Glass Beads with the Heart of a Dancer

20 01 2011

You could say that the dancers of Tjimur Dance Theatre are fired to perfection like the glass beads they make. And the analogy works the other way too: the glass beads contain the energy and passion of a nimble dancer’s footsteps.

I arrive in Sandimen on a clear, sunny Tuesday morning. I’m here in search of the “glass beads that dance.” The beads themselves don’t dance, but many of the people who make them do.

As we drive up into the mountains, Tjimur Dance Theatre’s artistic director Luzen Matilin (Liao Yi-hsin) explains the marriage between two very different artistic disciplines in her family: the refined, still beauty of the glass beads, and the expressive motion of modern dance incorporating elements of traditional Paiwan culture.

Luzen’s father Shatao was the original dancer in the family, and he made a profession of teaching dance at the Neipu Agricultural Vocational High School. Her mother, on the other hand, was the first to learn the craft of creating traditional glass beads. Today, the family’s workshop – Shatao Zazurite Art (named for Luzen’s father) — includes a shop, a small restaurant, a dance rehearsal space and an area where the glass beads are made. Somehow, the marriage works, with the people involved in the different disciplines interacting effortlessly with one another.

But it hasn’t always been so easy.

Matilin’s mother, Galusgus, (Mao Yu-chu), tells me about the early days, long before they had the beautiful workshop and dance rehearsal space.

“We had a lot of trouble because we didn’t have any money and both of us were the youngest children in our own respective families,” she says. “We had children to raise and no steady income, so it was very difficult. Sometimes we’d have to put the glass beads aside in order to take care of the children. We made just enough money to eat and raise our children.”

Galusugus tells me that their children were “raised on glass beads.” The way she says it makes it sound as though they actually ate the beads, an a propos way to describe the huge role the beads played in their upbringing.

“For us Paiwan people, glass beads are an integral part of life,” she says. “Only the Paiwan and Rukai tribes have glass beads; other tribes don’t have that tradition. They are our treasures. People that have glass beads have a proud look about them.”

In the Paiwan tribe only the oldest children – male or female – can inherit the traditional glass beads passed down through the generations within each family. That posed a problem for Galusgus and her husband, because they were both the youngest children in their respective families. Therefore, they were excited to learn the craft because that meant they would finally have beads of their own.

“In the beginning we made them for ourselves, and once we had enough of our own, then we began to sell them,” says Galusgus. “We figured there must be other people like us who had always wanted their own glass beads. Now whenever I see people who have their own antique glass beads, I always take a closer look at them to see if our designs and our colors are correct.”

Galusgus tells me about the original glass bead master, a man named Umas, who rediscovered the art of crystal bead firing and taught it to several young people with polio. Galusgus’s uncle was one of the original students.

These days the crystal beads of Shatao Zazurite Art have been given an additional dimension by the next generation in the family. Luzen and her brother Balu, the choreographer, use the glass beads as inspiration for dance performances that incorporate modern dance with traditional Paiwan dance. And the result is stunning. 

Balu says that last year’s performance, based on “Mananigai” (the warrior bead, or bead of honor), took a year to put together — from training the dancers to conducting field research, choreographing the pieces and rehearsing. He has honed his craft over the years since he was a student at National Taiwan University of the Arts, in much the same way that his mother and the other glass bead artisans have refined their trade.

I sit on the black rubber floor of the rehearsal space and watch the performance of Mananigai on a large screen surrounded by a display room full of glass beads. I’m struck once again by the fascinating interaction between stillness and movement, two wildly different forms of visual art. I’m also moved by the dancers’ expression of what it means to be a warrior – which Balu says is not just in the realm of men.

“Do we have to separate things into male and female?” he asks. “Actually I wanted to use a large number of female dancers to express the theme of warriors. Men can be warriors, but so can women. Men have things that they protect and so do women. Actually I believe that anyone who does something brave can be considered a warrior.”

I’m no dance critic, but after watching their performance I’m both moved and exhausted. There’s something about the way in which the rich traditions of Paiwan culture have been expressed on stage in a powerful and explosive fashion that leaves me feeling like the piece is an expression of what Balu and Luzen’s family has gone through with their glass bead business. It occurs to me that I’m surrounded by warriors – the family members themselves, the dancers, the artisans, and everyone who has come together with such dedication and force of conviction to open their hearts and their homes to me.

A group of children ventures over to where I’m sitting on the mats, and they begin tumbling around on the floor. I imagine them as the next generation of dancers and bead makers. I get them to sing a song for me in the Paiwan language, and then they make me sing a song in English. Their laughter takes the edge off the solemnity and depths of what I’m feeling at the tail end of my trip to Pingtung.

But still, I think back on all of the people I have encountered on my trip. I started off as a lonely traveler with no direction, only to find myself immersed in an amazing journey through the lives and experiences of passionate people of all stripes.

Later, in the workshop behind the dance rehearsal space, one of the artisans places her hands on mine and guides me in fashioning a glass bead of my own. We slowly turn the bead over an intensely hot flame, gradually adding rich splashes of color – red, yellow, blue – and rotating it to smooth the surface. It takes forty minutes for the bead to cool enough to touch it.

I’ve been fired and transformed, smoothed and settled during my trip to Pingtung.  The people I met in Sandimen, in particular, have given me food for thought. As I return to Taipei, with a warrior bead around my neck, my thoughts wander to my own convictions. I wonder where my own passions lie. Perhaps some day my actions may be worthy of the title of warrior, and this bead “Mananigai” that I wear around my neck.




One response

23 02 2011

Andrew, this series has been as eye-opening and informative as any documentary, but so filled with your warmth and personality that it could come from no one else. I hope you’ll continue these entries! Wo ai ni, V

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