Dancing All the Way Home：The Bulareyaung Dance Company
Chen Chun-fang /photo byKent Chuang /tr. byPhil Newell
Choreographer Bulareyaung Pagarlava leads a dance company composed of indigenous people from different locations and tribes. As they deepen their understanding of indigenous culture, their increasing self-confidence makes their performances all the more sincere and moving. (photo by Kent Chuang)
The following words appeared on the Facebook page of the Bulareyaung Dance Company, in the Paiwan language: “Returning home is a continuation of a complete life, so Bulareyaung is opening the door.” This marked the opening of a rehearsal space following choreographer Bulareyaung Pagarlava’s return to Taitung to pursue his dreams. Since then five years have flashed by, during which time Bulareyaung, hand in hand with young indigenous people, has transformed the inspiration he takes from the land into a succession of brilliant choreographic works, inviting the general public to join in exploring the beauty of dance and indigenous culture.
Paiwan choreographer Bulareyaung Pagarlava has created works for Cloud Gate Dance Theater and the Martha Graham Dance Company, and is highly esteemed in international dance circles. However, just as his choreographic career was at its peak, he chose to return to his hometown of Taitung to form the Bulareyaung Dance Company (BDC). Since leaving home at age 15 to study dance in the city, until age 40 Bulareyaung was a workaholic. When he decided to return to Taitung, friends bet that he wouldn’t last three months, but he has now been there for over five years.
Behind the playful laughter of BDC members is hidden the discrimination, bullying, and misunderstanding they encountered while growing up. Bulareyaung enables this group of young people to use dance to build self-confidence and heal their psychological wounds. (photo by Kent Chuang)
Bulareyaung gave up his successful international choreography career and came back to settle in an old sugar warehouse in Taitung County, returning home to realize his dream of founding an indigenous dance company.
Who am I?
Meeting Bulareyaung face to face, his eloquent conversation and frequent bursts of hearty laughter make it hard to imagine that in the past he was very serious and unsociable around other people.
“In the past I always did my creative work alone behind closed doors, but since returning home I’ve become more relaxed.” Bulareyaung says that all this goes back to his exploring the question “Who am I?” The conventions of city life were a straitjacket that made him reserved and inhibited. But after setting foot in his native place and working with young indigenous people, he has gradually rediscovered his optimistic and carefree nature.
The members of BDC, who come from various indigenous tribes and had no previous formal training in dance, have played a key role in all this.
When Bulareyaung first returned to Taitung, he followed his usual approach to choreography, asking members of the company to share their imaginative thoughts about the sea, and then to individually interpret these thoughts in dance. Ten minutes passed, then half an hour, but nobody could give him a response. After several attempts, the dancers said to him frankly: “Teacher, don’t tell us to use our imaginations any more. Take us out to do some labor, or go into the mountains.” Someone even joked: “Don’t use your Taipei brain to work with us—you’ll never get what you want.” The troupe members’ straightforward remarks alerted Bulareyaung to the fact that they were different from dancers who had had formal school training: they preferred to base their dance movements on actual physical experiences.
Hence Bulareyaung took his dancers into indigenous communities to prepare land for planting, move stones, and pick ginger, turning these traditional forms of labor into experiences for their bodies. It is this learning based in daily life that enables BDC’s works to avoid the sense of distance that the general public often feels toward modern dance and to add an element of sincerity and authenticity. Sitting in the theater, one can almost feel the sea breeze from the Pacific Ocean.
The work Colors, born of a devastating typhoon, brought rain boots and round red banqueting tables to the stage. Full of local character, the piece showed audiences a different kind of beauty. (photo by Bernie Ng, courtesy of Esplanade—Theatres on the Bay, Singapore)
Qaciljay, based on a traditional warriors’ song, displays the dancers’ physical strength and beauty. (photo by Pungiya Kao, courtesy of BDC)
Learning from daily life
Bulareyaung relates that when he returned to Taitung he had the ambition to choreograph a grand work of indigenous dance with a Western structure, but in the end he couldn’t do it. “That was because I didn’t understand indigenous peoples. I didn’t even understand the traditions of my own Paiwan tribe, nor could I speak our language, so how could I even begin to do it?” So he took his troupe members into indigenous communities to learn folk songs. “It was only later that I realized that if you simply live earnestly, life will present you with the material for creative work.”
For example, the 2016 work Qaciljay, BDC’s second production, was created by Bulareyaung after he returned to his birthplace of Buliblosan (Chinese name Jialan) and learned an ancient Paiwan warriors’ song. The first day of rehearsals, Bulareyaung said to the dancers: “Let’s join hands, and don’t let go, and we’ll see what happens.” Forty minutes later, when they had all reached the limits of their physical strength, some exhausted dancers gave up and sat down, but they were pulled up by the hands of others. There were others who grew more excited the more tired they became, and their singing got louder and louder. Thus what had seemed like a repetitively simple traditional dance went through many variations, and revealed the powerful spiritual force that emerges when people face difficulties together. It also reflected how, so long as we hold each other’s hands, when we are faced with problems in life there will always be someone at our side.
Bulareyaung has never regretted returning to Taitung, but running a dance company is not easy and there have been no end of challenges. In 2016 Typhoon Nepartak, which caused severe damage in Taitung, blew the roof off the company’s rehearsal space. The interior was devastated, making it impossible to proceed with rehearsals for the new work Colors. The company could only put on their rain boots and practice singing as they cleaned up and temporarily replaced the roof with tarpaulins, for they still had to carry on with daily life and perform as scheduled. Seeing how everyone came together to get through this hardship, Bulareyaung was moved and had the sudden inspiration to have the company perform Colors on a tarpaulin, in their rain boots. It looked a little rustic at first glance, but the energy produced by facing up to adversity introduced a new element of life’s beauty into the work.
On site at the Taiwan Pasiwali Festival, the members of the Bulareyaung Dance Company spread energy both on and off the stage.
Reacting to society
BDC has many faces, from the masculine valor of Qaciljay and the quirky appeal of Colors to the troupe members singing madly at the Taiwan Pasiwali Festival, using familiar old songs to energize the atmosphere at the event. When asked which of his works is most representative of the company, Bulareyaung tilts his head, at a loss for an answer. “Our performers dance, and sing, and also speak and act, so we’re hard to define. We seem to combine all the performing arts. The most important thing is that we never turn our back on traditional culture.” One can learn something about BDC from each individual work, but from any given piece one can only learn a part of who they are.
By his own account, in the past Bulareyaung never paid attention to social issues, and still less to indigenous issues. He felt that as an artist his greatest contribution to society was simply to produce good works. But since returning to Taitung, he has been surrounded by the past, present, and future of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples. Their concerns have become part of his life, and caused him to leave his comfort zone. As a result, BDC productions are often responses to the contemporary environment.
During the 2017 occupation of Taipei’s Ketagalan Boulevard in protest over the issue of traditional indigenous territories, BDC came north several times to show their support. At that time they were in the middle of rehearsals for a new production, Stay That Way, so they were unable to stay with the protestors. But when they began performing the piece, they transported some of the colorful rocks that had been brought to Ketagalan Boulevard from various indigenous communities to their performance space and shared the protest with audience members. Three women indigenous singers were invited to take part in the work, and there was thrilling interplay between their life stories and ringing voices, and the movements of the dancers. Through this production BDC expressed the difficult situation that indigenous people have long been facing. Although audiences did not understand the words of the songs being sung, the grief and sorrow conveyed by the voices brought tears to their eyes.
Since 2015, BDC has toured indigenous communities, putting on performances and holding seminars. Bulareyaung says that the work they perform most often there is Warriors, before which the dancers share their personal stories from the stage. This allows communities to see a different side of indigenous dance, and the work gives indigenous parents the courage to support their children in pursuing their dreams. The performances create a shared image in the minds of parents and children.
They dance, they sing, and they also act. The Bulareyaung Dance Company integrates indigenous culture into their works, and each performance is breathtaking.
On the path of learning
Having staged their first work, La Song, in 2015, BDC is now in its sixth year. They had originally scheduled a new production, Not Afraid of Sun and Rain, for 2020, but due to the Covid-19 pandemic it has been put off until 2021.
At the core of this work is pakalungay, a youth learning stage in Amis culture. “Not afraid of sun, not afraid of rain” are words from a song sung during the training. Sunshine and rain are nature’s ways of tempering us, but they also represent obstacles that people encounter in life. Through this production Bulareyaung hopes to encourage people to have no fear, and tell them that the joy of life comes from overcoming adversity. He says that BDC, at five years old, is like a child going through pakalungay—it has just started and is learning little by little. “When you see yourself as a learner, you will be more humble, and the works you produce will be more sincere. This sincerity is basic to art.”
Having gone from trying to erase his indigenous identity, to adopting his Aboriginal name, to returning home again, I ask Bulareyaung if he feels that he is fully an indigenous person inside and out. He thinks for a minute, then slowly replies: “The Bulareyaung that existed before returning to Taitung was very successful, but I was empty, and felt confused about my identity. In the five years since I returned to Taitung, I’ve become more myself, and I’m getting ever closer to being the Bulareyaung that I want to become.” Even today he often asks himself, “Am I myself yet?” The answer? “I feel I’m still on the way there.”
Retrieve from Taiwan Panorama