nothing causes more ambivalence for me than staged cultural performances.
maybe this problem comes from my position, not just as an academic working with a taiwanese indigenous community, but also from my background in the united states, where i practice a participatory musical form and have at times found myself reluctantly performing on stage. in addition to the necessary changes in performance style, arranging, and such, there is always the question of audience expectations and the cultural gulf that often opens between performers and the audience. i remember once having someone tell me that my voice was from another time; i checked my cell phone and was pretty sure that i was from the same era as the audience member. still, performance can be an important medium for cross cultural communication. thus how to control the meaning of performance has become a pressing issue, particularly for indigenous performers when they confront the dominant settler colonial society
of course, the sight of me wearing regalia causes too much attention. one might understand my presence in ‘atolan’s lanhsing culture dance troupe as a sign of the openness of the ‘atolan ‘amis community, but some might question authenticity–so much that i’ve been edited out of photographs and news segments featuring the group. that’s their problem. i think that i’ve avoided “playing indian” but it’s good to feel a bit of anxiety now and again, isn’t it?
nonetheless, fulbright taiwan asked me to help produce a cultural enrichment activity and performance to introduce taiwanese indigenous culture to a group of american academics, some new college graduates serving as english teaching assistants in taiwanese schools. aware that i could only introduce ‘atolan and also just a very small message (we went for “age sets are the fundamental social structure of ‘amis communities”), i began to plan. fulbright had funding for a small group of musicians to go from ‘atolan to sanhsia (in taipei county). when we thought that there weren’t enough people, a group of youth who live in taipei agreed to come lend a hand. in many ways, the very organization of the performance coming together demonstrated how the age set system works. it was just a matter in the performance of pointing out where necessary. but after a long day of academic talks everyone would be tired, and we didn’t want to bore the audience. we wanted to produce an event that would give those unfamiliar with ‘amis people a playful introduction to ‘amis values and social structure and, of course, erred on the side of fun. like nearly all events of this sort, we created a space in which we could conclude by drawing everyone at the conference into the malikoda, the dance spiral
overall, the performance was successful. questions from the english language teaching assistants, graduate students, and scholars have continued to come my way; there was opportunity on the following day, as well, to respond to questions about features of matrilineal societies, land rights issues, age sets, and musical form. several of the english language teaching assistants got email or other contact from some of the performers, and the director of fulbright taiwan said that he felt that the performers were sharing something precious to them: it was not just a performance. i hope that the response to the performance does mean that several people in the audience will wish to learn more about ‘atolan and other indigenous taiwanese communities
still, one wonders, how is this performance difference from pulling out the smiling mountain maidens to celebrate national day? in fact, one of the fellows asked me that very question: china–both the PRC and the ROC–has a long tradition of eroticized and infantilized depictions of indigenous people in which they sexily or merrily dance: colonized, but so happy. was that also the case under the ROC government on taiwan, she asked? i had to admit that it was. several traces of this history were present even in our performance. some of the costuming, for example, developed in hualien for the purpose of a depiction that matched audience expectations. so did the performance just reproduce stereotypes of the happy aborigine?
on the one hand, i would say that it did not. after all, lanhsing choreographs its dances to exhibit their culture as they understand it. they had control over what they chose to present in this performance; and did, in fact, lavish attention on age set names and diacritics of age-set membership, such as clothing and dance gestures. but the question still irks me. on the surface, the performance does resemble a bit too much those performances for national day or other spectacles of public multiculturalism
i guess that i will have to live with this ambivalence