Fri, Aug 10, 2007 - Page 14 News List

The poetry of bound feet

By Diane Baker  /  STAFF REPORTER

For Water Reflection Dance Ensemble, if there's no pain, there's no gain.

PHOTO: COURTESY OF WATER REFLECTION DANCE ENSEMBLE

The Water Reflection Dance Ensemble returns to the Experimental Theater at the National Theater tonight and tomorrow with an updated production of a piece they premiered there five years ago, East, A Woman Shifting on the Time Axis.

The six-year-old ensemble arrives at the Experimental Theater refreshed and inspired by its visit to Colorado last month, where they took part in the Colorado College Extraordinary Dance Summer Festival, and performed East.

In the piece, choreographer Tan Hui-chen (譚惠貞) examines female icons from East and West, the role of gender in traditional Chinese society and the emancipation of women.

When asked why she chose to revive East, her first "complete" work - as opposed to individual dances - Tan said she wanted expand it and incorporate new ideas she has had over the years.

The piece is a blend of dance, poetry, voice and visual images, the fluid shifting from one to another reflecting the shifting terrain in which women have struggled to find their footing over the centuries. Tan was inspired by the Chinese classic The Peony Pavilion when she created the original version of East. For the revised version, she said she was also inspired by another Chinese classic, Flowers in the Mirror.

If you asked the average person, male or female, what image comes to mind when you hear the phrase "women in traditional Chinese society," the answer is likely to be "bound feet." For almost 1,000 years, the status and identity of Chinese women was defined by foot binding. It has been less than 100 years since the practice was outlawed.

Of course, Western cultures have had their own ways to bind and restrict their women, though usually by clothing rather than shoes, today's fashion for five and six-inch heels or platform boots being a more recent exception. But for dancers, especially female ballet dancers, there is foot binding of another sort - the toe shoe. While not as deforming as the Chinese foot-binding practices, the hours and days spent dancing on point can cause blistering, dead toenails, bleeding toes and pain, all in the pursuit of the aesthetic beauty of lightness and grace.

Performance notes

WHAT: Water Reflection Dance Ensemble, East, A Woman Shifting on the Time Axis

WHEN: Tonight at 7:30pm, tomorrow at 2:30pm and 7:30pm

WHERE: Experimental Theater at the National Theater

TICKETS: NT$400, available at www.artsticket.com.tw or at the box office


So it should come as no surprise that the women dancers in Tan's piece begin the show with their feet bound into tiny shoes. The surprise in this revival, however, is that unlike the original, the two male dancers are using their ballet training to dance on point as well, a device that Tan said provides an "interesting combination and contrast."

"The tiny shoes worn by Chinese women over the centuries represented the bondage imposed upon women, but I couldn't help but wonder ... if modern women are really happy with their feet," Tan wrote in her program notes.

To help her dancers get into the mind-set of the generations of women who endured foot binding, the ensemble went to the Foot-binding Culture Museum in Taipei and talked with its curator David Ko. He also provided the troupe with some of his shoe collection to use on stage.

Tan has not overlooked the importance of fashion to questions about the feminine image or feminism. She tapped Taiwanese designer Tsai Yu-fen (蔡毓芬) to create the costumes for her piece that reflect a blend of historic and modern clothing.

Tan's choreography for the Water Reflection Dance Ensemble fuses the language of traditional ballet with modern dance techniques. The five women and two men performing this weekend seamlessly blend the old with the new, East and West.

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