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Have Dreams, Will Travel:NCAF Program Expands Young Artists’ Horizons

Lee Shan Wei /photo byKent Chuang /tr. byBruce Humes
Now in its seventh year, the Overseas Art Travel Program sponsored by Taiwan’s National Culture and Arts Foundation (NCAF) functions as a pivotal promoter that helps budding artists realize their dreams. Temporarily immersed within an alien social milieu, funded artists free themselves of inhibited thinking, and emerge freshly energized.
Panay Kumod, who is of Bunun and Amis parentage, bravely explores the world with a fearless root-seeking spirit. Thanks to her chosen project, she visited a number of traditional Maori marae (clubhouses) in faraway New Zealand, where she had an unexpected encounter with her Austronesian roots. During his project in 2018, dancer Chang Chien-hao was able to further explore the essential elements of Southeast-Asian dance, as well as the deeper meaning of an ethnic group’s identity. 
Chang Dance Theater: Well-defined and fluid yet tension-filled body language.
Chang Dance Theater: Well-defined and fluid yet tension-filled body language.
Panay Kumod: Austronesian epiphany
She has a bronze complexion, deep-set chestnut eyes, and a head of dense, curly hair. “I’m one of a kind,” asserts Panay Kumod, smiling. She also has the figure of a born sportswoman. Her father is Amis, but she has the Bunun looks of her mother. A cultural activist who has left her footprints across the United States, Canada, Iceland and New Zealand, she is immersed in the vast world of “ethnic roots.”
Having worked for three years at the International Affairs Office of National Dong Hua University in Hualien, she realizes that when one uses the language of one’s interlocutor, it immediately increases a sense of familiarity between speakers. As a child she watched her father at work, noting how he switched between five or six tongues in conversation, an ability that she both revered and envied.
“Immersive study is the best way to foster an intuitive feeling for a language,” says Panay Kumod. During the sixth Overseas Art Travel Program in 2018, in which she spent time at traditional Maori marae in New Zealand, she was moved to discover how seriously the Maori take the transmission of their language. Having lived through the period in Taiwan when it was forbidden to use any language except Mandarin in schools and the media, she ­cannot communicate fluently in the language of her people; this leaves her feeling helpless and frustrated.
“I am afraid that one day our identity will disappear,” she confides. When indigenous peoples leave their traditional communities to make a living in the outside world, the culture of their ancestors gradually blurs, and even their languages are forgotten.
Observing how the Maori use immersive learning to study their mother tongue from kindergarten through university has stimulated Panay Kumod’s dream of reviving her own people’s tongue. “From the moment they enter the school campus, they can only speak in Maori,” she says. Creating a monolingual environment is highly effective. “I hope that one day, I too can create a complete space for immersive learning.”
With her bronze complexion, deep-set chestnut eyes and head of dense, curly hair, Panay Kumod has a distinctive look.
With her bronze complexion, deep-set chestnut eyes and head of dense, curly hair, Panay Kumod has a distinctive look.
Call of the ancestral spirits
The kauri tree (Agathis australis), which the Maori revere, symbolizes the ancestral spirits that once broke apart the seamless embrace of the Sky Father and Earth Mother, thus creating our world. Proceeding solemnly, Panay Kumod followed her Maori guides in the darkness of the night. When they arrived before the ancestral spirits and the lights suddenly shone bright, she was overcome with an extraordinary sensation—her five senses came alive, her pores opened and shut in tandem with the music, and spiritual energy flowed through her from head to toe. It was a feeling that could only be experienced in such a setting. 
“When you enter the marae, you feel oddly moved,” she says. Its appearance and function are strikingly similar to the kakita’an, or ancestral house, in the Amis community of Tafalong in Hualien’s Guangfu Township, and she felt a sense of familiarity as if she had returned home. “It’s the spiritual center of the tribe, and weddings, funerals and celebrations are held there.”
The building resembles the open arms of the ancestral spirits, their gaze full of compassion, accepting all aspects of the tribe. “I was deeply touched when I saw their preservation of the marae, and their respect for them.” Inspired by their wisdom, Panay Kumod felt an unshirkable responsibility for guarding tradition.
A calling card that germinates
“The Maori, like Taiwan’s Aborigines, deeply revere Nature.” Panay Kumod has ingeniously embedded scallion seeds in her calling cards, her way of expressing the idea of cherishing Mother Nature. “If one of my business cards is discarded, as long the seeds find the appropriate environment, they will germinate.” Life is never extinguished, and burgeons at the slightest opportun­ity.
Each people’s lifestyle, language, religion, music, dance and diet are irreplaceable cultural assets. “In developing tourism, the focus shouldn’t be on ‘consumption,’ but on highlighting culture and familiarizing tourists with it.” Panay Kumod believes that only by treating culture as the main attraction, conveying its value and serving as cultural guardians, can a people win long-lasting respect from others.
“Returning to one’s roots can be a difficult journey, but after all, it is our home,” she whispers, gazing into the distance.
Born talent: Chang Chien-hao
In 2011, Chang Chien-hao and his younger brothers jointly established Chang Dance Theater. Their debut performance attracted the attention of Taiwan’s contemporary dance circles. “We four brothers each took different paths toward dance,” says Chang, who is ten years older than his youngest brother; but they all eventually received a professional education in dance.
“Mom was our earliest mentor,” says Chang. Their mother, Song Xiujun, has been teaching dance in Yunlin County’s Douliu for several decades, and is very passionate about this art form. “She wanted us to have ‘portable skills.’”
In the past eight years, Chang Dance Theater has not only toured Taiwan, but has also been invited to perform in Paris, at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and at Madrid’s Circulo de Bellas Artes, as well as venues in Hong Kong and Bethlehem in the West Bank. In 2017 and again in 2018, the troupe was chosen by Taiwan’s Ministry of Culture to participate in the Taiwan Season at the Edinburgh Fringe.
Dance expresses the contradictions inherent in the close yet competitive relationship of brother with brother.
Dance expresses the contradictions inherent in the close yet competitive relationship of brother with brother.
East-West cultural attraction and collision
In 2017, Chang was selected by the Asian Cultural Association to do a six-month artist’s residency in New York City. He collaborated with Korean, Thai and Cambodian dancers to choreograph and perform a work entitled Boundary.
“All the time, my eyes had been focused on Europe and the US, but thanks to that residency, I discovered that Southeast-Asian culture also has great depth.”
The sense of an unfinished journey prompted Chang to reorient himself toward Southeast Asia. In 2018, he won a place in the Overseas Art Travel Program with a project to explore contemporary and traditional dance in Taiwan and Thailand. He worked in Thailand with Kornkarn Rungsawan, a Thai female dancer, and together they composed a duet. 
“In Kornkarn I recognized traits unique to East Asia.” These familiar traces stimulated Chang to scrutin­ize the connotations of dance in a deeper way, contemplating how to use the body as a medium to strike a balance when the traditional and contemporary collide.
During the one-and-a-half-month project, while capturing video images of dancing, walking, standing still and conversing that reflected the inertia and repetition common in daily life, Chang happened upon the theme for his duet, entitled “Routine.” Due to differences in cultural background and interpretations of body movements and dance traditions, the contrast between East and West led Chang to a deeper understanding that the essence of dance lies in conveying how we are tempered by life.
Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes
The four brothers have performed together overseas many times. Although they were influenced by their mother and all came to love dance, each developed distinct fortes. Chien-kuei, the third-born, is the head of the dance troupe, second-born Chien-chih serves as artistic director, and big brother Chien-hao and their youngest brother Ho-chien are both resident artists. Each performs his specific duties and respects the others.
Having undergone the baptism of the Overseas Art Travel Program, Chang Chien-hao came to the realization that seeking one’s inner essence is one of the most down-to-earth sources of inspiration in dance. One of the brothers’ earlier dance works, Bon 4 Bon, told the story of childhood and adolescence as the brothers grew up, in moving performances that resonated with audiences. Now the quartet describe their mutual relation­ships as full-grown adults. “We want to express the contra­dictions inherent in close yet competitive relationships between brothers.”
For more than half a year now, they are once again engaged in group rehearsals for a finely crafted dance set. “We are all dancers. We are ruthless competitors in the workplace, but in terms of our shared lineage, we are inseparable, loving siblings.” Through their dancing, the wisdom of empathy is expressed, and introversion and extro­version alternate constantly.
In addition to dance, the troupe has also joined forces with partners in other domains, such as theater, circus and new media. Chien-hao, whose eyes were opened thanks to partici­pation in the overseas program, constantly reminds himself that via dancing, he must examine life’s experiences and setbacks in order to rediscover his inner self and creativity.
“This is the lifelong gift given us by our mother.” Cherish­ing her patient cultivation, and cherishing the emotional bond between brothers—such is the troupe’s destiny.
Retrieve from Taiwan Panorama
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