The San Francisco Youth Eurythmy Troupe in Taiwan, February 13-22, 2014
by David Weber
Astrid Thiersch’s San Francisco Youth Eurythmy Troupe presented its nineteenth annual set of public performances on January 28 and 29, 2014 to a total audience of about eight hundred delighted people of all ages, from our own San Francisco Waldorf community and beyond. For many this is a much-anticipated highlight, and each year we hear the comment, “that was the best one ever!” It seems like a kind of small miracle in our time of materialism that high school students continue to dedicate themselves wholeheartedly to eurythmy as a performing art, and indeed it is. In performance they put their soul forces completely into the movement, and this, together with their youthful energy, is highly inspiring to all who see it: it speaks for the future.
Astrid creates a new full-length program each year, and this one had an Asian flavor because of our tour to Taiwan. The tale was “The Spring of Butterflies”, the seniors performed a piece from the Dao De Jing, and the humoresque “Pulling Up Shoots” was the perfect Waldorf chengyu proverb. Steiner’s morning verse for upper grades, a tribute to Mandela, a Beethoven sonata, pieces by Prokofiev and Satie, and funny animal poems rounded out the program for the tour.
With one hundred eight costumes, hats, props, pins and shoes packed into four suitcases, we flew twelve hours from San Francisco to Taipei, where we began our trip at a delightful hostel in Taipei City. The neighborhood was full of bakeries, coffee houses, noodle shops, sushi bars, street food stalls and more, our first clue that we were in a major “foodie” culture. The city abounds in beautiful temples, and we visited Longshan Buddhist Temple, which was decorated with intricate and colorful paper lanterns for the end of the New Year festival. It was an amazing spectacle, with the grounds full of worshipers bringing fruit and burning incense, and chanting along with the monks.
At the National Palace Museum we spent several hours in wonder at Chinese art and artifacts dating back through the dynasties and before: ancient inscriptions, bronzes, Buddhist sculpture, jewelry, painting, calligraphy, ceramics, glass art – it was astounding! High dumpling culture followed in Shilin, at a delicious birthday lunch for our dear Mandarin teacher and Taipei native, Yi-Hsing. We were joined by her sister Jane and brother-in-law Kyle, who went out of their way to help show us Taipei with typical “nothing-is-too-much-trouble” Taiwanese hospitality. Our contingent of locals, together with our troupe mom, nurse, and eurythmy enthusiast Caihong, guided us effortlessly, translating fluently and anticipating our needs. At dusk we joined the throngs attending a major Lantern Festival, an amazing display of hundreds of larger-than-life paper sculptures, from zodiac to horses to scenes from literature and film, all intricately formed, brightly colored and lit from within. Our dreams were full of vivid impressions of this wonderful culture.
A free morning in Taipei led to many discoveries – shops, monuments, parks and gardens. An afternoon bus ride through verdant hilly country dotted with thousands of small rice paddies brought us west to Taoyuan County and the Renmei Waldorf School, perched on top of a hill outside a small town. Renmei is a public junior high school for grades 7-9, which incorporated a Waldorf stream from grades 1-9 five years ago; now it houses two schools on one large campus. There we were welcomed by Hsiao-Chen and school director Jacob, who had organized everything beautifully. After a short but enlivening rehearsal, the students were met by their school families for the first home-stay night. We felt centered and energized to do eurythmy again – this is why we came!
Then came Performance Day, with four different shows! When we saw the response of the children and teachers to the eurythmy, we felt that all of the practice learning this program was worthwhile. We performed three short programs for various combinations of classes. The teachers were beaming and the children entranced. Jacob thanked us for “bringing sunshine to the school”, and many teachers asked us to return. The students were hosted for lunch by various classes, and engaged in making traditional foods and decorations for Nián Jié, or Spring Festival, a thoughtful way of bringing the students together.
The evening performance was in a local theater—quite beautiful and modern, with a perfect stage (just no colored lights). The house was nearly full, with about 450 people! The students performed the full program with intensity and beauty, and the audience was delighted. Jacob, in thanking us publicly at the end, declared that no one watching the performance could doubt the need for the school to expand to senior high school (grades 10-12). He also said that Waldorf education was able to turn teenagers into angels; if not literally true, there was the sense that eurythmy can reveal something of the higher, even divine aspect of the human being.
Ninth grade students and their teachers from Renmei school took us on an outing the next morning, to a picturesque river town called Dasi. We shopped for souvenirs in the old town, then visited a large and magnificent temple, about 150 years old, followed by hikes across a bridge and along the river bed, then bento box lunch (with dancing) overlooking the river. It was a beautiful way to further our new friendships.
A two-hour bus ride across the island brought us to the city of Yilan in northeast Taiwan, and the Ci-Xin Waldorf school in Dongshan, the oldest and largest in the country. Teachers Hsiu-Ping and Ya-Chih were on hand, with smiles and rosters. The school began in a large public school building (it receives state support), and has built a new wing and a beautiful hall with a large stage, where we rehearsed while a small army of parent volunteers ironed the costumes. When all was ready, parents arrived with their students to pick us up for another two-night home stay, and each meeting was heartfelt. Several of their teachers took our teachers out to dinner, where we were delighted to be joined by Ya-Chi’s partner, our good friend and China Waldorf mentor, Ben Cherry.
Then we were on to our second big performance day, and the students pulled it off beautifully. We gave a morning performance for grades 1-6, with about 400 students, and a second one for grades 7-12. The stage was spacious, allowing for full Beethoven movement, and the student audiences were rapt. The teachers were very complimentary and thankful – one eurythmy teacher was overjoyed to have the inspiration of our performances for her fledgling high school eurythmy club. After dinner came the final performance of the full program for the parents, students and community. Our students truly rose to the occasion; pieces like the morning verse and Dao de Jing resonated with majesty, the tale sparkled, the humoresques were hilarious, and the music pieces expansive and beautiful. Standing ovations from ninth and tenth grade boys may be a first! The program flowed easily, and the students truly put their hearts into it. Their host families all attended, along with many children, teachers and some old friends, and all were uplifted.
The students made meaningful connections with their counterparts at Ci-Xin school, through wonderful home stays and some delightful activities the teachers prepared for us. Our students joined their hosts in classrooms for lunch each day, and had time to play and chat. They received high praise for their performances, and were like minor deities to the little children. On our last morning, led by high school director Yu-Dee, we all took a bus together to the National Center for Traditional Arts, a beautiful place dedicated to Taiwanese arts like brick making, woodworking, calligraphy and painting, architecture, and clothing. The students were able to wander about and get to know each other in a very relaxed atmosphere and some glorious sunshine.
An afternoon bus ride brought us back to Taipei, where our hostel felt like home. Our evening activity was very Taiwanese – buffet dinner and karaoke. The gods provided a beautiful day of clouds and sun for our next day zoo outing; perhaps our good weather fortune came from the abundance of temples in Taipei. The Taipei zoo is justly famous-- large, shaded, diverse and well kept. A very special event was riding the sky gondola up the mountains, soaring silently and gaining a view of the whole city of Taipei embraced by lush mountains. In the evening we attended a lively and professional Chinese opera performance – a monkey king story with astonishing acrobatics. We spent a sunny morning in the botanical gardens and art museum before rocketing up the tallest building, Taipei 101, for a fabulous view, then on to a celebratory buffet lunch so delicious and abundant that the airplane food to come did not matter. Yi-Hsing’s family all came to the airport to see us off, presents in hand.
The Taiwanese culture seems to have absorbed the best influences from its neighbors: customs, colors and tastes from China, Japan, Thailand and the Philippines are all to be seen and savored. Yet at the core there is something enduringly Taiwanese, a relaxed enjoyment of life and warm hospitality born of true interest in the other and care for each visitor’s well-being. Here, as in other Asian cultures, eurythmy is immediately appreciated and enthusiastically received. There is no critical-minded barrier as one can find in the West where so much movement is primarily physical, like exercise and sports. For many centuries movement arts in the East have been purposeful, healthful, and beautiful, relating the human being to nature and the cosmos. It seems that the Asian eye easily discerns the inner properties of eurythmy, and the question is not ‘why do you do it?’ but ‘can I do it too?’ We are immensely grateful to Astrid for her inspired initiative, choreography and teaching, and to our donors for their generous help, which have enabled us to bring the precious gift of eurythmy to yet another part of the world.