2020 marks the fifth year anniversary of the Bulareyaung Dance Company (BDC). To commemorate the milestone, BDC performed works created over their five years in Taitung at Junyi School of Innovation’s Wonderland Performing Arts Center. The Taitung way of life and culture were reflected in their song and dance. In the same year, BDC was invited to teach body movement at the annual Gosh Creative Arts Camp, a The Alliance Cultural Foundation (ACF) and Gosh Foundation collaboration.
Across the field of grass is the BDC studio; it was once an old sugar warehouse. From the décor of the studio to its environment, over the years they developed an ambiance of a true dance company. BDC sings a traditional Buliblosan Village song, and their voices travel far past the studio walls. The backdrop of the bougainvillea shows the dimensions of Bulareyaung’s gentle features – he is calm and steady.
2015 was the year of internationally acclaimed choreographer Bulareyaung’s return to his birthplace, Taitung. It was there that he founded the BDC and built his studio in an old sugar warehouse. The first instruction he gave to his dancers was to hold hands. “Why do we hold hands? To hold onto what was lost.” Bulareyaung reflects on this first instruction he gave.
From a young age, Bulareyaung left the Paiwan village he grew up in to the city to pursue education; in his pursuit for dance, it brought him even further away from home. In 1995, though he legally changed his name from his Han Chinese name, Kuo Chun-Ming, to his indigenous name, Bulareyaung Pagarlava, he felt there was no depth or authenticity behind the name.
I am Bulareyaung
“Though there are many regrets in my past, I feel content for moving back. Besides aspiring to establish an inventive dance company, I wanted to see whether I could be more indigenous. This may sound odd because I am a native by birth, but it is because the education I received growing up was based on the Han culture, and when I later pursued dance, I chose styles – ballet and modern dance that were not in any way related to my native roots.” Five years on in Taitung, he no longer doubted his own identity as a native, but rather, “I am indigenous, I am in Taitung, I am Bulareyaung.”
Over the years he attended several indigenous festivals and it was there that he began to reconnect with his roots. Indigenous festivals were a fading custom since the Japanese colonial rule in 1895 until its gradual revival in 2000; and for this reason, Bulareyaung did not have childhood memories of them. The first festival Bulareyaung attended was the Hunter Festival in 2012 with indigenous singer Sangpuy Katatepan Mavaliyw at the Jhihben’s Katratripulr Village. It was an occasion celebrated by the Beinan people. At the festival, Bulareyaung felt like a nervous young boy anxious that he may unintentionally offend village traditions; however, whenever help was needed – from building tents to carrying stones, he was eager to lend a hand. When camping on the mountains, he reflected and asked himself, “Should I move back to Taitung? There is nothing here. Am I brave enough to move back? What if I lost my stage?”
Bulareyaung attends festivals whenever he has time. “I would join not only festivals from my own village, but festivals celebrated in my dancers’ villages. We attend them because they give us a lot of inspiration.” Much of his choreography today is inspired by the festivals. Because he experienced a loss of self and instrumentalization of his body in dance, he doesn’t want his dancers to walk the same path. He was determined to unite modern and tradition in his works. “In some aspect we are very fortunate because we didn’t lose ourselves completely.” In total, there are 16 officially recognized tribes in Taiwan, and there are songs unique to each tribe and village. Over the last five years, BDC’s works have been based on traditional indigenous song and dance. Works such as La Song, Warriors, and Luna reflect Bulareyaung’s process of reclaiming his roots. He created harmony between modern and tradition, and hopes that in his efforts his dancers will not have to endure the loss of self as he once had.
Bulareyaung’s temperament shifted over the years. The once criticizing perfectionist now adopts a loving yet strict approach to mentor his dancers. “In the past, I had an awful temper. I was particularly intolerant when dancers struggled to carry out a move. I had the mentality of – if I can, why can’t you? I was unforgiving and would have them practice over and over. Today this is no longer the case, my dancers who are in their early 20s could be my children. I am still strict, but I treat them with love and understanding.” He feels the natural environment of Taitung, his dancers – who he treats as his children, and his age are all contributing factors. Bulareyaung once threw a pencil at one of his dancers, A-Mingming – when A-Mingming reflects on the day, the fear he then felt still lingers. “Thankfully the age of pencil-throwing is over, when a mistake is made now, we simply just laugh it off.”
When A-Mingming’s dad fell ill, Bulareyaung allowed him to take a long leave to spend time with his family. Aulu, another dance member reflected on the time when he had experienced a hard breakup and was crying himself to sleep every night, “Whenever I was in the studio I would cry, and when I was tired from crying I would sleep. Bulareyaung gave me the time and space to grieve the end of my relationship until the day he asked, ‘You should feel better by now?’ – and since that moment, I did.” That was the moment Aulu realized Bulareyaung had been observing him the entire time. He was allowing him the time and space to let out his emotions, and when the crying was done, it was time to dance.
“It is because of my dancers that I finally let go of the Taipei mentality.” In the past, whatever Bulareyaung did was for a purpose. If there was a day that he didn’t spend practicing in the studio, he would feel he was wasting his life away. “Today, if I don’t feel like practicing, I will take a walk by the sea and enjoy the shore.” The Bulareyaung today believes that though practice is important, living life has even more value. “My dancers are the ones that helped create this shift. When our bodies tell us they cannot continue – we either go by the ocean, creek, mountains, or, because they know my love for coffee – they would accompany me to have afternoon tea. Rehearsals are important but living life has even more value.”
Bulareyaung and several of his dancers once lived the city life in Taipei. When visiting today, they would realize they no longer connected with the place they once called home. “We are too accustomed the life here in Taitung and each other. When we visit friends in Taipei, we almost always go with other BDC members – otherwise, we find it boring.” said Aulu and A-Mingming. In conversations that were once familiar with old acquaintances, Bulareyaung felt a sense of pressure and pessimism. “The first time I visited Taipei and realized I was no longer used to the life there, I felt a strong dislike for the city I once loved. When I would dine out with friends, the conversations would be negative – about what wasn’t good enough in their lives… but I suppose this is also normal when we have expectations of how a life should be, but I experienced a lot of pressure then.” The spirit of the people are different. The people of Taitung have a helping spirit; whenever there is need there is a helping hand. The positive and giving spirit of the people fills him with appreciation each day – he feels Taitung has given him much more than what he had ever had in Taipei.
When Bulareyaung decided to establish BDC, his mentor and founder of Cloud Gate Dance Lin Hwai Min suggested him to use his own name to preserve the reputation he had worked hard to build over the years. He would later learn that the people of Taitung had never heard of him. To increase ticket sales, BDC would promote their performances the local way – in night markets and along street sides; they learned that if the people enjoyed a performance, they will come again.
Bulareyaung believes that 99% of the people who watch their performance will appreciate it not because of his presence but because their performance connects with the audience through the honesty and vulnerability of the dancers. “Does this seem overly confident? But I say this because they appreciate it not because of ‘Bulareyaung’, but because they see a part of themselves in the act.” What is unique to BDC’s performances is that they attract audience from all backgrounds without necessarily an understanding of dance but come because the performance touches them. Because dancers display their vulnerabilities on stage, audience uncover their own vulnerabilities and are inspired to search deeper within themselves.
Unlike other dance groups that attract audience with dance backgrounds and foundation, BDC established a complete different market. Bulareyaung says jokingly, “People who have backgrounds in dance are not our audience, because they will soon discover that what BDC does isn’t dancing.” Watching a BDC performance without any knowledge of dance will still touch people in a way that will bring tears to their eyes.
2020 was BDC’s fifth year. They celebrated the anniversary by performing six of their most well-known works in Taipei and Taitung. It is unusual for a dance company to celebrate its fifth year. “Life is short. We don’t know when it is our time to go. We also don’t know when our next work will appear. This is why we want to share the works we have now.” Bulareyaung is no longer one that bans people from watching rehearsals. Quite the opposite today, he feels regardless of whether the practice is ready, wherever his dancers are at in the process is perfect.
Not one BDC performance is alike. Bulareyaung values expressing in the moment. “On stage, every progression of movement, path are decided by the dancers. This allows the unexpected to be especially true and in the moment.” The old Bulareyaung was shaped by the environment he was in – he was a control freak, and every performance would be identical down to the second. “I believe that it is because of the courage my dancers have that gave me the courage to change. There was once where they wanted to wear heels to perform the warrior dance. In the past I would’ve thought – ‘Have they gone mad?’ But they told me that wearing heels is to show their true self.”
Bulareyaung envisions in the next five years BDC will no longer be in the search for self, they will have formed a solid foundation of who they are. “Because we will know who we are.” He hopes to continue in the path towards the authenticity of being a true native, and to have deeper connections with the villages – to achieve this will mean that he truly has returned home.
Originally published in VERSE magazine, the article is a translation from Chinese. VERSE is a new hybrid cultural media that publishes six issues of magazines per year and have different kinds of digital contents, including several podcasts.