Tjimur Dance Theatre creates a new Paiwan tradition in Taiwan

Atmospheric scenes are the hallmark of Tjimur Dance Theatre’s “Varhung.” (Courtesy of TDT)

Atmospheric scenes are the hallmark of Tjimur Dance Theatre’s “Varhung.” (Courtesy of TDT)

Taiwan’s indigenous artists are employing contemporary approaches to preserve and promote tribal cultures. Their arresting expressions, straddling a line between tradition and modernity with commitment to merging old and new, have attracted increasing attention and won recognition in such fields as fine arts and stage performances.

Notably, Tjimur Dance Theatre, based in Sandimen Township of southern Taiwan’s Pingtung County, is making a mark at home and abroad. Founded in 2006, the troupe is the first professional dance company focusing exclusively on Paiwan culture.

Tjimur is a frequent participant in international events in recent years. Its show “As Four Step,” an interpretation of a traditional tribal dance, featured at 2017 Festival Off d’Avignon in France and earned rave reviews at 2016 Festival Internacional Cervantino in Mexico. One of the Latin American nation’s local newspapers, Zocalo Saltillo, praised the production’s sophisticated, subtle imagery created through lighting, sound effects and the dancers’ graceful performances.

The latest offering “Varhung—Heart to Heart” premiered November 2017 in Taipei. It is scheduled to run at Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland and Festival Off d’Avignon in July and August, respectively, as part of a Ministry of Culture program promoting the local arts scene overseas.

Ljuzem Madiljin, founder and artistic director of Tjimur, said the show is titled after the Paiwan word for “heart” and conveys the inner emotional processes of joy, anger and sadness through the unique body language and chanting of the indigenous tribe.

Regarding the modern and age-old ballads sung in “Varhung” and other works of Tjimur, Ljuzem said singing is an essential part of training of the dancers. “Singers breathe along with feelings in a way that helps create a tempo of movement,” she said.

Propagating Paiwan customs is one of the troupe’s primary objectives, Ljuzem said, adding that the process of reimagining ancient customs is fraught, but also necessary to ensure cultural continuation.

For one of the troupe’s earlier works, Ljuzem set out to learn the traditional Paiwan warrior dance. Tribal elders initially attempted to dissuade her from studying the male ritual, but “eventually I convinced them that passing on the custom took precedence,” she said. The dance ultimately formed the core of Tjimur’s 2010 show “Mananigai,” or warrior.

During weekends, Tjimur passes down key aspects of tribal culture and develop new dancers by offering classes to local youths at its Sandimen studio. “Nowadays, younger members of the tribe are more willing to stay in their hometowns and support community development,” Ljuzem said.

Together with the Paiwan community, Tjimur will continue exploring the creative processes that are unique to aboriginals and reflect the changing relationship between tribal communities and contemporary society. (E) (By Pat Gao)

A dancer expresses the power of Paiwan creativity during a performance of Tjimur Dance Theatre’s “Mananigai” (Courtesy of TDT)

(This article is adapted from the photo essay “Artistic Awakening” in the May/June 2018 issue of Taiwan Review. The Taiwan Review archives dating to 1951 are available online.)