Watching Sheu Fang-yi (許芳宜) is like watching a force of nature. Onstage she is a mass of contradictions: fierce, tender, ephemeral, steadfast, poetic, earthy, fragile, incredibly strong, small but able to make her legs look extra long.
Watching Sheu was what LAFA's (拉芳) 37 Arts production was all about, with choreography that catered to her strengths and charisma. But while it was Sheu who drew the audiences that packed all four performances of LAFA's inaugural season at Novel Hall from Jan. 17 to Jan. 19, the company that she and long-time partner Bulareyaung Pagarlava (Bula, 布拉瑞揚) have formed more than delivered on their promise of a new force in Taiwan's dance world.
Choreographer Sang Ji-jyia's (桑吉加) 10-minute The Duet, set to music by Ryoji Iked, quietly set the pace for the evening. His spare, stripped-down moves made the most of Sheu and partner Chou Shu-yi's (周書毅, of MDans) easy articulation. Chou is always enjoyable to watch and he more than held his own with Sheu.
The second piece was a study in black and white, a solo for Sheu from Bula's 2002 The Single Room. Clad in a sheer black negligee-like shift, Sheu approaches her partner, a long table that sits center stage. She dances around it, against it, with it, on it and under it, back-lit for the most part so that it is her silhouette that you are watching, a graceful shadow against an immovable object.
At times the table acts as a ballet bar; other times it is more substantial, as she half lays upon it. She appears incredibly fragile, but that fragility is belied by the strength needed to maintain her balance.
The solo is one of Bula's most balletic pieces and it was a complete contrast to the final work on the program, 37 Arts, a one-two punch that demonstrated his growth as a choreographer.
Once again the table takes center stage as 37 Arts opens, only this time there are three chairs around it. Two young men, clad in huge oversized white T-shirts, take their seats, followed by a similarly clad Sheu. What follows is a rollicking Keystone Cops silent movie battle for a white bottle, first done fast, then repeated in slow motion as if lit by a strobe, all set to a cancan score. Eyes bulge, hair gets pulled, the audience gets the giggles.
Then Huang Ming-cheng (黃明正) enters, clad only in black bathing trunks, and performs a series of acrobatic feats that leaves the audience both cheering and eating out of his hand: handstands, hoop jumps and rope tricks, is there nothing this man can't do?
The slap-stick pace is maintained through the next sequence, set to I love Paris. But before you know it the pace and the mood have shifted. The friendly acrobat has become a menacing figure in a dark duet with Sheu as he grabs her hair, her T-shirt, picks her up and tosses her about.
Huang spins Sheu around much like an adult would play airplane with a child, her body parallel to the ground. But since he is holding only cloth, you find yourself hoping that the material will hold through another performance. They swirl like ice skaters, but there's a sickening edge to the movements. In the end, Sheu, her hair hanging down over her face, twitches and moves like a broken doll. No one is laughing now, the audience sits in dead silence.
Then the curtain is raised, the table is back, and all four dancers come out with their costumes turned into modified clown outfits for a cancan reprise and smiles all around. It was a powerful performance, and a reminder how good Bula is at evoking strong emotions both onstage and among the audience.