Liu is Taiwan's dean of dance. Not only is she professor of dance at National Taiwan Normal University (國立台灣師範大學) and both professor and department head at National Taiwan University of Arts (國立台灣藝術學院), but she also once managed the National Theater and Concert Hall (國家劇院及音樂廳).
Born in northeast China in 1925, she studied at Changbai Normal College (長白師範學院), where she majored in dance and minored in music. It was in her sophomore year that she first came into contact with the orthodox education and culture of China and developed a strong desire to explore the Chinese tradition. She joined her school in coming to Taiwan in 1949.
"There were two reasons why I decided to come to Taiwan. First, perennially surrounded by the ice-cold landscape of my homeland, I was taken by the passion of the tropics and yet had never directly felt the charms of tropical climes. Second was my attraction to the dance of the indigenous peoples." And so, when she first arrived in Taiwan, she wasted no time in taking herself off to the Fonglin (鳳林) area of Hualien County (花蓮縣) on the island's East coast.
The first time she witnessed the grandeur of indigenous dance was at an Amis harvest festival. The memory remains strong today, perhaps because she had never before seen religious ritual and dance integrated in this way. "It was conducted in a place that resembled as much a courtyard as it did a suburban open-air plaza. Young and old were all decked out in their finest, and then, brandishing a bundle of grass, a shaman started spewing loads and loads of water on everyone. This was exchanged for a big item woven of bamboo, like a sieve, to the upper part of which was attached what looked like some kind of thistles. The shaman began dancing in the center, and soon everyone had taken up the dance. I fell in with them."
To Liu it came as quite a shock to see them dancing all through the night, nearly to the point of intoxication, as they and the earth became one. Although she was still quite young at the time, lacking both the custom of dancing until dawn and the stamina to dance hours on end, she ended up leaning against a betel palm, where she fell to pondering all sorts of things as she watched them dance. She was extremely moved by the rhythm of the indigenous dance, its resonant stomp, its energetic roar, and the songs – the songs that, before she is even aware of it, still today have her humming the melodies of yesterday.
Once she had cooled down, she got to thinking about the ritual dance of the Han people, which differed entirely from the indigenous version as to meaning, form and rhythm. Albeit of a piece with ceremony, Tang ritual dance is decidedly decorous and solemn. Nor is the purpose of Tang rites one with that of indigenous ritual: Confucian rites are not about supplication for whatever the heavens may confer, but rather a response to divine benevolence, so the score, the steps and the solemn attire are all working together to bring one into it to the point where one, hardly daring to breathe, shrinks emotionally. While indigenous dance is tied to art as well, emotionally it is liberating.
Thinking along these lines, Liu joined the results of her indigenous song and dance investigations with those of her dance research. Having spent four decades completing her plan to collect all the song and dance rituals of the Taiwan tribes, she is not only captivated by indigenous song and dance, but also by their social system and culture. It was these that opened Liu up to a deeper level, to an introspective, comparative outlook.
Aside from her interest in indigenous dance, Liu also regards the "resurrection of classical Chinese dance" as her lifelong duty. During Liu's term as assistant professor in the Physical Education Department at National Taiwan Normal University, the department head imposed rigorous demands on her colleagues, with everyone required to produce a paper a month. It was in discussing one of these papers, where she touched on Chinese folk dance, that Liu brought up her quandary: where was Chinese dance headed? Hearing her out, the department head then said to her quite simply, "It is well and good that you hope to create something that is contemporary Chinese, but how well do you really understand China?" Liu remembers back: "That was a big blow, and had a big influence on me. I took her advice to heart, and from then took up the study of ancient Chinese manuscripts."
In 1965 Liu went to Japan to study at the Tokyo University of Education, with the aim of studying for a degree on the one hand while collecting materials on the other. Giving up her pursuit of a degree, she threw herself wholeheartedly into transcribing by hand the manuscripts on Tang-period dance at the Kunaicho Gakubu, working on their reconstruction while investigating the historical background of dance culture.
Her career of research, teaching and ceaseless creativity won for her the Congress on Research in Dance's (國際舞蹈研究委員會) 1971 annual award for outstanding dance scholarship. In 1973 she got her doctorate in the philosophy of English national dance, becoming the first in Taiwan to achieve a Ph.D in dance. By that time, in 1967, on a small alley just off Xinsheng South Road in Taipei, she had already founded her Modern Dance Center (現代舞蹈中心), where many of those working in dance today got their training. This was followed by the 1976 founding of her Neo-Classical Dance Group (新古典現代舞團), where through regular performances Liu was able to put her unique style on display.
The majority of her works explore the abstract; the essence of movement, time, space and weight. From her 1950 "Blue Danube" to this summer's (2007) reworking of "Silent Flying Fish," she has accumulated a portfolio of some 122 works.
"I feel that there have been two stages in my creative life that have been the most gratifying. The first was when I first got started, when the brain was unoccupied with other things. A project would come together in only a week or two, with the feelings fully engaged and movement bursting forth. Then came other considerations, of which there were many. For example, to convey violence, I might choose a flower. Now the choreographic challenges became considerable. The period in which I was relatively proficient has been these last ten years, when my conceptualization powers have cleared and no longer do I have to suffer the weight of obnoxious pressures, allowing me to follow my fancy."
What is it that has supported her in her half-century pursuit of dance? "If it must be said that I have intentionally done something for dance, then I would mention two things. First concerns the use of time. I have given the majority of my time to dance, while accordingly I have shortchanged the other sides of my life, such as in human relations. Often, rather than get involved in something that I would rather not do, I used the time to choreograph a dance. Second is that I give my spirit free reign, allowing it to get to know heaven and earth."
As for the demands that she places on her dancers, they do not hinge on the relative merits of their dancing skills, but rather on how well they handle time. Years ago, when a student or dancer showed up so much as a minute late, she would lock them out of the studio. "Empty-handed we come into the world, and empty-handed we leave. We are all equal in that heaven has only given us time, so everyone's time is of equal weight. If one person comes late, it is everyone's time that is being wasted." She has been forever admonishing her students that the dance studio must be respected like the Buddhist altar of the monk; with dance, one is not just using one's body and brains, heart and breath, but using them in unison.
Liu believes herself to be very lucky to have had the use of so many social resources. On top of that, there is now freedom of information, and so outside the world of dance she has come in contact with so much information and knowledge. She deeply feels that when it comes to the question of dancing skill, matters are not resolved in terms of skill alone. Everything that is taken in from daily life is reflected in dance, as research and creativity are surrounded by life.
When still young, Liu was fond of mountain climbing and rushing off in the middle of the night to see a movie. But now she feels there is not enough time for everything. She hopes that God might have compassion on her and give her some extra time to put to good use.
As a result of the lifelong effort that she has expended, she now enjoys a well-deserved reputation. The special way her Neo-Classical Dance Group make use of space and Chinese coloration have won them rave reviews, making of them one of Taiwan's most representative dance groups; she became the first-time winner of the Ministry of Education's Creativity in the Arts Award and decades later garnered the National Award for Special Contribution in the Arts; in 1997 she was selected as a member of the American dance organization, the Congress on Research in Dance. Her books include Dance with Nature: The Taiwan Aboriginal Dance published in 2000.
Written by Perry Xie
Translated by Lynn Miles
Photos by Perry Xie