Weiwuying: Taiwan’s art destination
As part of the wave of the new mega-budget, mega-cultural hubs being constructed across the globe at the moment, Taiwan’s National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts – popularly known as Weiwuying – stands out for the way it balances international aspirations with community engagement. And although the centre, designed by Dutch architect Francine Houben, isn’t scheduled to open its doors until late 2018, for several years it has been generating an impressive amount of activity that stretches from community to international levels.
Weiwuying is the newest addition to the umbrella that makes up the country’s pioneering national performing arts structure. Other members include Taipei’s National Theater and Concert Hall, which also houses the National Symphony Orchestra, and the National Taichung Theater (in reality an opera house). They all share the same logical mission: to stimulate the performing arts industry, focus on audience development and act as ambassadors to the rest of the world.
Being located in Kaohsiung, the island’s second city and situated on the south coast, means that Weiwuying has something of a freer remit than those of its siblings in the more high-profile, high-pressure capital Taipei.
“We’re mostly thinking about how to stay with the artists and the public and to be a good bridge for them,” says Gwen Hsin-Yi Chang, the centre’s head of international partnership. “It’s an organic mixture that’s reflected in our creative team where we work as part of the community and part of their lives, not outside.”
Set in the public park (a former military base) after which it’s named, the already impressive shape of the Weiwuying complex takes its inspiration from the banyan trees that people traditionally gathered under.
“Come to Weiwuying,” says Chang, “and you’ll see that the place is like Hyde Park, a huge open public space where people come with their families and friends to do sport, t’ai chi, karaoke. They see the building in the middle and they ask questions about what’s coming up. So we’re sowing the seeds of curiosity and then physically responding with programming, community empowerment workshops and professional engagement that we can fit to people’s different needs.”
The centre is unique in Taiwan in that it has appointed conductor Wen-Pin Chien as artistic director – the usual tendency is for directors from the production and administration sectors. In addition to working as a creative, Chien is also usually based in Europe, bringing a wider perspective that has a measurable effect on how things are done at Weiwuying. As Chang says: “Things are non-hierarchical and very organic in that we keep brainstorming, we keep talking together and we decide together. We also invite the public to talk to us, to be moderators in our symposiums.”
A key part of the centre’s vision is to take its development of emerging artists and the next generation of creative industries to the rest of the world. To do this, it first needs the rest of the world to come to Kaohsiung in the shape, initially, of formative human talent and exchanges.
It helps therefore that Chang, like Chien, is based in Germany, where she has worked as an independent producer, bringing over Taiwan-based groups, mostly dance and music. She also initiated interdisciplinary projects that brought European-based artists to Taiwan, handy groundwork for the first Weiwuying collaboration to debut in Europe: the narrative dance piece Kids, which forms part of the Spring Forward Festival, taking place this year on International Dance Day weekend in Aarhus, a European Capital of Culture 2017.
The connection with Spring Forward came about almost a decade ago when Chang met the UK’s John Ashford, the founder of Aerowaves, the European network for research and presentation of emerging dance companies, which started life at the Place in London. Chang invited Ashford to Taiwan to participate in the Taishin Arts Award in 2009, when Ashford had started thinking of expanding Aerowaves to create a network for new voices in dance. The network was launched as Spring Forward in 2011 in Ljubljana, Slovenia, and is now a key event that migrates across Europe each year.
5 Connections to Weiwuying
1. Kids. Created by independent choreographer Kuan-Hsiang Liu in partnership with Weiwuying, Kids plays in Aarhus as part of the Spring Forward Festival partnered with Denmark’s Bora Bora and coinciding with International Dance Day. The show is also part of Aerowaves’ new exchange with Weiwuying’s Taiwan Dance Platform.
2. International Dance Day. Every April 29, International Dance Day, also known as World Dance Day, is organised by the International Dance Council of the International Theatre Institute. Along with ITI’s World Dance Day (March 27), the event celebrates dance, “to revel in the universality of this artform, to cross all political, cultural and ethnic barriers and bring people together with a common language: dance”.
3. Spring Forward. Aerowaves’ three-day dance festival is held in a different European city in April each year. This year (April 28-30), it will be in Aarhus, Denmark, with 20 emerging contemporary dance companies and artists. About 100 presenters from Europe and further afield attend Spring Forward, in addition to local audiences, and there is a live stream with exclusive content and discussions.
4. Aerowaves. Founded in 1997 by John Ashford, former director of London’s the Place, Aerowaves is the European network for research and presentation of emerging dance companies. It holds an annual open call for emerging choreographers working in geographic Europe to become one of the Aerowaves Twenty each year. Presenting partners of the Aerowaves Network programme at least three of the Aerowaves Twenty in their venues or festivals as well as the annual Spring Forward Festival.
5. Aarhus – this year’s European Capitals of Culture are Aarhus (Denmark), and Pafos (Cyprus). Culture capitals are chosen by the European Union for a year to programme and host connected cultural events that reflect local and EU ideals.
Kids is a new piece from Taiwan’s choreographer/performer Kuan-Hsiang Liu and represents the new partnership forged between Aerowaves and Weiwuying’s Taiwan Dance Platform. It brings top foreign choreographers together with Taiwan artists, the focus being on homegrown new voices and not big Taiwan brands such as Cloud Gate Theater. Chang says: “The language in Kids is more European but you can also see the Asia Pacific background. We showed this last year at Taiwan Dance Platform in a scratch performance. That was where the Aarhus team saw the piece and decided to take it.”
Chang adds: “Spring Forward allows Taiwan to come to Europe as part of a programme that is not business-oriented or a marketplace, but a platform that allows artists and presenters to get together and talk. It’s those ideas of collaboration and exchange that appeal to the direction our own new centre is moving in, and exemplified by the connections that Taiwan Dance Platform is making internationally.”
The platform is part of an impressive series of events, numbering nearly 2,000 – large and small – that have been presented since 2007 by the centre’s preparatory office. Last year, this saw the launch of the flagship six-week Weiwuying Arts Festival, which took place outdoors from October to November.
The main festival programme featured Taiwan Dance Platform’s Chemistry, a sell-out show that showcased collaborations between Taiwanese and foreign performers. Also on the bill were a revival of Taiwanese rock musical The New Member by Chien Li-yin and Tao Chiang, and Kurama Tengu, a retelling of Japanese Jiro Osaragi’s novel by ChiChiao Musical Theatre that fuses Taiwanese opera, rock music, Yu opera and Japan’s Takarazuka Revue.
From overseas were Europe-based clown Peter Shub’s solo show Stand Up and Fall Down, and Australia’s Robot Opera from Wade Marynowsky and Sydney’s Performance Space, performed entirely by eight custom-built automatons. The programme also included Mysterious Box, free performances over three weekends from an assortment of 12 groups ranging from ballet dancers and choirs to traditional and modern theatre, plus Taiwan’s first Circus Platform.
Circus, like dance, is largely non-verbal and so offers wider possibilities for international exchange. With this in mind, Weiwuying is looking at setting up an ongoing programme with France’s long-standing Centre National des Arts du Cirque, which trains and gives diplomas to circus professionals.
Recent international theatre and opera co-productions are Paradise Interrupted with Lincoln Center, Spoleto Festival and Singapore International Festival of Arts, and Turandot with Deutsche Oper am Rhein. Clearly these represent the usual expected fare shared by culture hubs of similar size and budget across the globe.
So how does the rest of world look from Kaohsiung? “In the past, the first country that would pop into your mind would have been the USA of course. But now I think the new generations are more curious about exploring Europe,” says Chang.
“As an island, it’s not so easy to reach out. If you look at Spring Forward, it’s a highly interesting model but we can’t really replicate it in Asia Pacific at the moment. In simple geographical terms, it isn’t easy for us to travel by train or even intercontinental flights between the countries here, while Spring Forward can be held each year in a new city in a different European country without posing a huge challenge to participation.
“The idea is to discover the city and its artists – and that’s what we also want to do, to support our artists by allowing them to travel without boundaries and to help them grow and develop wider audiences.”
Profile: National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts (Weiwuying)
Executive and artistic director designate: Wen-Pin Chien
Location: Kaohsiung, Taiwan
Opens: Soft launch in late 2018
Venues and spaces: Opera house (2,260 seats), concert hall (2,000 seats), playhouse (1,254 proscenium, 1,094 thrust), recital hall (470 seats)
Cost of project: 10.7 billion Taiwanese dollars (£263 million)
Funder: Ministry of Culture, Taiwan
Key contacts: Gwen Chang, head of international partnerships firstname.lastname@example.org
Kathy Hong, director of marketing and communications email@example.com
Kids is part of Aerowave’s Spring Forward Festival 2017 at Bora Bora, Aarhus, Denmark, April 28-30