The title of contemporary dance company inTW’s second independent show, 52 Hertz caught our attention because its reference to the 52-hertz whale, a mysterious individual whale whose calls are unlike any any others and has been nicknamed “the world’s loneliest whale”. We looked at the program and found that it is also the title of a dance that incorporates a colorful, maze-like installation by artists Kyle Dietrich and Borderick Shoemaker. Other pieces are drawn from eclectic sources — “Hungry Candy” was inspired by the story of Hansel and Gretel; “Before Sunrise” by the Sunflower Student Movement in Taiwan last year; and “AMA”, using the Taiwanese word for “grandmother”, by dresses worn by inTW founders, dancers, choreographers, and twins Hsiao-Wei and Hsiao-Ting Hsieh (謝筱瑋 and 謝筱婷).
Wanting to know more, we reached out to Hsiao-Wei who provided background and insight into the seemingly disparate works and whose path to becoming a professional dancer involved began with a bold decision to leave a former life.
52 Hertz can be seen at the Martha Graham Studio Theater, 55 Bethune Street, on:
June 27 at 8 PM (preceded by a pre-show documentary video at 7:30)
June 28 at 2 PM (Family Matinee) and 8 PM (preceded by a pre-show documentary video at 7:30)
Tell us about how inTW was formed. How did you become interested in dance?
InTW was formed by my twin sister, Hsiao-Ting, and me. Our name, InTW, has three meanings; TW(Taiwan), Twin, T(Ting) W(Wei); Twins sisters, Hsiao-Wei and Hsiao-Ting, from Taiwan.
I studied Medical Technology in Taipei Medical University. Hsiao-Ting studied Veterinary in National Taiwan University. Despite this medical background in university, my parents provided me with multiple aspects of life. I learned Chinese folk dance, ballet, painting, and piano at the same time when I was seven years old for seven years. I love outdoor nature activities as well as reading. I keep my curiosity in everything I find. I took my very first modern dance class which followed a Graham-based technique in a modern dance club in university. It was a totally refreshing experience of awaking my body which I never learned it from anatomy class. I immediately fell in love with this exploration.
After graduating from university, we both worked in a hospital or research center as research assistants for three years. During this time, we kept taking ballet classes twice a week. We were confused and never satisfied our lives at that time. Therefore, we decided to give ourselves a chance to do something different — apply to dance school in London. I heard a professor once say: if we see medical systems as a huge machine, from doctors to nurses, from medical technicians to research assistants, we are all very important screws. But, I realized that those are replaceable screws, and I don’t want to be one of them. That is the reason why I pursue a different dream to express myself.
Eight years ago, I left my job in Hepatitis Research Center in Taiwan and pursued my dance dream in LABAN, London with Hisao-Ting. It was my new page in life. Diverse courses provided in one year, not only different technique classes but also theory, practicability and performance classes, which broadened my mind and imagination of dance. But I realized that I needed more intense body training to open up my body language and ability. Without a functional body, I could never practice and apply my idea. I chose the one which was opposite to my soft/slow/calm character, the Graham Technique, to be my main training.
Hsiao-Ting and I began our three years training in Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance, with scholarships in the final year of Teacher Training Program in New York.
After we graduated from Martha Graham, we tried to look for a job in a dance company. But, we found it’s painful if we don’t like the choreography. Since we began choreographing at school, we kept rehearsing and making new pieces no matter we have performance or not.
What is it like partnering with your twin sister? What is it like dancing with her?
We have more duets because we spent all our time together in rehearsal. Not only do we know each other very much or have the right chemistry, but also we have pretty much the same body shape and energy. That makes us breathe together, dance together, and we don’t even need to see each other.
Your choreography is based on your own culture and fascination with storytelling. What form of storytelling speaks to you? Do you have a favorite story?
We don’t really have particular form of story we like. In different times, spaces, and occasions, we may have different choreography.
How do you turn a political demonstration into a dance? Is it important for audiences to understand the background of the Sunflower Movement or is there a universality to the performance?
Everything could be my inspiration; politics, environmental protection, history, life experience. Some people use words to express, some people use photos…Dance is my way to deal with something if I don’t know how to say. And I let body and movement to speak directly.
Although “Before Sunrise” was inspired by Sunflower Movement, I asked my dancers share their stories as well. They are from Japan, France, China and South America. We all have the same humanity and we can easily communicate with each other. And I hope that our choreography is like a mirror in that it will reflect different thought and feeling from audience with different backgrounds. It’s more important to draw the audience’s attention and let them have interest to follow up the event automatically.
Tell us about your grandmother and her dresses which inspired AMA.
While we are not living in Taiwan these 8 years, all my grandparents passed away gradually. I still don’t know what/how to say until now. Two years ago, we went back to Taiwan and visited my grandmother. She was really sick and painfully lying on the bed. In order to cheer her up, my twin sister and I began wearing her dresses and dancing in front of her. It’s a kind of “綵衣娛親”, dressing in motley and clowning to amuse parents. She laughed so hard that it seems like she forgot her pain. I’ll never forget that scene. Therefore, we collected all her summer dresses after she passed away and decided to make a dance for her.
What was your first reaction when you learned about the whale that inspired “52 Hertz”? Tell us about the development of 52 Hertz and how the painting and maze became part of the work.
I read the article “52 Hertz: The Loneliest Whale in the World” a long time ago. Although it’s from a scientific website, I feel it is poetically romantic. Why were human beings surprised by this unique whale? Just because he has different frequencies? Different behaviors? Or because we, human beings, always use the amount number to identify other living things; endangered species, protected animals…Every individual should be as unique as you and I. And this idea developed the whole choreography.
About the painting, the base of each panel is layered by neon color pigments and lime-based plasters, which is an innovative experiment of applying black light on reactive colors, implying natural phenomenon such as light shown on water and iridescent ocean life.
The interview was edited for clarity and content.
Lead image from AMA. Photos courtesy of inTW