it?) overtones of klezmer. And the ambit of the dance widened until – without once losing synch – Zhang danced out of Lou’s line of sight and into the lagoon behind her. Then, snatching up an arcing spruce branch, he returned to pass it, in apparent benediction, over the heads of his seated congregants, flaring his costume skirt in a kind of dervish whirl at the end of each row.

So what did any of this have to do with Canada Day? Not much that I could make out directly. Except, perhaps, to heighten our sense of blessed immediacy and particularity. By the final cello notes and last pass of the cedar bough, most of the assembled Taiwanese (and guests) were rooted to their meditation cushions, eyes half closed, blissed out just to be in this place at this instant.

Oh, Canada!  


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