In January we flew out to Taiwan to put on a run of shows as part of the Taiwan Lantern Festival.
We created a bespoke spectacular centrepiece called Balance of the Cosmos, bringing together incredible artists from around the world featuring high wire, aerialists and a live bespoke music score.
Here is Billy’s blog on his time out there…
25th January – Hello Taiwan!
Grace Willow and I fly out to join the rest of the team in Taiwan. We land in Hong Kong to transfer to Taipei; suddenly the world looks very different as we walk around the airport and the reality of the potential impact of the Coronavirus sinks in.
The FireWire team of Jade Kindar Martin and Satya Martin, with aerialist Karine Mauffrey, arrive at the same time as us to install the unique FireWire system – the final section of the build.
Chris Bullzini, Saul Baum, Tom Solly and Joe and Brian from High Performance rigging have been in Taichung (Taiwan’s second city) for a week already constructing the high wire towers. The planning started over 10 months ago: shipping out 2 tonnes of equipment (including the Bullzini high wire towers and the FireWire teams equipment), composing new music and writing choir scores, designing new LED tech costumes, producing new lanterns and stage designs and conducting three site visits to Taiwan to meet local artists, choirs, dancers, community groups.
Before our arrival, Taiwan-based producer Yinru has been doing a fantastic job of recruiting dancers, a choir and members of the local community in Houli (where the show is sited) and Taichung. All together Yinru has enlisted over 80 local artists and residents to the project.
The local tech crew have been superb. One of our biggest concerns was how to anchor the two 12-metre steel towers (which can pull over 5 tons) in the sand and rubble floor of the equestrian stadium. We needn’t have worried – a team of fabricators turned up and constructed four ‘baskets’ made of steel eye beam. These were sunk two metres into the ground, each filled with 10 tons of concrete ballast, and since then (not surprisingly) we haven’t lost any tension in the wire during the four weeks we have been on site!
Two days after arriving our lead vocalist makes the decision not to fly out due to her concerns over the virus. It’s understandable, particularly when you are reading the media coverage in the UK. The reality in Taiwan is that everyone is getting on with their daily lives. Schools are still closed, hygiene precautions are being taken in every public space and most people are wearing masks, but people are calm. The local production team here are just getting on with their jobs. However, being without a vocalist leaves us with a big hole in the show and a concerned client.
We are back at our house after a hot and dusty day on site. Grace and Karine are dancing around the living room with one of our LED umbrellas trying to work out the aerial counterweight choreography. Half the team are here, and half the team are in another house around the corner.
The choreography will eventually neatly dovetail with an umbrella dance choreographed by Grace with local participants. The tricky thing is trying to piece this show together, across the city, with multiple groups of local people aged between 16 to 71. We will have one chance to put all this together in an afternoon before the show’s premier in a week’s time.
This is one of the many sections we are making as part of the large-scale high wire, dance, and fire show which will be performed 16 times in front of up to 10,000 people a night. The show is the centre piece of the Taiwan Lantern Festival that attracts millions of people over two weeks.
Nadine Gingell aka Lady Nade (Bristol based singer-song writer), who has previously performed with us in a high wire show for the launch of Bristol as European Green Capital in 2015, arrives on a plane from the UK and leaps straight into the show. We are back on track!
Today Chris and Jade are working on a beautiful piece of high wire choreography 8 metres above my head. High wire walkers are generally solo artists and do not tend to collaborate, but Chris, Jade and I have been working together now for almost five years on contemporary high wire shows which tell stories as well as show off their amazing skills. They have both built up an incredible rapport and trust on the wire which is essential for both their safety and artistry.
Our senior producer, Kate Lanciault (who is more often seen in the Bijou office in Bristol), has just flown out for a week to take some of the load off my shoulders which I am very grateful for. The build-up to the first show is the most stressful for any production. Kate even takes on a stage-managing role for the first few shows.
The crew we have bought out to Taiwan has had to be small due to budget and the costs of feeding and accommodating everyone over 4-5 weeks, and this has meant that everyone has had to take on multiple roles.
Our MD, Fergie, has not only been working with the local sound technicians to balance the sound, he and Aelfwyn (our violinist) have also been working with the local choir and vocalist, Muniyu, to integrate them into the band. On top of that Fergie is cueing the music and playing the drums during the show.
Our LED technician, Simon Langley, is responsible for maintaining 38 LED umbrellas, the LED dress and 10 LED dance costumes, which he hand-built in the UK. Tom Solly (hugely experienced safety officer) is responsible for production, health and safety, and in some cases, stage-managing and cueing elements of the show.
One of the busiest members of the team is Saul Baum, our head rigger, who helped install the towers. Saul maintains and checks load cells, cavaletti tensions, and rigging systems before the show, as well as designing the flying systems, and then counterweighting aerialist Karine Mauffrey during the performance.
Circus is always like this; we are used to having multiple roles, both on and off stage. Grace not only choreographs the umbrella dance but is often in the dance herself to lead the local participants who have become very attached to her and shower her daily with gifts.
Among the local artists we are working with is Muniyu, an award-winning professional singer who comes from the Paiwan tribe which is one of Taiwan’s 16 indigenous tribes. Muniyu sings a duet with Lady Nade on a beautiful new song, composed by Martha Tilston, some of which is in her tribal language.
Not only did we want to involve local artists, choreographers and residents of Taichung in the show, but we also wanted to pass on new skills to the local tech team. So, we trained up Alan (one of the technicians) to learn how to counterweight one of our aerialists, Abby Evans. The skill is tricky to learn and normally takes months of practice; not only are you responsible for the safety of the artist you are flying but you also have to understand how to count the beats and be able to synchronise your movement with the music and aerialist. Abby and Alan spent long hours with our rigger, Saul, speed learning the new skill. A few expressed doubts whether he could pull it off but, within a couple of shows, Abby and Alan had nailed it. We will leave a new counterweighter behind who we hope will continue to use his skills in Taiwan.
Before I left I was contacted by a disabled artist, Henry, who works in and out of his wheelchair as a break dancer and acrobat. Henry had found out about Extraordinary Bodies from one of my previous visits to Taiwan and wanted more information. When I found out that not only was he based in Taiwan but lives in Taichung I thought he had to somehow be in the show.
Grace and I realised it wasn’t going to be simple considering the floor of the site was loose sand – not ideal for wheelchairs. Henry visited the site before we arrived in Taiwan, tested the ground and thought it was possible to move around in the performance space with some effort. We decided that the umbrella dance sections would be the most suitable parts of the show in which to use his skills. Grace skilfully worked him into the show, finding ways to adapt the choreography and use of the LED umbrellas, and also decided to feature him at a point in the performance with the two aerialists.
There are many amazing symbiotic relationships in this show. The counterweighter and aerialist, the cavaletti sitters and Chris Bullzini (who walks the top wire), but perhaps the most unique is the one between brothers Satya and Jade. Satya operates the fire system while Jade walks and cycles across the 8-metre wire which is set on fire in a controlled series of bursts, timed to work with the music. Satya is responsible for controlling the height of the flames and which of the fire bars to ignite. It’s both an artistic and technical skill and one of real trust; I can assure you the flames are no illusion – they are hot! Jade’s work on the FireWire is unique in the world and it’s a privilege to witness someone performing at the height of his powers daily. It is something few people ever get to see.
4th February, midnight
Working late into the night with the lighting designer and operators to try and get all the lighting states right. Pretty crucial not just for aesthetics but for the safety of the wire walkers.
Tonight is the first time we have put all the elements together for the dress rehearsal. There are a few nerves around: is it all going to fit? Will the show calling work in multiple languages? Has the late-night lighting techs worked?
Preview performance for local residents. A few things to tidy up tonight but the dress rehearsal went pretty well considering it was the first full run of the show. A couple of hundred in to watch tonight.
Earlier in the day the show was blessed with the whole Company present – Taiwanese, European and American. This includes offering up prayers for the safe conduct of the show, the members of the Company, and the equipment.
On our only day off we hired a coach and travelled into the mountains which surround us and are visible from all parts of Taichung. We ended up at a mountain spa resort which uses natural hot springs to fill pools of varying temperature, some around 40 degree centigrade. For tired limbs it was really welcome.
8th February – Premiere night
A big crowd, possibly 7- 8000 people. We were very happy with the show; it will only get better but it’s already at a good level and we know we have made something special.
The one point in the show where I always end up tensing, no matter how many times I watch it, is the moment that Chris walks out on the 12-metre high top wire. With Jade mirroring him underneath, the crowd seem to hold their breath as Chris walks across the wire and then stops in the middle to perform a head stand 36 feet up on the 16mm steel cable. As Aelfwyn plays violin in the pulsing LED dress, it really captures the best of circus; both awe inspiring and beautiful at the same time.
We are now two thirds of the way through the run. With 11 performances behind us, we continue to tweak the show but it’s generally bedded in really well. The weather has generally behaved apart from one night of torrential rain – on this occasion we cut the ascension walk of Chris and Jade, as it was going to be touch and go whether they made it to the top of the towers. Touch wood, the rest of the week up until our final show looks good.
When we first started the conversations with the producers in Taiwan, I suggested we try to make this show as accessible as possible for local audiences. It’s not something that is regularly done in outdoor work in Taiwan, but the producing team have really embraced the idea.
Today we invited local residents (all of whom have a degree of visual impairment) to a pre-show touch tour. The audio description script has already been written and they have done a fantastic job with it.
The touch tour takes place by the high wire rig and we start with a brief introduction of the show. We then introduce elements of the props and costumes, accompanied by the audio of the relevant sections of the AD script, so that each prop is placed in the context of the show. The participants are invited to handle the LED umbrellas and touch and feel the costumes. We then move underneath the wire and they are all invited to feel the wire rope on which the artists walk. Finally, they each get to hold one of the 7.5m long steel balance poles, weighing 15kg, which is a unique experience most people will never have.
Hopefully this will give them a tactile sense of the show and a unique insight into the performance they will experience that evening.
Four more shows to go. We are taken out to brunch by the amazing Taichung dance company, the Grace Pump Crew (primarily a break dance crew). It’s a really great opportunity to get to know them better, they’re such a generous and talented bunch of dancers. Sadly one of the dancers left last night, as they are due to start a compulsory 4 month military service. The Grace Pump Crew perform in the LED costumes in the Balance of the Cosmos section of the show.
Today we welcome the tech crew from the Taichung National Theatre, a new £1 billion building in the centre of Taichung. We had a personal tour a few days ago around the building and today we reciprocate with a tour of our show.
A party is held to celebrate the project and includes all those involved: community participants, artists, tech team, producers… there must have been over 200 people there. The umbrella dancers have all cooked food, which they share with us along with stories of what this project has meant to them. In some cases the project has been life changing, which is very humbling and gives a sense of the impact this show has had in Taichung. The local Mayor spoke about how important the contribution of his villagers to such a major cultural event has been, and that this has brought pride to the area.
Penultimate performance and 10,000 people sing Happy Birthday to me just before the show. A bit unexpected!
23rd February – The Final Show
The arena is packed and there is a lot of emotion in the final performance. There is no real time to reflect however as we have to start de-rigging as soon as the site is clear.
Looking back now the first two weeks away from home were the hardest. We all left people that we care for behind, some of which are on the other side of the world which makes keeping in touch hard. But gradually we are getting used to living in a new city. Yes, Taichung is noisy, full of scooters and cars, but it’s also surprisingly green and most importantly one of the friendliest places I have ever worked. The people are kind, generous and interested in what we are doing here.
Some of us have joined local gyms, yoga and dance glasses, found amazing places to eat and drink, shared tea ceremonies and found amazing flea markets and jade markets. We have a show every day, but we are still finding time in the morning to get out and uncover some hidden gems in this crazily busy city. We have felt truly welcomed by everyone we’ve encountered.
Today we say goodbye and thank you to Taichung, to over 150 local people who we have been working closely with over the last month, and a brilliant local production team: Dan, Alison, Cordelia, Yinru, Cynthia, Phon, Jou, Chen, Ming, Alan, Chen, Ho, Joy, Lala, King Kong, Ping, Heng, Ya, Mike and many more. Thank you also to Patience and the Sing Singers Choir, the fantastic umbrella dancers from Butterfly Dance and Houli Village, and the Grace Pump Dance Crew.
It will be hard to say goodbye; the people of Taichung have been generous, kind, welcoming and a real pleasure to get to know and work with. I hope we will be back soon.
A few of our favourite snaps from the show itself…
Photo Credit: 林峻永 Lin Chunyung