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Tjimur Dance Theatre: Interpreting Paiwan Culture’s Body Language

The dancers at Tjimur Dance Theatre call Ljuzem Madiljin “Teacher.” True to her caring nature, Ljuzem sought to provide her students with employment opportunities by reinventing the dance group as a professional troupe.

The dancers at Tjimur Dance Theatre call Ljuzem Madiljin “Teacher.” True to her caring nature, Ljuzem sought to provide her students with employment opportunities by reinventing the dance group as a professional troupe.
 

What is your idea of an indigenous community? Tjimur Dance Theatre, a troupe that hails from the Timur community in Pingtung County’s Sandimen Township, invites you to “Go Paiwan”—to see how authentic Paiwan culture differs from your impression of this branch of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples.

 

“Many people have asked me to recommend the most beautiful place in Sandimen. I always tell them there are no beautiful views here. It’s the people that are beautiful.” So says Ljuzem Madiljin, founder and artistic director of Tjimur Dance Theatre, at the start of our interview in a café surrounded by greenery.

A view of local life

Accompanied by local residents, we joined a guided tour organized by Ljuzem’s troupe the day before the interview, and saw much of the area. This experience corroborates Ljuzem’s view.

In 1935 the Japanese colonists, in order to facilitate their governance of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples, re­located five originally separate communities to this place. It was then that its name changed from Tara­cekes to Timur. At present there are some 500 households in Timur. Locals enjoy easy access to daily necessities. The streets are laid out in a tidy grid plan. Only half an hour’s drive from Pingtung City, Timur has a high occupancy rate of over 90%. All of these factors contribute to the strong sense of community that characterizes this place nestling in the lap of the mountains.

Threading your way through the streets, you notice the steles (sauljay) that mark the residences of the five chieftains (mamazangiljan), the open space where meetings are held, and the traditional stone slabs, wood sculptures, ceramic pots, and animal bones that decor­ate many of the local houses. The buildings’ surroundings are graced with an abundance of flowers, ferns, and other beautiful plants. You also see artists at work here. The charming setting makes you feel as if you have wandered into a village in Europe.

Full of loving details

The Paiwan are seen as the introverts of Taiwan’s indigenous groups, known for their emphasis on family ties. Nevertheless, though they shy away from declaring their feelings, their fine sensibilities are fully manifested in small, beautiful details. Ljuzem tells us: “The most beautiful facets of Paiwan culture are not to be found in the festivals, rituals, songs, and dances that underlie popular stereotypes. Rather, you see them in the finer details of our culture and in the exchanges of human feelings inherent in these details.”

An example can be drawn from the performance we watched at Ljuzem’s theater after the guided tour—a new collaboration between Tjimur Dance Theatre and the choreographer Lin Wen-chung. Before they opened the venue to the audience, the troupe members, who are devout Christians, held each other’s hands and prayed: “May our patrons safely arrive at the theater.” When the audience were finally welcomed in, they were given ferns, which symbolize friendliness and hospitality, to put on their heads, and face masks embroidered with Paiwan totemic patterns. This created a subtle sense of unity among the variously dressed attendees, and harmony reigned despite the fact that this simple, intimate theater was filled to capacity.
 

Tjimur Dance Theatre is like a happy family. They epitomize the Paiwan people’s family-oriented traditional culture, at once introverted and richly textured.

Tjimur Dance Theatre is like a happy family. They epitomize the Paiwan people’s family-oriented traditional culture, at once introverted and richly textured.
 

A sanctuary for young dancers

An unpretentious, straightforward and passionate temperament, a natural sensitivity to beauty, and an immense talent for singing and dancing, coupled with the high premium that Paiwan culture places on family and community—it is the combination of these traits that gave birth to Tjimur Dance Theatre some 15 years ago, and that accounts for its continued prosperity.

The story of Tjimur is intertwined with its founder’s life. Ljuzem Madiljin was born into a family of dancers. Upon obtaining a degree in dance, she returned home to serve as a part-time dance teacher at a school, a ­career path well trodden by her fellow dance graduates.

However, Ljuzem grew wary of the school’s use of dance performances to promote itself. Noticing how talented many children actually were, she thought that it was a terrible pity not to train them properly. In 2006 she went to great lengths to establish a dance group, giving students free afterschool training. Many of her students went on to study dance at university.

Ljuzem turned Tjimur into a professional dance troupe in 2013 with a view to providing her former students with a career option. She even coopted her younger brother, who was then based in Taipei and at first extremely reluctant to return to Pingtung. Together, brother and sister took great pains to create a sanctuary for young dancers.

Reintegrating song and dance

Tjimur Dance Theatre defines itself as an heir to traditional culture. All dance students in Taiwan will have studied ballet, but ballet is after all a product of Western culture. Because Asian ballet dancers tend to have a smaller physique, they often lose ground to their Western peers. If Cloud Gate has drawn on Tai Chi to create modern dances with an Eastern flavor, where should Tjimur, as an indigenous troupe, look to find its own point of reference?

For Ljuzem, traditional culture provides the answer.

In traditional Paiwan culture, dance and song are inseparably linked: songs feed into, and also arise from, dances. Just as the ancient ballads are gradually being lost to the process of modernization, so traditional dances are disappearing too.

Recovering Paiwan culture’s traditional body language requires an immersive approach that re­integrates song and dance into the very fabric of life. This is why Ljuzem insisted on establishing Tjimur’s headquarters in Sandimen and asks her dancers to learn from the locals. Only through living in the locality can one gain an intimate knowledge of Paiwan culture.

Most of the training received by dance students today is heavily influenced by the West. But postures such as leg extensions and pointe work rarely appear in traditional Paiwan dances. The rhythmicity of the classic four-step dance, for example, relies on forward, backward and sideways movements with knees bent. This body language is significantly different from what most people are familiar with from ballet.

“This movement appears easy, but not many professionally trained students can do it.” Ljuzem explains: “This is not ‘squatting’, but ‘sinking.’” If the beauty of ballet rests on a slender, elongated elegance, then Paiwan dances exude a plainer, more vigorous sense of beauty.

A dance graduate herself, Ljuzem has developed a systematic didactic method to train her dancers. All dancers at Tjimur, be they Paiwan or not, have to start from scratch and learn traditional Paiwan ballads.

Discarding stereotypes

In 2020 Tjimur invited Lin Wen-chung, founder of WCdance, to the village, where they collaborated on Go Paiwan. In this work we do not see any traditional costumes. Rather, dancers wear simple, pared-down clothes, bouncing and leaping energetically on a clean stage, and singing ancient ballads. At first glance, their glidingly smooth movements mark the production out as modern dance. But the aesthetic form—the interweaving of dance and song—harks back to immemorial traditions.

Neither Ljuzem nor Lin wants their dancers to conform to tourists’ stereotypical expectations by donning those iconic traditional costumes which are often seen in performances put on for entertainment or even for political purposes. When stereotypes, conventional symbols, and clichéd ethnic customs are eliminated, what emerges is the sheer beauty of a body language that emanates from the soul.

The journey to Go Paiwan is an endeavor—which spanned more than ten years—to plumb the depths of a culture, to re-identify with it and to reconstruct it. This is a warm invitation to audiences to cast stereotypes aside, to come and appreciate Paiwan culture at close quarters through friendly, mutually respectful cultural exchanges.